Abba Eban

The father of Israeli diplomacy.

Excerpted with permission from The Jerusalem Post, this article was written on the occasion of Abba Eban’s death in 2002.

Abba Eban, the father of Israeli statesmanship, former foreign minister and ambassador to the United States and United Nations, died on November 17, 2002. As diplomat and author, he was throughout his long and brilliant career the voice of Israel, a profound interpreter of our national character and history.

Man of Peace

Calling Eban “one of the great statesmen of the 20th century,” then MK Shimon Peres described him as an “extraordinary person who showed the world we are an extraordinary nation.” Peres, who worked with Eban for decades, called him “a man of peace who paved the way for peace. When Israel was attacked on all sides, he gave the message of hope for different relations with the Arab world and the Palestinians. He was Israel’s voice in its most difficult hours, and explained Israel’s yearning for peace. He served his people honorably, and his life will be remembered as one of the important chapters in Israel’s history.”

Then Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu commented that “With his prodigious intellect and renowned eloquence, Abba Eban was not only one of Israel’s finest diplomats, but also was one of the great diplomats of his era. He was a powerful advocate for the Jewish State and for the rights of the Jewish People. Eban set the standard for defending Israel in the courts of world opinion. During many difficult periods, his voice was a stirring reminder of the justice of the Zionist cause and Israel’s eternal hope to live in peace with its neighbors. Through years of dedicated service, he laid the foundations for Israel’s foreign service and proved that even though we are a small nation, our moral voice can be heard loud and clear across the world.”

Eban was famous for his eloquent rhetoric, both in speech and writing, in Hebrew, English, and Arabic. He knew many other languages and had a phenomenal memory. He was, above all, an astute political analyst and a visionary, deeply devoted to the cause of Israel and the Jewish people.

A Born Zionist

Abba (Aubrey) Eban was born in Capetown, South Africa, on February 2, 1915, a son of Abraham and Alida Sachs-Eban. He was brought to England in infancy. Eban’s mother worked as secretary-translator to Zionist leaders Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow, which provided her son with a loving background of historic Zionism. Eban also received a thorough Hebrew and English education and continued his studies in Oriental languages and classics at Cambridge University.

In his first year at university, he edited the Young Zionist journal and he was the first chairman of the Cambridge University Jewish Society. Eban received his M.A. from Queens College, and was appointed lecturer in Arabic and Oriental Studies as Brown Research Fellow in Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian at Pembroke College.

At Pembroke, he was approached by Moshe Sharett and Berl Katznelson to work on behalf of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine. Eban next founded the Cambridge University Labor Society and concentrated on Zionist information services.

When World War II broke out, the Zionist leadership urged bright young Zionists in England to join the British intelligence corps or commando units to gain useful experience for the future. Eban took a commission in 1942, while serving on the staff of the British minister of state in Cairo. There he also met Susan Ambache, whom he wed in 1945. Then he was transferred to Jerusalem as chief instructor at the Middle East Aran Center, housed in the Austrian Hospice in the Old City.

Here, he encountered anti-Semitism from Mandate officials, though it was not directed at him personally as a major in the British army. At the time, however, he eagerly trained Palmah volunteers in resistance tactics should the Nazis invade Palestine.

When the war ended, Eban was approached by British Labor leader Harold Laski to become a parliamentary candidate in the coming elections. He instead took up Weizmann and Sharett’s offer to become the political information officer for the Jewish Agency in London and participated in the final contacts with the Attlee-Bevin government before Israel’s Declaration of Independence was proclaimed. Then he joined the Jewish Agency’s delegation to the United States, and played a leading role in the effort to secure the passage of the UN resolution of November 29, 1947, for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.

The Eloquent Diplomat

Eban subsequently became Israel’s first representative to the UN with the rank of minister. He always remembered the raising of the Israeli flag on admission to the UN membership as one of the high points of his life.

From 1950 to 1959, he served simultaneously as the first ambassador to the US. He soon distinguished himself as a gifted orator, defending Israel in eloquent English not only against vicious propaganda, but almost as frequently against friendly critics, who spoke against Israel’s counterattacks and initiatives in repelling Arab marauders.

Eban was summoned back home in time for the 1959 Knesset elections, in which he was a star in the Mapai campaign. He also served as president of the Weizmann Institute of Science between 1959 and 1966, where he proved his abilities as a scholar and organized numerous academic conferences. He was elected on the Mapai ticket to the Knesset and in 1960 became minister of education and culture.

In 1963, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol made him deputy prime minister, a post he held until 1966. In February 1966, Eban became the country’s third foreign minister, a post he also held under premier Golda Meir until she was succeeded by Yitzhak Rabin in 1974. For many people, he was obviously the best choice for the post. In 1985, just before his 70th birthday, a public opinion poll revealed that he remained the public’s top choice for the post.

On the eve of the Six Day War, Eban traveled to Paris, London, and Washington to seek support as Arab armies massed on the borders, determined to exhaust every diplomatic option before turning to the use of force. Be he soon discovered that in spite of the justice of its cause, Israel had to face the enemy alone, and Eban ultimately joined with the cabinet majority voting for preemptive military action.

Eban complimented resounding military victories with inspiring diplomatic rhetoric. His powerful speech at the UN during the war, declaring “Never in history has there been a more righteous use of armed force,” was one of his finest hours. He subsequently oversaw the crafting and the passing of Security Council Resolution 242, more than 35 years later still the keystone of Middle East diplomacy.

During the Eshkol and Golda Meir governments, Eban aligned himself solidly behind the cabinet doves. He rejected the notion that Israel should rule over the Palestinians and abhorred the idea of expanded borders which would change the character of the state. He pleaded for moderation.

Eban commanded tremendous respect abroad, but both his politics and his personal style–his immaculate dress in suit-and-tie and his impeccable, grammatically perfect Hebrew and English often made him appear out-of-step with his more rough-and-tumble colleagues and constituency.

On the eve of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Eban was in the US, where he again addressed the UN General Assembly and conducted daily contacts with the State Department. He spent the first two weeks of the war in feverish consultations with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, seeking immediate military assistance, and after the war negotiated the subsequent disengagement agreements with Egypt and Syria, conducted during Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy.”

Eban led the delegation to the Geneva peace talks, where speaking his excellent Arabic, he offered the Arabs peace with honor (he later made the oft-quoted observation that “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”). But the public remained more apprehensive and skeptical of Arab intentions, and criticism of Eban mounted on the right. Such criticism was one of the reasons why Eban did not pick up the option for the premiership after Meir resigned in 1974, and he did not join new Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet. The two had not gotten along when Rabin had served as ambassador to the US after Rabin appointed Yigal Allon as Eban’s successor.

The Opposition MK and Educator

Eban embarked next on a prolonged series of lectures abroad, and upon his return taught at the University of Haifa and continued to serve on the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

In May, 1975 he presented his own plan for an overall peace with the Arabs, calling for withdrawal from most of administered areas in return for Arab acceptance of a list of “15 components of peace.”

In 1984, Eban declined to accept a ministery without portfolio in the national unity government. He also refused a nomination as Speaker of the Knesset, asserting that he was built for polemics and not consensus. Instead, he enjoyed serving as the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, where he continued to push for policies in favor of a diplomatic solution.

He also employed his sharp wit as a frequent critic of government policies, even after Labor joined the ruling coalition. He quipped that Yitzhak Shamir’s ascendancy to prime minister as part of the rotation agreement was “the tunnel at the end of the light,” and memorably dubbed the Pollard affair an “anthology of blunders.”

Eban’s honest, sharp ripostes sometimes fell on unappreciative ears within his own party, and after being humiliated by the Labor central committee, which pushed him way down the Knesset list in the 1988 party primaries, he resigned from politics.

Eban believed not unjustly that his attainments were higher than his domestic political position, and he regretted that his success on the world stage was not always properly appreciated here. Still, during the last decades of his life, Eban gained an international reputation as one of the most outstanding writers of his generation. His early works had included a 1939 preface to a new edition of Leo Pinsker’s Emancipation, and in 1944 he wrote The Modern Literary Movement in Egypt.

Among his subsequent major works were The Maze of Justice, Zionism and the Arab World, Tide of Nationalism, and My People, My Country.

His New Diplomacy was incorporated into university curricula in Britain and the US, and his speeches were made into records. Eban’s mammoth television series, Civilization and the Jews was viewed by an estimated 50 million Americans and was shown in many other parts of the world. The accompanying book achieved a best-seller record for non-fiction; it sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

In 1982 Eban was elected to the International Platform Association, founded by the legendary American orator Daniel Webster in 1830. There he joined the ranks of such fabled speechmakers as Winston Churchill, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Over the last years of his life, plagued by failing health, Eban remained secluded in his Kfar Shmaryahu home, unable to attend the Jerusalem ceremony in which he was awarded the Israel Prize for his lifetime contribution to Israeli and international diplomacy.

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