Abba Eban was a key member of Israel’s government for more than a quarter century—from 1948 to 1974. In Israel’s first decade, he served for nine years as its U.S. ambassador in Washington and simultaneously as its U.N. ambassador in New York. Then he was education minister for three years; after that, deputy prime minister for three years; and finally, foreign minister for eight years. In 2002, his obituary in the New York Times ran 2,800 words, saying that he:
[sent] his supremely cultured voice using the King’s English into forensic combat. His orations, fierce in their defense of his country, were also marked by rich appeals to history, soaring visions of a peaceful Middle East and withering scorn for Israel’s enemies.
Eban’s speeches were a record of eloquence unequaled by any diplomat during that period. Conor Cruise O’Brien, representing Ireland in the U.N. (sitting next to Eban in the General Assembly), called him “the most brilliant diplomatist of the second half of the 20th century.”
In 1974, however, Yitzhak Rabin left Eban out of his new Israeli government, and Eban never again held a ministerial job. By 1988, he was so low on the Labor Party electoral slate that he was not reelected to the Knesset. Humiliated, he retired from political life, relocated to New York, and spent the rest of his life teaching, writing, and speaking.
Eban’s meteoric rise and dramatic fall was a classic tragedy—and one that extended beyond his personal political career. It holds a lesson for today.
On May 21, 1948—a week after its Declaration of Independence, fighting an invasion by five Arab armies—Israel designated a 33-year-old scholar of Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian literature named Aubrey (“Abba”) Eban as its representative to the United Nations. He was the youngest representative there.
Five days later, Eban appeared before the U.N. Security Council, responding to the Arab rejection of the U.N. cease-fire resolution. His words were both eloquent and emphatic: “The sovereignty regained by an ancient people, after its long march through the dark night of exile,” he said, will not be “surrendered at pistol point,” and so:
It becomes my duty to make our attitude clear, beyond ambiguity or doubt. If the Arab States want peace with Israel, they can have it. If they want war, they can have that too. But whether they want peace or war, they can have it only with the State of Israel.
By the fall of 1948, the London Jewish Chronicle reported that Eban was impressing “friend and foe alike with his quiet and able marshaling of Israel’s case.” In its September 1948 issue, Commentary reported that he had “won respect in all quarters for his intellectual ability, the cogency and precision of his advocacy.” On May 5, 1949, Eban came to global attention, when he addressed the General Assembly on Israel’s application for admission to the U.N. As the Guardian later noted:
His widely reported two-hour appeal for the provisional government of the new state of Israel . . . was given major coverage, and his delivery had journalists and commentators reaching for superlatives. In the United States he became a world figure overnight.
The Security Council had endorsed Israel’s application on a 9–1 vote (with Egypt voting no and Britain abstaining). But before the General Assembly’s confirming vote, the seven Arab U.N. members succeeded in having the issue delegated to a new ad hoc committee, where they could continue to fight diplomatically what they had lost militarily the previous year. In his autobiography, Eban described the burden that had suddenly fallen on his shoulders:
I was now personally directing a political operation that had no precedent in international history. No other state had ever been called upon to secure its membership in the international community through a process of cross-examination, advocacy, and rebuttals.
Before the committee, under television klieg lights, Eban expressed his anger at the spectacle of the Arabs sitting in judgment of the state they had sought to destroy, after it had established itself under the U.N.’s 1947 two-state resolution:
We are as one who, having been attacked in a dark street by seven men with heavy bludgeons, finds himself dragged into court only to see his assailants sitting on the bench with an air of solemn virtue, delivering homilies on the duties of a peaceful citizen. Here sit representatives of the only states which have deliberately used force against a General Assembly resolution . . . posing as the disinterested judges of their own intended victim.
It is a cynical maneuver. In the name of those who have been killed, maimed, blinded, exiled, or bereaved by that cynicism, I express our most passionate resentment at this insincerity.
Eban placed the full burden of the war on the shoulders of the Arab nations that had decided to wage it: They were responsible, he said, “for every death, for all the bereavement and for all the panic and exile which has resulted from that futile and unnecessary conflict.” He sat at the table for a total of nine hours, in a process that had never before “happened to any applicant state.” He ended by saying that Israel’s U.N. application was a world-historical moment, since ancient Israel had contributed fundamental values to civilization, and now:
A great wheel of history comes full circle today as Israel, renewed and established, offers itself, with all its imperfections but perhaps with some virtues, to the defense of the human spirit against nihilism, conflict, and despair.
A week later, Israel became the 59th member of the U.N., by a vote of 37–12.
On May 10, 1951, Eban, along with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, spoke at a Madison Square Garden rally to initiate a three-year drive for Israel Bonds. Israel critically needed capital after a devastating war, a massive influx of Holocaust survivors, and hundreds of thousands of Jews immigrating from Arab countries that had expelled them. An audience of 20,000 people, with thousands in an overflow crowd outside, heard Eban’s presentation, entitled “The Voice of the Trumpet Exceeding Loud,” a phrase from Exodus 19:19.
In a single paragraph, Eban summarized the extraordinary events of the past three years:
Here is a people which defended its life, its home and its open gates against the fury of a powerful foe; set up an oasis of democracy, liberty and progress in a wilderness of despotism and squalor . . . received into its shelter 600,000 of its kinsmen coming out of the depth of insecurity and want . . . began to explore and uncover the hidden resources of its soil which had lain neglected for long centuries past; caused water to gush forth in the most primeval wilderness of recorded time; extended the foundations of its industrial progress; embarked upon one of the great cultural adventures of history, to create out of diverse and remote citizens a unified society in the tongue and the spirit of Israel’s past; established its banner in the family of nations and gave utterance to Israel’s immemorial yearning for world peace.
“The Justice of Her Cause”
One of Eban’s most important speeches came on the second day of the Six-Day War in 1967, when he gave an address to the U.N. that many have considered one of the great diplomatic speeches of all time.
The war broke out on June 5, 1967, when Israel finally acted against the Arab military encirclement that had begun in mid-May with open Arab declarations of an imminent campaign to destroy the Jewish state, with Arab troop movements becoming increasingly ominous. Eban had left Jerusalem the day the war began and addressed the U.N. Security Council in New York the next day, with the speech carried live on television around the globe. He began by evoking “the point at which our fortunes stood” the day before, when an army “greater than any force ever assembled in history in Sinai” had massed on Israel’s southern frontier:
Nasser had provocatively brought five infantry divisions and two armored divisions up to our very gates; 80,000 men and 900 tanks were poised to move. . . . [An international route] across the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba had been suddenly and arbitrarily choked. Israel was and is breathing only with a single lung.
. . . Every house and street in Jerusalem . . . came into the range of fire. . . . [S]o also did the crowded and pathetically narrow coastal strip in which so much of Israel’s life and population is concentrated. Iraqi troops reinforced Jordanian units in areas immediately facing vital and vulnerable Israel communication centers. Expeditionary forces from Algeria and Kuwait had reached Egyptian territory. . . . Syrian units, including artillery, overlooked the Israeli villages in the Jordan Valley. . . . In short, there was peril for Israel wherever it looked.
Eban told the U.N. that on May 24, Syria had announced its intention to (in the Syrian prime minister’s words) “wipe Israel off from the face of the earth.” Eban suggested members of the General Assembly “might wish to compare [those remarks] with the terms of the United Nations Charter.” He described the “apocalyptic air of approaching peril” that pervaded Israel as it watched its total encirclement with no significant response from the international community:
With my very ears I heard President Nasser’s speech on May 26. He said: ‘We intend to open a general assault against Israel. This will be total war. Our basic aim will be to destroy Israel.’
[O]n the morning of June 5. . . . In accordance with its inherent right of self-defense as formulated in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, Israel responded defensively in full strength. Never in the history of nations has armed force been used in a more righteous or compelling cause.
Eban summarized the frantic efforts Israel had made to keep Jordan (and thus Jerusalem) out of the war. Israel had assured Jordan that Israel would not attack it unless it attacked Israel:
But Jordan embarked on a . . . total assault by artillery and aircraft along the entire front, with emphasis on Jerusalem, to whose dangerous and noble ordeal yesterday I come to bear personal witness.
There has been bombing of houses; there has been a hit on the great new National Museum of Art; there has been a hit on the [Hebrew] University, and on Shaare Zedek, the first hospital ever to have been established outside the ancient walls. Is this not an act of vandalism that deserves the condemnation of all mankind? And in the Knesset building . . . the Israel Cabinet and Parliament met under heavy gunfire, whose echoes mingled at the end of our meeting with Hatikvah, the anthem of hope.
Eban said he would be “less than frank if I were to conceal the fact that the Government and people of Israel have been disconcerted” by the U.N.’s role—particularly the sudden withdrawal of the U.N. Emergency Force in the Sinai without consulting Israel, which facilitated the Egyptian attack:
I confess that my own attitude and those of my colleagues and of my fellow citizens . . . have been traumatically affected by this experience. . . . What is the use of a United Nations presence if it is in effect an umbrella which is taken away as soon as it begins to rain?
Eban argued that Jordan, backed by the Soviet Union, had no standing to demand that Israel return to the pre-war boundaries, because Jordan “gambled with destiny, [and thus] incurred the full responsibility of unprovoked war.”
But there was an even more compelling reason, Eban said, to reject the call for a return to the pre-war boundaries:
The Soviet proposal is for withdrawal to the same situation out of which the conflict arose: the same frontiers, and therefore the same insecurity, the same blockade of waterways, the same belligerent doctrine, the same divided city, the same choked access on vital roads, the same confrontation of unseparated armies, the same guns on Syrian hills threatening settlements in the valley, the same arms race and, above all, the same absence of peace treaties requiring mutual recognition of sovereignty. . . . Such proposals . . . are prescriptions for renewal of conflict.
The Jewish Chronicle in London published a tribute to Eban’s U.N. performance, writing that his diplomatic effort had been as important as Israel’s military one: “Israel’s victory in the Middle East war was applauded by a great part of the free world, not merely because she had performed an astonishing feat of arms but primarily because [through Eban] she had established the justice of her cause.”
The New York Times profiled Eban two weeks later and compared him to the most consequential orator of the century:
More than one observer, peering down at the proceedings in the tall Assembly chamber, as Mr. Eban asserted his country’s right to exist and to protect its borders and ports, thought of the comparison to Winston Churchill sending the English language to war in 1940.
Eban’s Three Principles of Foreign Policy
The Yom Kippur War began with a massive unprovoked attack by Egypt and Syria on Saturday, October 6, 1973—which was both Shabbat and Yom Kippur.
By 10 a.m. the next morning, Eban and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were discussing a joint strategy for proceedings before the U.N. Security Council. During the day, Egypt moved across the Suez Canal; Israel suffered heavy losses of aircraft and tanks; Defense Minister Moshe Dayan frantically told colleagues he thought Israel was about to be destroyed. At the U.N. the next day, Eban forcefully rejected Egypt and Syria’s legal position and ridiculed their cover story for starting the new war—a purported Israeli attack on them:
The premeditated and unprovoked assault . . . on the Day of Atonement . . . will surely rank . . . as one of the basest and most odious acts for which Governments have ever been responsible. . . . [The 1967 cease-fire] is an international agreement . . . accepted by Egypt, Syria and Israel, in response to a decision of the Security Council. Egypt first invented an imaginary sea battle with imaginary Israeli ships, at an imaginary place, at an imaginary time: the most dramatic nonexistent battle in the history of war.
Eban then told the U.N. that what was “deeply impressed on our minds,” and would be “engraved in our memories,” was the “kind of adversaries we face”:
First, there is the choice of the day. There is only one day in the year . . . on which [Israel] turns aside from all material concern, unique in the spiritual calendar of mankind. . . . How idiotic would a man have to be to believe that on a day when … the vast majority of our soldiers were in their homes or synagogues, when even forward posts were manned at minimal level—that precisely on that day Israel would launch a war?
Eban said it was “vital that Egyptian and Syrian forces shall not be allowed to remain anywhere beyond the  cease-fire lines”—to reinforce the principle that they could only be modified “by negotiation and peace.” And there were two other lessons from this war:
First . . . The nature of that hostility [we face] is such that no security concern can be exaggerated. . . .
Second . . . Imagine that in a mood of suicidal stupidity we had gone back to the previous armistice lines. . . . [T]hen the attacks of October 6 . . . would have done such destruction to our vital security that perhaps Israel and all its people, and all the memories, hopes and visions which have moved our history, might now all be lost. . . . How right we were to insist on negotiating with the utmost precision the boundaries of a peace settlement! How wrong were those who counseled us otherwise!
In the midst of the 1973 war, Eban had articulated the three principles that would guide Israel for the next half century: 1) statements of Arab hostility would be taken at face value; 2) there could be no retreat to the pre-1967 “Auschwitz” borders; and 3) peace could be achieved only with defensible boundaries resulting from direct negotiations between the parties.
In April 1974, after an official report on the Yom Kippur War harshly criticized the Israeli failure to anticipate it, Golda Meir announced her resignation as prime minister. Eban—having represented Israel as U.N. ambassador, U.S. ambassador, and foreign minister for two-and-a-half decades, through four wars (in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973)—believed he was most suited to succeed her. His service had been stellar; he had an extraordinary international reputation; he had more diplomatic experience than any other potential successor; he was fluent in Arabic (as well as Farsi, French, and German, in addition to English and Hebrew); and he was only 59 years old.
But the very qualities that led to his success in the diplomatic arena—his British background, his speeches in refined English, his stately bearing, his long residence in the United States—were political liabilities in Israel. For many, he was virtually a foreigner, a long-winded orator, fluent in Hebrew but speaking it formally, a person denigrated privately by his Labor colleagues as pompous and pretentious. As Golda Meir’s successor, the party chose someone exactly the opposite: a Jerusalem-born sabra, a military hero from the 1967 war, a man of few words, who silently projected strength: Yitzhak Rabin.
After the 1974 election, Rabin formed a government with 19 ministers in his cabinet—pointedly excluding Eban. It was a humiliating dismissal, delivered in an insulting manner: Eban first heard of it on the radio, along with the rest of the country.
In his final speech at the Foreign Ministry, Eban said, “It matters very much, not only what Israel’s policies are, but how they are expressed,” and that policies presented without “moral incisiveness and intellectual elevation” would not succeed. Then he left the building—and it would be “over two years before I was emotionally capable of entering [it] again.”
In the years after 1974, Eban held a number of visiting professorships, wrote books and articles, and worked from 1979 to 1984 on a nine-part public television series, “Heritage: Civilization and the Jews” which he both wrote and narrated, accompanied by a book of the same name. He wrote essays and op-eds in which he criticized Israel’s course in the Lebanon war, and he urged Israel to take a conciliatory stance in negotiations with the Palestinians.
By 2000, at the age of 84, Eban was suffering from both Parkinson’s disease and severe aphasia, a horrific condition that prevented him from communicating. In the following two years before his death, he was unable to leave his home. In 2002, he received the Israel Prize, the state’s highest honor—for “lifetime achievement”—27 years after leaving the Foreign Ministry. He was too ill to attend the ceremony, much less to write or deliver an acceptance speech. His wife, Suzy, accepted the prize on his behalf.
Eban’s Eloquence and the Current Situation
In 1979, Henry Kissinger, in the first volume of his memoirs, White House Years, wrote of Eban that:
I have never encountered anyone who matched his command of the English language. . . . Eban’s eloquence . . . was allied to a first-class intelligence and fully professional grasp of diplomacy. He was always well prepared; he knew what he wanted. He practiced to the full his maxim that anything less than one hundred percent agreement with Israel’s point of view demonstrated lack of objectivity.
Eban died a poor man, assisted financially in his last years by a small group of generous admirers. His extraordinary diplomatic eloquence—as important to Israel as its military prowess—was recognized with a national prize awarded so belatedly that he had to receive it in total silence. Eban’s personal tragedy was that the talents that led to his diplomatic success in the world contributed to his political failure at home. The tragedy extends, however, beyond his personal one. It reaches into the center of Middle East history and into the current situation.
In September 1948, during his first year as Israel’s U.N. representative, Eban published an essay in Commentary entitled “The Future of Arab-Jewish Relations: The Key Is the Cooperation of Equal and Separate States.” The 1948 war had demonstrated, Eban contended, that “Arabs and Jews need each other for any progress or any escape from deadlock,” and he set forth the intellectual basis for partition of the land west of the Jordan River, even though it represented the millennial home of the Jewish people, which had been dedicated to the Jews by the League of Nations in 1922, and the portion of Palestine east of the River was to be designated for the Arabs as Transjordan:
The theory is that there are two peoples in Palestine, each with separate national aspirations; that neither can do without the full satisfaction of those aspirations, at least in a limited area; that each can best cooperate with the other on the basis of its own integrity and freedom.
The fact that partition, Eban continued, “offered something infinitely precious to the Jews” should not obscure, he wrote, the “gifts which it bestowed upon the Arabs”—ones that could have been obtained without a war:
Nine hundred thousand [Palestinian] Arabs . . . were offered [in 1947] the chance of living in a purely Arab state. Two purely Arab states—Transjordan and Arab Palestine—were to be established on seven-eighths of the territory originally set aside . . . [for] a Jewish national home. . . . [M]any a Palestine Arab may come to compare this prospect, which was peacefully available, with the results of the ‘holy war.’ These results include the invasion and decimation of Arab Palestine; the panic-stricken flight of its population with its leaders in the van; occupation by rival Arab armies with frank aims of annexation; social and economic disintegration; and the collapse of all corporate Arab life. In this manner have Palestine Arabs been saved by their Arab ‘friends’ from their Jewish ‘enemies.’
Eban asserted that anyone who would assist the Arabs in recognizing Israel’s permanence would be deemed “in the historic sense, a friend of the Arabs,” because such recognition would free the Arabs to live in their own state and concentrate on their own welfare. He would become an outspoken advocate of the “peace process,” pushing Israel to start it and then continually encouraging it once it did.
In 1998, in his last book, Diplomacy for the Next Century, Eban asserted that “the Middle East had been “irreversibly transformed” by the peace process, since it would enable the Palestinians to “take possession of their destiny and go forward in peace and hope.”
Given his medical condition in 2000 and his death two years later, we do not know what Eban would have said about a) Yasser Arafat’s rejection of a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000; or b) Arafat’s rejection of the Clinton Parameters in 2000–01; or c) the barbaric suicide bombers Arafat sent thereafter to attack civilians in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and other Israeli cities; or d) the repeated rocket wars launched from Gaza after Israel removed every settlement and soldier from there in 2005; or e) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s rejection of a Palestinian state in 2008, after the year-long “Annapolis Process”; or f) Abbas’s fervent vows, repeated multiple times throughout the Obama years, “never” to recognize a Jewish state; or g) Abbas’s annual speeches at the U.N. demanding a British apology for the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
But in considering these things, Eban might have recalled his conversation in 1947 with Azzam Pasha, the Arab League secretary-general, which he recounted in his Commentary article. Regarding a Jewish state in any portion of Palestine, Pasha had told him:
“By the logic of our history we shall fight it. . . . We once had Spain and Persia. If anyone had come . . . and asked us to surrender Spain or Persia he would have received the same negative response as I now give you.” In a later moment [Pasha] confessed that the Arabs had become used to not having Spain and Persia. They might, he said, become used to not having part of Palestine—or else they might attempt a century-old irredentism and work up a crusade.
The century-long Palestinian jihad that Pasha foresaw has lasted three-quarters of a century so far. No less than four times—in 1947 (U.N. Resolution 181), 2000 (Camp David), 2001 (the Clinton Parameters), and 2008 (the Annapolis Process)—the Palestinians rejected a Palestinian state on substantially all of the West Bank and Gaza, in favor of the continual wars that Pasha had predicted they might prefer to a two-state solution.
For the Palestinians, the peace process was never to create “two states for two peoples”—a formulation they repeatedly rejected: they denied that Jews were a “people” entitled to a state; recognized them only as members of a religion; and refused to concede that Jewish history in Palestine preceded theirs by at least a millennium. The Palestinians adopted as their formulation “ending the occupation that began in 1967”—a phrase that involved no acknowledgment of Israel’s legitimacy and obscured the fact that the Palestinians believed there was another occupation to be dealt with later: what they considered to be “the occupation that began in 1948.”
For the Palestinians, it was thus not a peace process at all, but rather a “Pasha process”—an attempt to return to 1947 by pressing two interconnected demands: 1) an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines (to reverse the outcome of the 1967 war), and 2) a “right of return” to Israel (to reverse the result of the 1948 one). They sought to turn history back to a time when there was no Jewish state—not forward to a time where there could be two states for two peoples.
Eban’s most famous observation—that the Palestinians “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity”—thus missed the fundamental point: a Palestinian state in a portion of Palestine was not the opportunity the Palestinians sought. They viewed the creation of Israel—pursuant to the 1947 U.N. resolution that had recommended both a Jewish and an Arab state—as their catastrophe (their “Nakba”), rather than their missed opportunity to create their own state, at the same time, pursuant to the same resolution, as the Jews had created theirs.
Today, it is thus no wonder that the Arab states no longer allow a Palestinian veto over their own national interests. Given 1) the need to meet the existential threat of Iran, 2) the benefits of aligning with Israel’s 21st-century economy, 3) the repeated failure of the Palestinians to accept any of the two-state solutions offered over three-quarters of a century, 4) the inability of Fatah and Hamas to “live side by side in peace and security” even with each other, much less with Israel, and 5) the fact that the Palestinians are ruled in the West Bank by an 87-year-old holdover and in Gaza by a terrorist group, with no working legislature in either location nor the civil institutions—such as a free press and an independent judiciary—necessary for a successful state, the Arab states have concluded that there are more pressing issues.
Eban’s tragedy—and that of the 24,000 Jews and 91,000 Arabs killed or maimed in war after war—was that while Eban spoke eloquently about peace in English, Hebrew, and Arabic, a Palestinian counterpart never emerged who shared the vision he had laid out in Commentary in 1948. On October 8, 1973, in an address to the U.N. General Assembly during the Yom Kippur War, Eban spoke words that still resonate into the present, through the multiple wars that followed:
At this very solemn and tragic hour, we cannot help but think back upon the waste and the anguish and the avoidable suffering of the past two decades. All our Arab neighbors together, which are developing countries, have spent in this period something like 20,000 million dollars on War. The result: nothing. The achievement: nothing. . . . [T]the tiniest fraction of that expenditure would have been sufficient to solve all the refugee problems in the Middle East fifty times over.
The two-state solution that Abba Eban sought from the beginning was offered multiple times and was rejected just as many. His tragedy ultimately became a cautionary tale for his country.