Books: A consummate diplomat

Asaf Siniver looks back at the legacy of Abba Eban.

Abba Eban (center right), and David Hacohen (center left) raise the Israeli flag above the UN building on November 29, 1947, soon after the UN voted to partition Palestine (photo credit: REUTERS)
Abba Eban (center right), and David Hacohen (center left) raise the Israeli flag above the UN building on November 29, 1947, soon after the UN voted to partition Palestine
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Abba Eban was branded as “the Voice of Israel,” a perfect title for a tremendously articulate champion of the Jewish state from its early days through its many trials and tribulations. Asaf Siniver, a professor of international studies at the University of Birmingham, has written a new biography on Israel’s foremost diplomat – a colorful reminder of the evolution of Israeli diplomacy, both its successes and failures.
Israel has just marked the 49th anniversary of the Six Day War, the war that created the modern-day Middle East and the map of Israel that we are still focusing on today. In 1969, to underscore the existential threat Israel faced in 1967, Eban told the German weekly Der Spiegel that the map of June 4, 1967, “reminds us of Auschwitz.”
Over the years this quote came back to bite him, as it was used and abused by many on the Israeli Right regarding territorial comprise – something that Eban was willing to entertain. Siniver correctly points out that this misuse was so hurtful to Eban’s wife, Suzy, that she went on to deny he even said it or meant it.
Eban’s observations, however, are today tacitly accepted by the Israeli Left and the Right. This is the core of the defensible boundaries doctrine which has driven Israeli policy-makers and was reflected clearly with Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza.
Another observation Eban made in reflecting on the war was his statement that the Arab Palestinians who left their homes in 1948 did so of their own volition and “exclusively of the Arabs’ own making.”
Both of these critical issues continue to drive the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are seen as stumbling blocks to peace with the Palestinians. Eban’s treatment of them is relevant today, especially as the Israeli Left has become more centrist.
Yet, as a career diplomat, Eban did not have the rugged and undiplomatic Sabra mentality. This caused him to clash with several of his countrymen, specifically Yitzhak Rabin, who was the opposite of diplomatic. As the author underscores Eban’s acute awareness of this very issue when he was asked about seeking the premiership, “Eban ruled himself out of the race: if I wanted to be prime minister, I would have to be reborn.... You know, I wasn’t born in [Moshav] Nahalal, Mes’ha [Kfar Tavor] or Eastern Europe.”
Of course, these were key ingredients of Sabraism, which contrasted with Eban’s intellectualism.
Ambassadors are supposed to negotiate the Beltway and the American Jewish community as representatives of Israel.
They are not commanders or even policy- makers. Rabin’s mental breakdown on the eve of the Six Day War notwithstanding, he was revered as the IDF chief of staff and later prime minister who dared to embark on the Oslo peace process. By contrast, Eban was a well-seasoned orator, statesman, diplomat and foreign minister, with a deep understanding of Washington.
Who was better suited to develop foreign policy and represent Israel, the general or the statesman? Such tensions continue today.
But Eban is still considered to be the gold standard of Israeli diplomacy. While Israel has evolved over time, diplomacy and tact are still needed but are not always found or desired.
Similar confrontations have emerged in recent years, including over the term of former ambassador to the US (and now MK) Michael Oren, an American-born, Princeton-trained Middle East historian who understood the ins and outs of Washington and American Jewry. Oren clashed with his boss, then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, a brash Russian- born politician who at times acted in a manner more fitting to The Sopranos than the head of Israel’s diplomatic corps.
Eban was without a doubt a master statesman who never really garnered the respect in Israeli society he deserved. As Siniver correctly describes his legacy, “the most poignant tribute to Eban and his legacy came from the chief rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau: ‘When I heard on the phone that Abba Eban had died, I had come to say sorry. We never appreciated him as much as we should have.’” The lessons of Abba Eban have yet to be learned by the Israeli government and public at large. 
The writer is the executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.