Did Israel's famed diplomat Abba Eban lack clout back home?

The Eban paradox is that he never succeeded in translating his immense international stature into commensurate domestic political capital.

Then-Israel Ambassador to the UN Abba Eban speaks at the General Assembly in New York in the early 1970s. (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
Then-Israel Ambassador to the UN Abba Eban speaks at the General Assembly in New York in the early 1970s.
(photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)

The 20th anniversary of the passing of Israel’s legendary foreign minister Abba Eban on November 17 is an opportunity to ask whether the acclaimed diplomat, with his stellar global reputation, was as effective in defining Israeli policy as he was in advocating it abroad. 

An outstanding student at England’s Cambridge University, Eban graduated in 1938 with an exemplary triple first, positioning him to pursue a lifetime career as a respected academic.

But the South Africa-born Eban could not sit out the impending world crisis that would so heavily impact the Jewish people. Drawn to Zionism, he worked at the London headquarters of the World Zionist Movement under the leadership of Chaim Weizmann (who later became Israel’s first president). 

With the outbreak of World War II, Eban joined the British military to fight the Nazis, serving as an intelligence officer in Mandatory Palestine. Discharged at the end of the war, Eban joined the staff of the Jewish Agency’s political department and was sent to New York where he became the Jewish Agency’s liaison with the UN’s Special Committee on Palestine, helping steer it toward recommending Jewish statehood. Subsequently, Eban was part of the lobbying effort that produced the necessary two-thirds majority General Assembly vote for partition on November 29, 1947.

After successfully orchestrating Israel’s acceptance to the UN in May 1949, Eban became the Jewish state’s permanent representative to the organization. In parallel, he also served as Israel’s ambassador to the US, concurrently working in both Washington and New York throughout the 1950s. 

 Israeli diplomat and politician Abba Eban (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Israeli diplomat and politician Abba Eban (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Eban was a celebrity. His remarkable intellectual and oratorial prowess made him one of the foremost English speechmakers of the period, on a par with Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy. Henry Kissinger wrote: “I have never encountered anyone who matched his command of the English language. Sentences poured forth in mellifluous constructions complicated enough to test the listener’s intelligence and simultaneously leave him transfixed by the speaker’s virtuosity.”

In the UN debate following Israel’s much-criticized October 1953 Qibya reprisal raid, which left 69 Palestinian villagers dead, Eban offered a robust defense of Israel’s actions. This led prime minister David Ben-Gurion to comment that if he had not initially been certain of the rectitude of Israel’s operation, after reading Eban’s Security Council speech, he was convinced Israel’s actions had been justified. 

Abba Eban: The voice of Israel

Ben-Gurion would call Eban “The Voice of Israel” for his effective presentation of Jerusalem’s positions to international audiences.

THIS DIPLOMATIC eminence made Eban a valuable political commodity. He was recruited by the ruling Mapai (Labor) party that wanted to add fresh faces to its list for the 1959 elections, and became a Knesset member alongside fellow “youngsters” Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres.

During his first years as a politician, Eban was forced to settle for the positions of minister without portfolio, education minister and, later, the largely ceremonial role of deputy prime minister. His moment came in January 1966 when, following the resignation of Golda Meir, prime minister Levi Eshkol appointed him foreign minister. 

In May 1967, the eruption of the Middle East crisis that led to the Six Day War saw Eban embark upon an emergency mission. He flew to Paris for a meeting with president Charles De Gaulle, then to London, to confer with prime minister Harold Wilson, and, crucially, to Washington, for discussions with president Lyndon Johnson. 

The American leader, while condemning Egypt’s threatening behavior and agreeing that the Israelis were “victims of aggression,” cautioned Jerusalem against a military reaction. Johnson warned that “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone.”

Eshkol could only temporarily accept this American red light. Seeking to revisit the issue, he sent Mossad director Meir Amit on a follow-up visit to Washington to ascertain whether, given the failure of diplomacy, the US still opposed an Israeli military response to Egypt’s belligerency. Amit discerned nuances in the American position and reported back to Jerusalem that the light from Washington was not red but yellow, and Israel’s preemptive strike followed.

Interestingly, in that hour of crisis, Eshkol preferred to send the Mossad director and not his renowned foreign minister. Was Eban seen only as “The Voice of Israel” and not the right person for sensitive diplomatic communications?

Similar questions continued to surface. Kissinger was the point man in Richard Nixon’s administration (1969-74) for all important foreign policy matters. Accordingly, he stood in close contact with Israel’s ambassadors in Washington, Yitzhak Rabin and his successor Simcha Dinitz, and through them to prime minister Golda Meir in Jerusalem. Foreign minister Eban was often left out of the loop.

In Kissinger’s three-volume memoirs of his time as national security advisor and secretary of state, there are numerous accounts of crucial conversations with Rabin and Dinitz, less so with Eban. However, as quoted, Kissinger appreciated Eban’s eloquence, especially when a filibuster was required to buy time at the Security Council.

Because Rabin worked directly with Meir, and not through his foreign ministry superior, relations between Eban and his ambassador grew strained. When Rabin became prime minister in 1974, Eban found himself asked to vacate the foreign ministry. Offered only a secondary post, he chose to leave the cabinet, never to return.

EBAN’S ULTIMATE indignity was failing to secure a place on the Labor list in the 1988 elections (the first time Labor chose its slate in a competitive vote). The photograph of him, and wife Suzy, looking dejected after being knocked out of the internal party ballot clearly depicted his political implosion.

Tellingly, Eban’s decades as “The Voice of Israel;” the multiple books he authored – My People (1968), My Country (1972), An Autobiography (1977), The New Diplomacy (1983), and Heritage (1984); his successful American television series Civilization and the Jews (1984), later followed by Israel: A Nation is Born (1994) – all these did not help him garner the support of Labor’s central committee.

The Eban paradox is that he never succeeded in translating his immense international stature into commensurate domestic political capital. This failure may stem from Eban’s patrician and professorial persona, out of place in Israel’s boisterous democracy. But it could also reflect a longstanding Israeli national security prejudice favoring hard-power IDF generals like Rabin over soft-power diplomats like Eban. 

This bias, historically understandable given Israel’s ubiquitous defense challenges, has nonetheless left the Jewish state with undervalued diplomatic assets, impacting Jerusalem’s decision-making well beyond the ups and downs of Eban’s distinguished career.

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.