Abba Eban

Ambassador Abba Eban

Former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and U.S.

The Israeli statesman, diplomat, and scholar Abba Eban (born 1915) served as Israel's United Nations representative and ambassador to the United States until 1959. He was Israel's foreign minister between 1966 and 1974.

Abba Solomon Eban was born in 1915 in Capetown, South Africa. His parents moved to Great Britain during his childhood, where Eban studied classics and oriental languages at Cambridge University. He learned seven languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian. At Cambridge he was active as a student Zionist leader, in the University Labor Society, and as president of the Student Union. During World War II he volunteered as a private in the British army, rising to the rank of major. One of his assignments between 1942 and 1944 was chief instructor at the British military's Middle East Arabic Center in Jerusalem. Because of his Zionist connections he also served as liaison officer for the British with the Jewish Agency, predecessor of the Israeli government.

After the war Eban was persuaded by the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann (later to be Israel's first president) to devote his extensive knowledge of the Middle East to service with the Jewish Agency, and in 1947 he was its liaison officer with the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, which recommended partition of the country into Jewish and Arab states and an international enclave including Jerusalem. Before Israel was created Eban was a principal spokesman of the Jewish Agency at the United Nations, where he spoke eloquently on behalf of establishing a Jewish state.

Eban's outstanding as skills as speech maker and diplomat led to his appointment as the United Nations representative of the new government of Israel in 1948 and as its first permanent representative from 1949 to 1959. Simultaneously he was Israel's ambassador to the United States. In this dual role Eban acquired prominence as Israel's leading spokesman abroad and as one of the most persuasive orators at the United Nations. To many Jews and other Americans Eban came to symbolize Israel and its struggle to survive during the critical first ten years. He helped Israel's first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, to explain Israel's difficult position through several international crises, including the War of Independence in 1948 and the Sinai (Suez) War with Egypt in 1956.

After more than a decade in the United States Eban returned to Israel, and in 1959 he was elected to the Knesset (parliament) as a representative of the Mapai (Labor) Party. He served in the cabinet of the Labor government, first as minister without portfolio, later as minister of education and culture between 1959 and 1963. In the latter post he attempted to introduce educational reforms including increased opportunity for the growing number of Jewish immigrants from lesser developed countries in Asia and Africa. While active in his cabinet jobs Eban also found time to continue his activity as scholar and author of over a dozen books, including a biography of his mentor, Chaim Weizmann. He also was president of Israel's prestigious scientific research center, the Weismann Institute of Science, at Rehovot, from 1958 to 1966.

After Ben Gurion's successor, Levi Eschol, became prime minister, Eban served as deputy prime minister between 1963 and 1966. Afterwards, he served in what was perhaps his most important position, foreign minister of Israel from 1966 to 1974. During this era Israel fought two of its bloodiest wars, the June 1967 Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. As foreign minister Eban had to tread a delicate balance: resisting pressures from the international community on Israel to return the territory it had seized in 1967 from Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, yet appearing willing to compromise.

After the 1973 war Eban helped to negotiate, through the United States, partial Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai territory taken from Egypt and from the Golan Heights territory taken from Syria. Within the Israeli cabinet Eban was generally perceived as the spokesman for moderation in foreign policy, preferring the use of diplomacy rather than military force to meet the many crises confronting the nation. Although his advice and recommendations were not always accepted by the government, he was the most eloquent defender of whatever policy was finally decided upon.

Although Eban left the cabinet in 1974 he remained active in the Knesset and as a leader of the Labor Party. In the Labor Party he was identified with the "doves" who called for Israel to withdraw from most of the territory occupied in the 1967 war in exchange for a genuine secure peace settlement with the Arab states. (In contrast, Israel's Likud Party took a much more conservative stance.) He feared that if Israel kept the occupied territories their large Arab populations, especially the Arabs in the West Bank of Jordan, would eventually undermine Israel's claim to be a Jewish state.

Between 1974 and 1984 Eban had more time for scholarly pursuits, publishing several new volumes on the history of the Jews and of Israel and on international affairs. These include The New Diplomacy: International Affairs in the Modern Age (1983) and Heritage, Civilization, and the Jews (1985). When the Labor Party returned to lead the government as a result of the 1984 election, Eban was appointed to be chairman of the powerful Knesset committee on foreign and security affairs. In this role he again was able to exercise a moderating influence on Israel's relations with the Arab states and in foreign policy generally. Featuring Isreal and the Middle East, Diplomacy for the Next Century(1998) acts as a kind of guide for diplomacy.

Eban also chaired the committee that investigated the Jonathan Pollard spy scandal in 1987. Pollard was a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy who was later convicted of selling classified information from U.S. military files to Israel. The bipartisan committee itself came under fire from prominent Labor Party colleagues Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin for its what they termed its pro-Likud stance.

Eban served in the Knesset until 1988. Though in his eighties, he continued to play an active role in Israeli politics, at least from the sidelines. His fifteenth book, Personal Witness: Israel Through My Eyes, was published in 1993 and became a five-part series hosted by Eban on American public television. In 1998 he wrote another book titledDiplomacy for the Next Generation. Stephen Green in a Library Journal review wrote,"This relatively short book packs a lot of political savvy and demonstrates insight into the international political decision-making process."

Eban died on November 17, 2002, at a hospital near Tel Aviv, Israel. He was 87.

Abba Eban
Landon Lecture
Jan. 29, 1990