Ian Black, theguardian.com
image from article, with caption: Abba Eban in June 1960.
New study of virtuoso speaker who laid the foundations for decades of diplomacy designed to resist pressure over the Palestinian question
Half a century ago, Abba Eban was known as “the Voice of Israel,” an obvious title for a supremely articulate defender of the Jewish state from independence in 1948 through its military victory in the 1967 war and beyond. Asaf Siniver’s new biography of the country’s leading diplomat and foreign minister is a vivid reminder of changing times and forgotten reputations.
The Cambridge-educated Eban (he famously had a triple first-class degree) was a huge asset to the Zionist cause in the twilight years of the British Mandate in Palestine. His advocacy at the UN, and as Israel’s ambassador to the US in the 1950’s, laid the groundwork for the country’s international positions for decades, crucially winning the support of successive American presidents. No Palestinian or Arab statesman could match him for eloquence. Eban was a one-man PR machine, the personification of hasbara - a Hebrew word that is best translated as public diplomacy, though it is often indistinguishable from propaganda.
Eban made the argument that Palestinian refugees who had fled (he never said expelled) in 1948 could not return home without a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace settlement. The problem, as he put it, was “exclusively of the Arabs own making” because they had launched armed attacks immediately after the UN voted to partition the holy land into separate Jewish and Arab states. ...
Eban’s reputation as a silver-tongued spokesman for Israel served him well abroad (though Lyndon Johnson privately poked fun at him as a “mini-Churchill”) but it did not help him at home. In the rough and tumble of Israeli politics he was seen as a pompous and long-winded outsider. He had no military experience, getting on spectacularly badly with the gruff Yitzhak Rabin, the victor of 1967, who dismissed Eban when he became Labour prime minister in 1974.
He had an extraordinary command of languages - including the Arabic and Persian he had studied, and taught, at Cambridge - though in this impressively-researched study there is not a single mention of him ever holding a conversation in Arabic. But his mellifluous Hebrew was delivered in an English accent and he knew neither Russian nor Polish - spoken by many of Israel’s east European-born leaders. When he announced that he was considering a bid to become prime minister, the abrasive Golda Meir asked “in which country?” ...