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The World | ABBA EBAN 1915-2002

'Voice of the Hebrew Nation,' Eloquent Diplomat Dies at 87

November 18, 2002|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Abba Eban, the Israeli diplomat and author whose career spanned the Jewish state's turbulent founding and a generation of warfare with Arab neighbors, and whose early views on conflict with the Palestinians proved wrenchingly prescient, died Sunday at age 87.

Eban, who died in a hospital outside Tel Aviv, was respected by friend and adversary alike for his eloquence, intellectual rigor and tireless advocacy of Israel's cause in the international arena. David Ben Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister, once called him "the voice of the Hebrew nation."

"He was one of the symbols of the founding generation, a generation that fought and believed in the just fight of the state of Israel," his nephew Yitzhak Herzog, a former Cabinet secretary, told Israel Radio.

Eban's life story, with deep roots in several cultures, in some ways mirrored that of 20th century Jewry.

Born in South Africa -- in Cape Town, on Feb. 2, 1915 -- and reared largely in England, he became an honor-winning student at Cambridge. He subsequently served in the British army during World War II, starting as a foot soldier and rising to major. Eventually, he became a liaison officer for the Allies to the Jews of Palestine, and stayed on there after the war.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 22, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 18 inches; 658 words Type of Material: Correction
Abba Eban -- An obituary Monday of Israeli diplomat and author Abba Eban mistakenly said he was born Aubrey Solomon Eban. In fact, his birth name was Aubrey Solomon Meir, but he grew up using the surname of his mother's second husband.

With Israel's independence in 1948, Eban, like many Zionists of his generation, dropped his birth name, Aubrey Solomon Eban, in favor of a Hebrew one. But he never seemed entirely at home in his adopted land, where his personal style -- aloof, academic, impeccable in dress and manner -- was always at odds with the rough-and-tumble informality that prevailed in Israel's leadership circles.

In the diplomatic arena, some of Eban's greatest challenges -- and triumphs -- came at a young age.

In his early 30s, he was handed the crucial task of lobbying the United Nations to approve the creation of Israel. In stirring speeches to the fledgling world body, he invoked the moral imperative that a Jewish homeland must rise from the ashes of the Holocaust. With the 1947 vote to partition Palestine, he succeeded, but by a perilously narrow margin.

Well-spoken and at ease in more than half a dozen languages, Eban spent a decade as ambassador to the United Nations and made diplomatic history by serving simultaneously as Israel's envoy to Washington. There, he developed his trademark skill for mounting a brilliant oratorical defense of Israeli policy, even when he harbored private reservations.

"He was not just a very eloquent speaker and skilled diplomat. He was a man of deep convictions," said Itamar Rabinovich, a veteran Israeli envoy.

Eban's tenure as foreign minister, from 1966 to 1974, coincided with a tumultuous period for Israel that encompassed two decisive wars with Arab neighbors. He ably helped deflect international concern over Israel's capture of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, Sinai Peninsula and East Jerusalem. But he worked hard behind the scenes to try to convince successive Israeli governments, with only partial success, that the negotiated return of war-seized territory was the only path to peace and that, without it, relations with the Palestinians would be plagued by violence.

A longtime believer in the inevitability of Palestinian statehood and its necessity to Israel's own interests, Eban nonetheless cast a coldly critical eye on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, famously remarking in 1978 that he, among other Arab leaders, "never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

Through the years, as Israel faced moral as well as military challenges, Eban's idealistic view of his country dimmed. In later years, he told interviewers that he could no longer have echoed with conviction the language of his passionate appeals almost half a century earlier for Israel's statehood. But he insisted that he saw the creation of the Jewish state as one of the 20th century's noblest experiments.

Back home, in the realm of Israeli domestic politics, Eban never attained the high regard in which he was held overseas. He once joked that he could have been elected prime minister "if people abroad could vote in Israeli elections."

In 1988, after three decades in the Knesset, or parliament, he suffered the ignominious loss of his seat because of procedural changes spurred by internal politics in his fractious Labor Party. With his political career effectively over, he devoted his time to writing and teaching and was a visiting academic in the U.S. at Princeton and Columbia.

He narrated public television documentaries and wrote a number of books, most of them on diplomacy and Israel's history, including "My Country," "Abba Eban: An Autobiography" and "Heritage: Civilization and the Jews."

Eban was the recipient of many awards. In 2001, he was given his country's highest honor, the Israel Prize, but was too frail to attend the award ceremony. Family members said that, by then, he had been in failing health for several years.

His death was reported prominently in Israeli newscasts. The television reports showed old photographs and still footage of him, tall and bespectacled, formally dressed as always, captured in mid-speech, mid-gesture.

Even those who had felt the sting of Eban's acerbic tongue joined in the accolades.

Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Eban had criticized for reluctance to negotiate the handing over of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the Palestinians, praised him as the "founding father of Israeli diplomacy."

Eban is survived by his wife, Susan, and a son and a daughter. He was to be buried today in his hometown of Kfar Shmaryahu, outside Tel Aviv, the family said.

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