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Abba Eban, Shaper of Israeli Destiny in Early Years, Dies

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Fecha de creación: 2002-11-17 17:52:13
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Abba Eban, Shaper of Israeli Destiny in Early Years, Dies


November 17, 2002

A bba Eban, the erudite diplomat whose oratory and wit gained admiration and sympathy for Israel during the perilous first 30 years of its independence, died today in a hospital near Tel Aviv, Foreign Ministry and hospital officials said. He was 87.

Mr. Eban was an effective negotiator at talks that helped shape the destiny of his country in its early years, but it was his public voice and its impact on international opinion that set him apart. He gave elegant and passionate expression to Israel's right to exist, instilled pride and solidarity in the Jewish diaspora and was a formidable debater against his nation's enemies. .

He was Israel's representative at the United Nations during the independence struggle of 1948, its ambassador to both Washington and the United Nations during the Middle East war of 1956, and its foreign minister during the 1967 and 1973 Middle East wars.

He helped arrange a critical meeting between the Zionist patriarch Chaim Weizmann and President Harry Truman in the weeks before Mr. Truman decided that the United States would recognize Israeli independence in 1948. He helped negotiate a critical security guarantee for Israel during the diplomatic fiasco that followed the 1956 invasion of the Sinai. He was Israel's main contact with President Johnson in the tense diplomacy that preceded the 1967 Mideast war, and the following year he conducted some of Israel's earliest secret contacts with King Hussein of Jordan.

Again and again during the years when Israel's survival seemed in doubt, the world's attention focused on the United Nations, where Mr. Eban. as representative of the world's only Hebrew-speaking democracy, would send his supremely cultured voice using the King's English into forensic combat. His orations, fierce in their defense of his country, were also marked by rich appeals to history, soaring visions of a peaceful Middle East and withering scorn for Israel's enemies.

He quipped famously - and repeatedly - that the Palestinians had a tradition of ``never having lost a chance to miss an opportunity.''

His speeches drew comparisons to Churchill's, and nowhere were they more appreciated than among American Jews. At a time when the traumas of Hitler's genocide and international indifference were fresh, Mr. Eban's voice gave them pride and reason for optimism.

Mr. Eban's career reached a high point in 1967. On June 19, barely a week after Israel defeated its three most powerful neighbors, occupied the West Bank, Sinai and the Golan Heights and took control of the Old City of Jerusalem, he rose at the United Nations to denounce the Egyptian blockade that had prompted the attack and President Gamal Abdel Nasser's efforts to mobilize the Arab world against Israel. The speech, a classic of his style, cast the conflict not as Israel's alone, but the entire world's.

``The threat to Israel was a menace to the very foundations of the international order,'' he declared. ``The state thus threatened bore a name which stirred the deepest memories of civilized mankind, and the people of the threatened state were the surviving remnant of millions, who in living memory had been wiped out by a dictatorship more powerful, through scarcely more malicious, than Nasser's Egypt.''

``From these dire moments Israel emerged in five heroic days from awful peril to successful and glorious resistance.''

Rejecting any suggestion that the status quo before the war could be restored, Mr. Eban proposed that Arab acceptance of the new military facts of life could open up an idealized future: ``The Middle East, tired of wars, is ripe for a new emergence of human vitality. Let the opportunity not fall again from our hands.''

It was the paradox of Mr. Eban's career that his eloquence made him more popular with Jews abroad than with Israelis. He rose almost to the top of Israel's Labor Party, serving as a cabinet member from 1959 to 1974 - first as minister without portfolio, then as minister of education and culture, deputy prime minister and foreign minister. But he never became prime minister.

What was commanding in the halls of diplomacy did not resonate the same way at home. His compatriots' style was rough and egalitarian. They were outgoing, not aloof like Mr. Eban, and famously rude, even in the halls of Parliament.

These gaps only became wider over the years. As the land absorbed more and more Jews from the Middle East and Russia, along with religious nationalists, the largely secular European immigrants who had been the mainstay of Israel's Labor Party lost their grip on power. Mr. Eban, who resisted the label ``dove'' but had famous clashes with other Israelis over the proper time to switch from confrontation to negotiations, was a casualty.

Increasingly, Israelis came to judge him pompous and, eventually, isolated from the political mainstream. In the 1970's, when the first generation of Labor Party leaders were passing from the scene, the more hawkish members of the new generation led by Yitzhak Rabin began to shunt him aside. In the late 1980's, the Labor Party moved to a more democratic method of nominating candidates, and Mr. Eban was humiliatingly dumped from the list of parliamentary candidates.

He still had his voice, though, and his loyal audience abroad, particularly in America. He focused his efforts on writing and television productions. His themes were Jewish experience, Israel's political course and his own achievements. His point of view reflected his own vision of the centrality of Jewish history to the world's civilization, a need to engage the Palestinians in the search for peace and, particularly in his 1992 memoir, ``Personal Witness,'' the many mistakes and shortcomings he saw in the careers of other Israeli leaders.

He was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on Feb. 2, 1915, the son of Abraham Meir Solomon, a businessman who had emigrated from Russian-held Lithuania, and his wife Alida. When Mr. Eban was seven months old, the family sailed for England. Mr. Solomon died of cancer within a year, and several years later Alida Solomon married Dr. Isaac Eban, a London physician whose surname the boy took on. He grew up as Aubrey Solomon Eban, having been given the English proper name alongside the Hebrew Abba.

He began using Abba in his public life when he decided, during Israel's struggle for independence, to become an Israeli official; his biographer, Robert St. John, wrote in 1972 that Mr. Eban continued to use the name Aubrey in private correspondence and even among friends who were uncomfortable calling him ``Abba,'' which means father in Hebrew.

He was steeped in Zionist values and Jewish thought from infancy. His mother worked as a secretary and translator at the offices of the Zionist Organization in London, led by Chaim Weizmann. One night in 1917 she was asked to translate the Balfour Declaration, which promised British support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, into French and Russian. ``The translation of a document sounds a modest chore,'' Mr. Eban related in his 1992 memoir, ``but it linked my family to an unforgettable drama,'' and added, ``Zionism had conquered my inner world.''

Each weekend, he was tutored in Hebrew and Jewish learning by his scholarly maternal grandfather, Eliahu Sacks. A classic British education led him to Queens College, Cambridge, in the 1930's, where he specialized in Middle Eastern languages and literature, became expert at Arabic, took on a socialist's political outlook and was president of the Zionist Youth Movement. He also honed his wit and coined a classic Eban phrase, initially used against Josef Goebbels: ``Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum of human knowledge.''

Mr. Eban graduated with honors in 1938 and became a lecturer in Arabic, Persian and Hebrew literature at Pembroke College, Cambridge. When World War II began, he joined the Army, which trained him as an officer and, after Dr. Weizmann intervened, sent him to Cairo as a translator and censor of Arab mail and newspapers. In early 1942, with Britain fearing a German breakthrough in Egypt, he was reassigned to Palestine in a secret operation in which British officers helped train Jews as resistance fighters. The British victory at El Alamein made the effort superfluous, but the training had an unintended effect: many of the Jewish fighters would later turn the skills they learned against the British colonials as members of the Palmach, fighting for Israel's independence after the war.

During this time, Mr. Eban later wrote, he began to distance himself from the conventional wisdom about how to get along with the Arabs. He realized that an early Zionist assumption that the impoverished Arab masses would identify with the economic blessings that Jewish immigration would bring was ``total nonsense.''

``The idea that a nation would willingly barter its independence for economic benefits was a typical colonialist illusion,'' he wrote.

Mr. Eban kept this independence of mind throughout his career, particularly in his later years. Even though in office he had been one of the most effective voices denouncing the Palestine Liberation Organization and its leader, Yasir Arafat, he later became an outspoken critic of those who would slow or stop negotiations with the Palestinians.

After the threat of a Nazi sweep through the Middle East had passed, Mr. Eban was sent back to Cairo, where he met the woman he would marry, Shoshana Ambache, or Suzy, the daughter of an expatriate Jewish businessman from Palestine. She survives him, as do a son, Eli, and a daughter, Gila.

The couple settled in Palestine after the war, with Mr. Eban teaching at a center for Arabic studies. While still a British officer, he began writing anonymous articles for The Palestine Post denouncing British policies that sought to limit immigration by the remnants of Europe's Jews.

Zionist leaders pressed Mr. Eban to make their movement his career but he wavered until the summer of 1946, when anti-British violence was increasing and the authorities responded by rounding up Zionist officials. From the detention center at Latrun, Moshe Sharett smuggled out a one-word note: ``Nu?'' This time Mr. Eban answered unequivocally, and with equal brevity: ``Yes.'' He quit the British Army and signed on as an official of the Jewish Agency for Palestine.

In that role Mr. Eban helped prepare the Jewish case at the United Nations, where a weary British Government had thrown the decision about the future of its Palestine Mandate. He was a member of the delegation in 1947, when the United Nations approved a plan to partition Palestine between Jews and Arabs. Two weeks before Israel proclaimed itself independent on May 14, 1948, he delivered his maiden speech - an impassioned plea against a plan that would have replaced the mandate with a United Nations trusteeship. The speech captured wide attention and within days of independence Mr. Eban was named Israel's first permanent representative at the United Nations, at 33 the youngest from any country.

He soon became a darling of the American press. In 1951, the Saturday Evening Post published an adoring portrait titled ``That Witty Young Man From Israel,'' in which the authors noted that ``the cultivated oratory of the Israeli ambassador and his mastery of English sometimes astonish listeners who are unaware of his background.''

Often in the years that followed, the word pictures that the world would see of a beleaguered, righteous Israel were the images drawn by Mr. Eban.

``Look at the Arab map with its endless stretches of fertile land, its huge rivers yet unharnessed, its oil wells brimming with wealth and power, its manifold sovereignties and strong international represenation,'' he told a United Jewish Appeal conference in Washington in June 1953. ``Then look at Israel, developing within the smallest possible margin of territorial and economic resources available to any state and ask yourselves frankly: Are the Arab peoples the fair objects of condolence or of congratulations? Does the world owe an apology to them; or do they owe gratitude, forbearance, and moderation to the world?''

At the same time Mr. Eban was searching for a realistic understanding of the kind of relationship possible with Israel's Arab neighbors. In describing the secret meetings he held, beginning in 1968, with King Hussein, he said: ``Hussein, not Sadat, was the pioneer of realism in tthe Arab perception of Israel. He was also the only Arab leader who absorbed a large population of Arab refugees into his society instead of letting them languish in squalid camps. But his power base was always inadequate to bring his innovations to effective expression within the larger Arab context.''

Mr. Eban would later describe himself as having progressed from utopianism to realism. In an interview with Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times in 1987, he expressed particular disapproval of the rightward drift of Israeli politics at that time. ``When I go abroad I still can speak for Israel in terms of its achievements,'' he said. ``But, frankly, when I look back at the speech I gave at Israel's birth to get us into the United Nations, I would not dare make that same speech now. The rhetoric was too utopian. Now I would be much more reserved. I would definitely not use the phrase that we will be 'a light unto the nations.'''

Indeed, realism - a belief that power and self-interest are what really determine the behavior of nations - became the hallmark of Mr. Eban's approach to diplomacy, as the years passed.

He was at the center of action in all of the wars Israel fought, starting with the independence war of 1948, in which he helped secure a critical cease-fire that allowed hard-pressed Israeli forces to regroup and re-arm.

But perhaps his greatest diplomatic achievement lay in helping to reconcile his country's interests with those of the United States in the aftermath of the 1956 war and the weeks leading up to the 1967 war.

Conor Cruise O'Brien, the diplomat and writer who in the early 1960's sat next to Mr. Eban as a member of Ireland's delegation to the United Nations, later wrote: ``Together, they constitute one unique classic of diplomacy, in that the success of the second negotiation was squarely based on the success of the first, which had been planned to put Israel in a position to defend itself, with international approval, in just such an emergency as was created by Nasser, ten years later.''

In the fall of 1956, when Mr. Eban was Israel's Ambassador to the United States and also represented Israel at the United Nations, Israeli tanks occupied the Sinai Peninsula after Egypt had supported guerrilla raids and blocked Israeli shipping through the Red Sea. The operation had been coordinated with Britain and France, which used the Israeli seizure of Sinai as a pretext to retake the Suez Canal. The United States was furious at its NATO allies for having acted on their own, and the British and French were forced to withdraw under Soviet threats and American pressure.

It was left to Mr. Eban to try to salvage some diplomatic advantage from his country's military success. After tortuous back-and-forth negotiations culminating in a meeting in the living room of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, he obtained terms for withdrawal that included American agreement to this principle: If Egypt were to again use Sinai to interfere with Israeli shipping through the Red Sea, Israel would have the right to act in self-defense.

Ten quiet years followed on the Israel-Sinai front, but then, in May 1967, Nasser declared such a blockade on Israeli shipping through the Red Sea. Israel had to choose between immediately pre-empting what seemed an obvious Arab preparation for attack, or waiting in hopes of obtaining American backing or assistance. Mr. Eban, then foreign minister, flew to Paris, London and Washington. President Charles De Gaulle was cold, Prime Minister Harold Wilson dependent on American action. President Johnson insisted that Israel not act alone until the major powers had a chance to send in a convoy and flotilla to break the blockade.

Mr. Eban helped persuade Israeli leaders to wait until the unwieldy American plan fell apart of its own impracticality; once that happened, the Americans removed their objections to Israel acting alone. Days later, on June 5, 1967, Israel unleashed the lightning attacks that ended with its capture of the Old City of Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Sinai and the Golan Heights.

Writing in The Times of London in 1993, Mr. O'Brien called Mr. Eban ``the most brilliant diplomatist of the second half of the 20th century.'' But he also said that after the 1967 war, Mr. Eban ``became a prisoner of that great victory.'' He faded from the loop of power, Mr. O'Brien wrote, after Israel's leaders became ``full of hubris as so many Israelis were from 1967 to 1973.''

When the 1973 war began, it found Mr. Eban, still foreign minister, in New York. He spent the frantic days of the war in repeated consultations with Secretary of State Henryy A. Kissinger that culminated in the American airlift of materiel that helped Israel turn the tide of battle. But within a year, both he and Prime Minister Golda Meir were out of power.

Mr. Eban passed to the sidelines, first accepting a visiting professorship at Columbia University, then returning to Israel as a member of Parliament. He took up ambitious television and writing projects, notably a nine-part Public Television series ``Heritage: Civilization and the Jews,'' on which he worked from 1979 to 1984.

Mr. Eban also wrote a book on diplomacy, ``The New Diplomacy'' (Heritage, 1983) and his 1992 memoir. He contributed numerous articles in which he criticized Israel's course in the Lebanon War of 1982, and urged that Israel take a conciliatory stance in negotiations with the Palestinians.

The last political controversy in which he figured as an official was in 1987, when, as a member of a parliamentary subcommittee, he sided with Likud members in favor of a report criticizing the Labor Party leaders Shimon Peres and Mr. Rabin for their roles in using an American, Jonathan Jay Pollard, to spy on the United States. Mr. Peres and Mr. Rabin publicly rebuked him.

It was a signal of how far Mr. Eban had become distanced from his party's leadership. The next year, Mr. Eban was left off the list of candidates for Parliament.

Copyright The New York Times Company

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