The Voice of Israel

Review: Asaf Siniver, ‘Abba Eban: A Biography’

Abba Eban / AP

There has never been a UN delegate to equal him. When it was time for Abba Eban to speak, delegates rushed to fill the hall at the General Assembly. It was said that housewives put down their vacuum cleaners when his distinctive voice emanated from radio or television. Henry Kissinger said of him: "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." The Washington Post zeroed in on an important aspect of his appeal. "It is probably Abba Eban’s supreme achievement that he always judges the grievance and rights of Israel against the ennobling perspectives of history and conscience. He is a people’s advocate—but his theme is universal justice." A less elegant but pithy tribute came from then U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles who was overheard saying to U.S. ambassador to the UN Henry Cabot Lodge: "It’s a pity we can’t have him instead of you as our delegate here."

From 1950 to 1959, along with leading Israel’s UN delegation, Eban served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. He went on to serve as Israel’s foreign minister from 1966 to 1974. Given his significance for Israeli politics, it’s surprising that this biography by Asaf Siniver, a professor at the University of Birmingham, is the first serious attempt to chronicle his extraordinary life. The only other biography was published in 1972 by journalist Robert St. John. It, as Siniver rightly observes, "sits more comfortably in the company of unapologetic hagiographies" than scholarship.

The young Eban’s meteoric rise as what David Ben-Gurion called "the Voice of Israel" (he was only 32 when he was dispatched to the UN in 1947) would not have surprised those who knew him as a student at Queens’ College, Cambridge in the 1930s. Eban scored a triple first in classics and Oriental languages, which means little to American readers, but which Siniver makes clear is nothing short of incredible. He honed his debating skills in the Cambridge Union Society, known as "the nursery of statesmen." Eban was the best of the best. Siniver quotes one Cambridge newspaper reporter: "I am getting tired of repeating all the time that Mr. Eban is the best speaker in the Union."

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Siniver notes that Eban could have settled down to the quiet life of a university don, but Zionism was in his bones. His father, who died when he was an infant, had made a habit of starting Zionist societies wherever he went. His mother worked as a secretary for the Zionist offices in London during World War I and helped translate the Balfour Declaration into French and Russian. After serving as an intelligence officer in World War II, against the advice of friends and family who warned him that he would never be heard from again, Eban chose to join the Jewish Agency. Ironically, his decision ensured that the world would do nothing but hear from him.

There can be no quarrel with Siniver’s choice of theme: The enormous gulf between the way Eban was seen abroad and in Israel. As Siniver writes, "Abba Eban was, and remains, a unique phenomenon. There is no modern comparison to the huge dissonance between the utter reverence that Eban enjoyed abroad and the travails he endured at home." When Eban and his family left Washington and New York for Israel in 1959, expectations for his future were high. Siniver quotes Lawrence Spivak, journalist and host of Meet the Press: "I am sure, also, that I shall interview you one Sunday in that not too distant future as prime minister of Israel."

It was not to be. The Israeli press inquired, "Would his demeanor become more Israeli-like and less foreign? Would he be willing and able to connect with the average Israeli, the sabra?" The answer, it would turn out, was not really. He didn’t dress like ordinary Israelis. His perfect but long-winded and high-flown Hebrew was the subject of jokes. "Abba Eban is the only politician in Israel who can finish a sentence—but when!?" It would take seven years before Eban would rise to the post he had so long desired, that of Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Even then, Siniver shows, he was never fully embraced by the leaders under whom he served. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol referred to Eban in Yiddish as der klug na’ar (the smart fool) and once noted that "Eban never gives the right solution, only the right speech." Eshkol’s successor, Golda Meir, told a group of journalists she had a "fantastic foreign minister … he lives in a fantasy land!" Distrust of Eban was heightened when, just prior to the Six Day War of 1967, Eban gave what the cabinet later deemed a misleading report of his meeting with President Lyndon Johnson, claiming that Johnson had committed to opening the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Such was her distrust that during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 Meir completely bypassed Eban. Siniver quotes Israeli journalist Matti Golan’s book on that war: "She made it a custom, enforced on her own staff as well as personnel in the Washington embassy, that Eban was the last person to be informed of anything important."

When, after her resignation in 1974, Meir was told that Eban was considering running for leadership of the Labor Party (and thus prime minister) she responded acerbically "in which country?" Eban’s slide accelerated after Yitzhak Rabin, Meir’s successor, ousted him from the cabinet in 1974. During the 1980s, he seemed more an advocate for the Arabs then the Jews, even writing in the New York Times of the oppression of Palestinians. In 1987, he said he would never call Israel "a light unto the nations" as he had at the UN in 1948. By 1988—when, in a final humiliation, he lost his place on the Labor list for the Knesset—he was considered a fringe radical, assailing Israel for superstition, intolerance and xenophobia. In 1989, in what the Israeli government considered an act of near-treason, he accepted an invitation to an Israel-Palestinian symposium in the Hague attended by senior PLO officials with whom Israeli law at that time forbade Israeli citizens to meet. A few years later the political winds changed in Eban’s direction, and Israel elected to negotiate with the PLO, a development that led to the Oslo Accords, which Eban, not surprisingly, enthusiastically supported.

Eban’s later years on the far left of Israeli politics are clearly his chief attraction for Siniver, and the book is marred by the repeated intrusion of the author’s political bias and feeble knowledge of Israel’s history. This is unfortunate because the biography has merit, and Eban’s story is of course worth telling. Siniver writes clearly and absorbingly of his triumphs and failures. On some matters he writes with surprising cogency. For example, his account of the labyrinthine Lavon Affair (an intelligence caper gone awry) which resulted in Ben-Gurion’s final fall from Labor Party leadership and the party’s split, is the best I have read for making intelligible who did what, and why, in its immensely confusing aftermath.

The book’s flaws are apparent early on. Siniver’s brief overview of Palestine under the Mandate is shallow at best. Incredibly, Siniver writes as if Britain only retreated from implementing the Jewish National Home in 1939, when the retreat started with the British military administration of Palestine at the end of World War I. Siniver also buys the line that partition—and a Jewish State—was on the cusp of realization if it had not been aborted by Lord Moyne’s assassination in 1944 by the terror group Lehi. But even the Anglophile Chaim Weizmann said at the time that the assassination was merely a convenient excuse for England to implement anti-Zionist policies it had no intention of abandoning. Siniver’s superficial and distorted account of the Mandate is not surprising, given that he relies on revisionist historian Avi Shlaim, who calls Israel’s establishment "a monumental injustice to the Palestinians" and sees even Hamas as Israel’s victim.

Siniver is steeped in moral equivalence. Both sides are at fault, only Israel more so. He has no understanding of the asymmetric nature of the conflict, with Israel seeking an end to the fighting, her Arab foes an end to Israel. So at every turn Siniver sees Israeli hubris, militarism, adventurism, political intransigence, and pathological infatuation with the use of force, to use a few of the epithets with which he liberally sprinkles his book.

And so, in the end, Siniver gets the story wrong. To him Eban’s legacy is as "the most brilliant articulator of the symbiosis between Zionism and peace." As Siniver sees it, Eban failed to persuade his countrymen, but the onus of this failure lies on his compatriots, who failed to appreciate him, "as much as it weighs on Eban’s own shoulders." What Eban actually illustrates is a man who rose early to his level of incompetence. A great advocate, he was neither strategist nor political thinker, talents required as foreign minister. Even the dovish Moshe Sharett, Eban’s ally, friend, and mentor, did not consider him suited for the job. In 1953 he rejected the suggestion that Eban replace him as foreign minister. "He is brilliant to the outside world, but lacks roots and weight at home."

None of Eban's flaws, however, can take away from his achievement. For decades, pro-Israel supporters have complained about the sad state of Israel's public relations. Eban was a public relations powerhouse, an army of publicists rolled into one. It is doubtful we'll ever see his like again.