In November 1947, as the United Nations General Assembly prepared to vote on the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, two members of the British delegation in New York were overheard—via a bugging device that had been concealed in their limousine—remarking on the extraordinary oratorical abilities of one of the Jewish Agency's diplomats. "Who is that bloke? Where did he learn to speak the King's English?" asked the first. "He's a bloody don from Cambridge," replied his colleague acidly.
The "bloke" in question was Aubrey Eban, who would shortly become known to the world as Abba ("Father") Eban, the doyen of Israeli diplomacy. The South African-born, London-raised and Cambridge-educated Eban (1915-2002) remains an enigma among Israel's public figures, enviably capable of crafting maxims that held international statesmen spellbound—that oft-quoted line about the Arab states "never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity" is his—yet isolated among many of his colleagues in the Zionist state-building enterprise.
The tale of the two British diplomats is one of several anecdotes in Asaf Siniver's elegant and entertaining biography that demonstrate why those who encountered Eban invariably retained a lively opinion of him. One of his thousands of admirers in America, where he simultaneously held the posts of U.N. and U.S. ambassador from 1950-59, said that "pearls fall from his lips." As Israel's foreign minister in 1967, Eban asserted before the U.N. that Israel's actions in the June war were "as noble as the protection of Stalingrad against the Nazi hordes," leading even diplomats from countries unfriendly to Israel to compare him to Winston Churchill.
But back in a besieged and socialist-leaning Israel, the cosmopolitan polyglot was regarded with suspicion by a good portion of the country's Labor Zionist founders, from David Ben-Gurion downward. Unlike the largely Russian and East European leadership, Eban was decidedly Western in his background and sensibility. Had Zionism not exercised such a powerful attraction upon him while at Cambridge, Eban would probably have become a celebrated academic. Instead, he joined the British Army's Intelligence Corps, arriving in Palestine for the first time in 1942 as liaison officer between its Special Operations Executive and the Jewish Agency.
Mr. Siniver's principal achievement is his artful documentation of the tension between Eban the intellectual and Eban the politician. In the latter guise, Eban was viewed by many of Israel's founders as aloof and vain. "Eban is a child," Ben-Gurion complained, after Eban accused the prime minister of dishonesty in his account of the 1953 Israeli attack on Palestinian brigands in the Jordanian village of Qibya.
But in his intellectual guise, Eban was without peer, particularly when he was in a combative mood. In 1955, when the British historian Arnold Toynbee caricatured Judaism as a "fossil" and compared "the evil deeds committed by the Zionist Jews" against the Arabs with the crimes of the Nazis against the Jews, Eban denounced this as "a vehement assault on the antecedents of modern Israel reaching back into the mists of antiquity."
At the heart of Eban's clash with Toynbee was his defining intellectual project: the harmonizing of a philosophy of Jewish national sovereignty with the emerging international system of sovereign states as symbolized by the United Nations. As Mr. Siniver notes, Eban regarded U.N. Resolution 273, of May 1949, as far more important than the partition resolution of 18 months before, because it admitted the state of Israel to membership in the United Nations. As he raised the Israeli flag outside U.N. headquarters on Manhattan's First Avenue, Eban, who was just 34 years old, realized with understandable pride that "the status of the Jewish people in history was being irreversibly changed."
But international legitimacy alone could not secure Israel's permanence among neighbors who regarded its existence as transient; allies were needed as well. The Korean War of 1950 was an opportunity for Eban to shift Israel from its policy of neutrality to one of firm alignment with the United States. Unusually for a diplomat, Eban also displayed a firm grasp of the importance of Congress and public opinion in shaping American foreign policy decisions, which helped him rescue an aid package of $26.5 million that the Eisenhower administration, furious at Israel's participation with the U.K. and France in the Suez War of 1956 against Egypt, was withholding.
While such triumphs were broadcast around America, Eban was virtually unknown among his fellow Israelis at the time. His return to the country in 1960 was followed by a short period outside the limelight, at least by Eban's own standards, until Prime MinisterLevi Eshkol appointed him foreign minister in 1966.
The period immediately after the June 1967 war was a glorious time for Eban, as he effectively countered a Soviet campaign to portray Israel as the sole aggressor in a conflict that resulted in the Jewish state vanquishing the combined Arab armies and conquering an entire swath of territories, including eastern Jerusalem. In doing so, he propounded three principles on which future Arab-Israeli relations should rest that still resonate in our own time.
First, that peace would be impossible without genuine Arab recognition of Israel's legitimacy. Second, the importance of a comprehensive, irrevocable peace settlement. And third, that the imperative of the "great powers" was to encourage the region to adopt liberal principles like peace and free commerce, instead of backing particular states.
Such lofty thoughts do not distract Mr. Siniver from listing the indiscretions and dishonesty to which Eban, in his politician's guise, occasionally succumbed. In 1969, for example, Eban let slip that Israel was holding secret talks with Jordan by showing off a gold pen that King Hussein had given him. More seriously, in 1967 Eban left his cabinet colleagues fuming by overstating the commitment that President Lyndon Johnson had made to Israel's defense. As Mr. Siniver argues, it is unlikely that a master of language like Eban "would misjudge the most important message he had ever received in his life."
With the eruption of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Eban's growing marginalization in Israel was becoming painfully clear. Golda Meirloathed him, as did Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, and Eban's inability to navigate the bitter, provincial waters of Israeli politics spelled the end of his ambition to lead the country. His political exit came under the shadow of the 1985 conviction of Jonathan Pollard,an American Jew employed by U.S. naval intelligence, of spying for Israel. Chairing a commission into arguably the ugliest episode in the history of U.S.–Israel relations, Eban asserted that ultimate responsibility for the scandal lay with Rabin and Peres. Their response was to oust him from the list of Labor candidates for the Knesset.
It was an ignominious end that underscored the fundamental truth of Eban's life: He belonged ultimately to himself, cherishing intellectual prowess above the dreary networking that characterizes modern politics. Had Zionism decided that it needed a philosopher-king, Abba Eban would have been ideal.