Distinguished by uncommon excellence
Beneath the jarring political dissonance that some might have seen yesterday in Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu eulogizing his onetime predecessor, Abba Eban, there was a certain poetic justice in it. The two men could hardly have been more different, not just in their politics but in their personalities as well. Yet the gauche, diffident, breathtakingly brilliant Aubrey Eban and the brash, stridently extroverted Netanyahu shared a profound and grotesque grievance: Both of these gifted men were assailed and deprecated, by men not half their stature, as "outsiders," as somehow "alien" or "un-Israeli."
Of the two of them, Netanyahu fought back with better success. This time round, in his challenge for the Likud leadership and the prime ministership, he is not being sullied by this crude canard that almost felled him back in the 1990s.
Eban, a generation earlier, and perhaps a weaker or a less ambitious man, could never quite combat it. And now that he is dead, it has returned to besmirch his memory, this glib and shallow assertion that he was a "foreign implant" in the soil of Israel's public life. In a way, Eban succumbed to it in his twilight years, spending long stretches of his retirement abroad, in self-imposed exile.
Perhaps it is a mark of how much Israel has matured, and thus a matter of celebration, that the "outsider" sobriquet seems so anachronistic, and so gratuitously insulting, to contemporary Israeli ears. Today, men sit in the Knesset and at the cabinet table who can hardly string together a single sentence in correct Hebrew. Yet they rightly represent hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens, and help decide the fate of millions more and no-one thinks to comment on the Russian (or Yiddish-Haredi, or Ethiopian, or indeed "authentic" Israeli-Moroccan) accent that stays with them, unexcised.
Abba Eban's uniqueness in the Israeli political firmament was not his unaccented English )nor indeed his superb Hebrew), but rather his command of a dozen other languages, the stunning breadth of his intellect, the originality of his mind, the unfailing fun of his wry wit. He was, in the words of his nephew Isaac Herzog at his funeral yesterday, the ultimate "man of culture." Not only was his mind cultured, his behavior was cultured too, to friend and foe alike.
Netanyahu, himself a masterful orator, praised Eban as the young representative of a young country who could hold the United Nations "spellbound and electrified" in the grip of his rhetoric. By suggesting in his whimsical way, said Netanyahu, that if the non-aligned bloc proposed that the world was flat their resolution would win an automatic majority, Eban "demolished the legitimacy" of the ritual attacks at the UN against Israel.
President Katsav, in his eulogy, highlighted Eban's seminal contribution to those two seminal documents of Israel's history, UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. Shimon Peres, whose relations with him were checkered but who never ceased admiring Eban's mind, extoled him as an early and an unwavering dove. "He believed that to be minister of foreign affairs was to be minister of peace."
Eban's breadth and brilliance, like those of his boss in the early years, Moshe Sharett, were a key factor in attracting talented young people to the fledgling foreign service, and building it into a top-notch diplomatic cadre. Men like Walter Eytan, Gideon Rafael, Michael Comay, and, later, Ephraim Evron and Hanan Bar-On, sometimes smarted under the sharp edge of Eban's tongue. But the challenge of working for him was a constant compensation, and an endlessly educative experience.