The man who knew too much
Two episodes in Abba Eban's rich life represent the essence of Abba Eban's place in Israeli politics and the international arena.
Two episodes in Abba Eban's rich life represent the essence of Abba Eban's place in Israeli politics and the international arena. One is the answer David Ben-Gurion gave him in December 1955, when Eban expressed reservations about a paratroopers' raid, led by Ariel Sharon, on Syrian positions on the Kinneret. In the raid 56 Syrian soldiers were killed and 32 captured, sparking international outrage.
"I also had reservations about the operation," the prime minister said to the UN ambassador, "but after I heard your speech to the General Assembly, my doubts disappeared and I became convinced of the justification of the operation."
The second incident, which became part of Israeli diplomatic folklore, is apocryphal - it's not clear to this day how true it is. In any case, Isser Harel ignored it in his autobiography. The story goes that Eban was one of the passengers on the plane that carried Adolf Eichman out of Argentina to Israel - no accidental tale, but one reflecting the unusual international stature Eban enjoyed. According to the story, Harel, the head of the Mossad, exploited Eban's presence on the plane to make it easier to smuggle the Nazi criminal out of the country and to Israel.
Eban was a Zionist who gave up a comfortable, pampered life in Cambridge, England, to play his part in the establishment of the state. Despite his long years and high profile presence in public life, he was always considered somewhat of an outsider. His round appearance, his prim and proper dress, his elegant manner of speech, his polished writing and most importantly, the pronounced English accent he never lost, gave the appearance of someone who didn't want to get his hands dirty in the steaming Israeli political stew. He remained distant, cool, with a dry humor and wit that did not always get through to his colleagues, for whom politics was all about passion, sweat and raging emotions.
He had his own views. He was a dove before the species had been cataloged, but he was never seen fighting for his opinions. In the years he served in the government, from 1959 to 1974, the Palestinian issue wasn't on the agenda but relations with the entire Arab world were, and while he pulled in the direction of moderation, he was mostly known for being the best person to explain Israeli policy, whatever it was at the time.
At first he belonged to "the Mapai youth" who backed Ben-Gurion at the time of the scandal between him and Pinchas Lavon, but later he joined Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's camp and was made deputy prime minister. During the crisis of the Six-Day War he was one of the ministers who hesitated over annexing East Jerusalem, but when he saw which way the wind was blowing, he proposed doing it quickly and establishing facts on the ground. H
e then took off for New York, to UN headquarters to block a a united U.S.-Soviet front, similar to the one of 1956 that forced Israel to withdraw from the Sinai, and which in 1967 would have forced Israel to withdraw from all of the territories. It was then that he coined the phrase "the Auschwitz borders" of narrow Israel, a term later taken up by his right wing opponents, to argue Israel should never return the West Bank.
Eban did succeed in coordinating Israeli positions with the U.S., but he also bombarded Eshkol with cables imploring him to avoid any legislation in the Knesset that would annex East Jerusalem to Israel. The cables made a deep impression on Eshkol, and some of the ministers, to the point where the annexation move was almost shelved.
But then, Eshkol, pushed by then-Justice Minister Yaacov Shimshon Shapira, called Eban during a cabinet session and asked him whether a formal annexation would indeed topple Israel's efforts with the U.S., to rebuff Soviet pressure.
Eban could sense the mood in the cabinet room from the phone call and promised Eshkol that while an annexation would make the job more difficult, it would not foil the entire political move, which was aimed at preventing a UN resolution demanding an immediate Israeli withdrawal. The government in Jerusalem ran with that to the Knesset, pushing through three laws that unified the capital.
Nobody in Israel politics had Eban's breadth of knowledge, his command of languages, and his ability to perceive events with an historical perspective. After leaving politics behind, he spent most of his time overseas in his natural pastures, where he could make use of his many talents that were never truly appreciated in Israel. There he was considered somewhat of an outsider right to the end.