Abba Eban, the Cambridge-educated Oriental languages scholar, who for decades used his fluency in 10 languages, extraordinary wit, and deep knowledge of diplomacy, to represent Israel as the country's leading spokesman, passed away yesterday at the Rabin Medical Center in Petach Tikva at the age of 87.
Never a politician, always a statesman, Eban was born Aubrey Eban in South Africa but was taken to England as an infant. He was in the midst of an outstanding academic career in Oriental languages at Cambridge when World War II broke out and he enlisted. Rising to the rank of major, he served in Egypt and Palestine, becoming the liaison officer to the Jewish Agency.
But at the end of the war, rather than returning to England to resume either his scholarly activities or run for parliament - both opportunities were offered to him - he chose to remain in Palestine, joining the Jewish Agency and becoming a member of its delegation to the United Nations.
He rose to international prominence in 1948, leading the struggle for Israel's entry to the organization and became its first ambassador to the UN. From 1950 to 1959, he served simultaneously as ambassador to the UN and to Washington.
He returned to Israel in early 1959, winning election to the Knesset on the Mapai ticket and serving in the successive Labor Party cabinets of David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol, and Golda Meir, as education minister, deputy prime minister, and eventually foreign minister, a post he held from 1966 to 1974.
In 1967, he played a critical role in the formulation of Security Council Resolution 242, and later, after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, he played an equally critical role in Security Council Resolution 338. Together, those two Security Council resolutions have been the cornerstone of any political peace process since, including the original Camp David Accords signed by Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat and the Oslo Accords.
He remained in the Knesset from 1974 to 1988, serving for many years as chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense committee. But in 1988, realizing that his dovish views put him in the minority even in his own party, he left politics to devote himself full time to writing, lecturing, and the production of television documentary series: "Heritage: Civilization and the Jews," about the history of the Jewish people; "Personal Witness: A Nation is Born," his eyewitness account of the birth of the State of Israel, and "Brink of Peace," an overview of the history of the peace process between Israel and the Arab world.
Eban's rhetorical skills won him membership in the Hall of Fame of the International Platform Association, including him in its list of the modern era's 10 greatest orators, alongside such figures as Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Over the years he was awarded 20 honorary doctorates, membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Israel Prize (in 2001), and he wrote many books ranging from an autobiography to histories of Judaism and Israel, as well as political essays on diplomacy.
He is survived by his wife, Suzy, a son, Eli, and a daughter, Gila. He is to be buried this afternoon in Kfar Shmaryahu.