He Never Missed an Opportunity for Wit

Abba Eban's oratorical skills and spontaneous wit were legendary. Indeed, it was said that most Israelis could not understand his High Hebrew, let alone his High English.

Abba Eban's oratorical skills and spontaneous wit were legendary. On his 75th birthday, Henry Kissinger threw a birthday party for him at the United Nations, and Margaret Thatcher sent a telegram. "How can one not give Abba Eban his due," she wrote, and Eban quipped back, "Actually, there are quite a few people in Israel who think it's possible."

Indeed, it was said that most Israelis could not understand his High Hebrew, let alone his High English.

His nephew, Jonathan Linn, apparently inheriting some of the Eban wit, became one of the creators of "Yes, Minister," the British TV satire on politics in England. In Eban's introduction to a Hebrew edition of a book based on the series, Eban wrote, "The foreign minister's job is not to do things, but explain why they can't be done," and as for ministers, in general, he wrote, "If ministers start talking about something, eventually they might begin thinking about it."

His barbs aimed at political opponents were far more eloquent than anything heard nowadays in Israeli politics. He once said of Moshe Dayan that he was "the only Jew in history to violate all Ten Commandments," and of Moshe Arens, that "he spoke fluent nonsense."

A dove at heart, Eban once criticized a Likud government by saying Israel was "tearing up its own birth certificate. Israel's birth is intrinsically and intimately linked with the idea of sharing territory and sovereignty."

Yet he was just as critical of the Arab leadership. After all, it it was Eban who coined the phrase the Arabs "never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity" to make peace with Israel.