Israeli statesman Abba Eban dies; was nation's voice


JERUSALEM -- Abba Eban, an eloquent statesman whose passionate oratory helped persuade the United Nations to approve the creation of the Jewish state 54 years ago, died yesterday at a hospital outside Tel Aviv. He was 87.

The veteran diplomat made a career defending Israel in times of war and trouble, captivating audiences with his polished British accent and ability to converse fluently in 10 languages.

He backed his rhetorical skills with a pragmatic willingness to compromise, giving Israel an authoritative and sophisticated voice as the state he helped found in 1948 struggled through the first three decades of its turbulent history.

Mr. Eban served as Israel's first permanent ambassador to the United Nations, was a member of parliament for just under three decades and was foreign minister for eight years. He was a prolific author, lecturer and narrator of a popular television series on Jewish history.

"He was a rare combination of a patriot in the old-fashioned sense of the word -- a fierce fighter for his people, but not ethnocentric," said Shlomo Avineri, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "He was a man of the world, but proud of his own heritage -- a rare breed and a product of his generation."

Shortly after the 1967 Middle East war -- in which Israel defeated its three most powerful neighbors and captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, Sinai and Jerusalem's Old City -- Mr. Eban, then his country's foreign minister, forcefully told the U.N. Security Council that the "choice was to live or perish, to defend our national existence or to forfeit it for all time."

But Mr. Eban was not afraid to criticize the nation he helped establish. He advocated a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians long before that concept became the basis for negotiations and complained that by continuing to occupy Arab land, "Israel was tearing up its own birth certificate."

Mourning a pioneer

Yesterday, politicians from the left and right mourned the loss of a pioneer devoted to a Jewish homeland and a man unequaled in his ability to articulate its meaning and purpose to a skeptical and critical world.

"He was one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century, a man of peace who lent his voice to Israel during its most difficult times," said Shimon Peres, a former foreign minister and leader during Israel's independence.

"He gave an intellectual shine to Zionism," said Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "With his capabilities, he put us on the map of world diplomacy."

Mr. Eban was born Aubrey Meir Solomon in 1915 in Cape Town, South Africa, but grew up in Britain. He was educated at Cambridge University, where he was president of the Federation of Zionist Youth and won class honors in Hebrew, Arabic and Persian.

He interrupted his promising studies at the onset of World War II and served in the British Intelligence Corps, where he was a liaison officer between the Allied headquarters in Cairo, Egypt, and Jews living in what was then Palestine.

He immigrated to Palestine in 1946. At 31, he was sent to the United Nations as ambassador and given the seemingly impossible job of persuading two-thirds of the General Assembly to partition Palestine and create a Jewish state. The proposal was approved on Nov. 29, 1947, and a state was created on May 14, 1948.

He began using his Hebrew name, Abba, which means "father," in his public life.

'Voice of the nation'

Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, hailed Mr. Eban as "the voice of the Hebrew nation." Four years later, Mr. Eban was appointed ambassador to the United States.

Time and time again, Mr. Eban was called upon to use his powerful oratorical skills to fend off attacks on Israel. He was put to the test soon after becoming foreign minister in 1966.

During the Six-Day War of 1967, Mr. Eban defended Israel's seizure of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Desert, Golan Heights and East Jerusalem before the U.N. General Assembly, delivering an address widely known in Israel as the "So long as men cherish freedom" speech, parts of which were rebroadcast yesterday on Israel radio.

"Neither seeking nor receiving help," Mr. Eban said, "our nation rose up in self-defense. So long as men cherish freedom, so long as small states strive for the dignity of survival, the exploits of Israel's defense forces on that day will be told from one generation to another with the deepest of pride."

In 1974, Mr. Eban resigned as foreign minister along with Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in the wake of public outcry over policies before the Yom Kippur War. He became a professor at Columbia University.

Mr. Eban later chastised successive Israeli governments for not using the captured land to achieve peace with the Palestinians, who he believed should have a state of their own.

Land for peace

"Israel's birth is intrinsically and intimately linked with the idea of sharing territory and sovereignty," he once said.

Instead, Mr. Eban watched as Israel's leaders filled the West Bank with Jewish settlements and the crisis with the Palestinians deteriorated into guerrilla war. Still, Mr. Eban was continually frustrated over the inability to negotiate with the Palestinians and blamed them for repeated failures.

He coined a phrase that is still recited today by Israeli politicians who believe that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is incapable of keeping promises. After the Palestine Liberation Organization rejected the Camp David peace accords of 1978 that led to peace between Egypt and Israel, Mr. Eban said Palestinians "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

Mr. Eban once wrote about the complexities of conflict: "Men and nations behave wisely once other alternatives have been exhausted."

Moving on

His 30 years in Israel's parliament, in the left-of-center Labor Party, came to end in 1988 when his party's central committee denied him a top position on the list of candidates. But even before that, Mr. Eban had begun to move on. In 1984, he narrated the public television series Heritage: Civilization and the Jews.

He was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the International Platform Association, alongside other noted speakers such as Winston Churchill, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Among the last

In his later years, younger generations regarded Mr. Eban's brand of European sophistication as aloofness. He spent most of his time in the United States, where he was seemingly more popular, and once joked that "I could have been elected prime minister if people abroad could vote in Israeli elections."

Few in Israel noted Mr. Eban's 75th birthday in 1990, but four former American presidents attended his party in New York. It was there that he made note of his place in history.

"I am proud to represent the generation of founders," Mr. Eban told his friends. "I am almost the last survivor."

Over the years, he wrote eight books on Israel's history, including autobiographies and essays, and was awarded more than 20 doctorates. Last year, on Israel's 53rd Independence Day, he received the prestigious Israeli Prize for his historic contributions. He was too ill to attend the ceremony.

Mr. Eban died last night at Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikvah, a suburb of Tel Aviv, after a lengthy illness, which was not disclosed. His body will lie in state this afternoon at a war memorial hall in Herzliya. He will be buried later today in his hometown of Kfar Shmaryahu, just north of Tel Aviv.

He is survived by his wife, Suzy, whom he married in 1945, a son and a daughter.

Wire reports contributed to this article.

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