The maverick Irish writer-politician Connor Cruise O'Brien once celebrated Abba Eban, who died in Tel-Aviv Sunday at the age of 87, as "the most brilliant diplomat of the second half of the 20th century."
Never daunted by flattery, Eban quipped: "As my mother would have said, 'Who was so brilliant in the first half?'"
As ambassador to Washington and the United Nations, and later as Israel's longest-serving foreign minister, Eban was both an eloquent advocate of his nation's cause and a tenacious negotiator. After celebrating Israel's eighth Independence Day in New York in 1956 with Eban, Marilyn Monroe and a cast of thousands, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy congratulated the ambassador on his address: "That was the first time Macaulay's English has been heard in the Yankee Stadium."
David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, paid Eban the ultimate compliment in 1955 after Eban had suppressed his own reservations and defended a reprisal operation that killed 56 Syrians. "I, too, began to have my doubts about the wisdom of it," Ben-Gurion confided. "But when I read the full text of your brilliant defense of our action in the [U.N.] Security Council, all my doubts were set at rest. You have convinced me that we were right after all."
Young Eban honed his rhetorical skills in the argumentative Zionist societies he joined in his London teens and later at the Cambridge Union debating society. His speeches, orotund yet witty, always seemed carefully crafted, yet he could think on his feet. After a memorable exposition of Israel's reasons for going to war against Egypt in 1956, Eban told U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that he had spoken from 20 lines of notes scribbled in the Westbury Hotel restaurant.
Eban's tragedy was that he was a greater hit on the world stage than he was back home. Despite his fluency in Hebrew (and nine other languages), earthy Israelis found him "too British." He lacked the stomach for infighting. He built no alliances.
It made it too easy for Yitzhak Rabin, a new prime minister who despised Eban's jacket-and-tie diplomatic style, to marginalize him after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It led to Eban's humiliation in 1988, when a Labor Party primary relegated him to 18th place on the Knesset list.
"I don't have to be where I am not wanted," Eban fumed and launched into an alternative (and more lucrative) career as author, lecturer and television broadcaster. The books of his TV documentaries, "Heritage: Civilization and the Jews" and "Personal Witness" became best-sellers. His "New Diplomacy" was adopted as a textbook in U.S. and British universities.
Eban was born Aubrey Solomon in Cape Town, South Africa, on Feb. 2, 1915, the son of Abraham Solomon and Alida Sacks, emigrants from Lithuania. His father died of cancer when the boy was 1, and the family settled in London, where his mother married Isaac Eban, a physician.
The future statesman went to school at St Olave's, an Elizabethan foundation near Tower Bridge. He spent weekends studying Hebrew with his maternal grandfather, Elijah Sacks. After a year's private tutoring in Arabic, Eban won a scholarship in 1934 to Queens' College, Cambridge. He earned first-class honors in classics and oriental languages.
As a British soldier during World War II, he served as a major in Egypt and Palestine, where he became the first director of the Middle East Center for Arab Studies, a training ground for generations of British spies and diplomats. While in Egypt, he met and married Suzy Ambache. She survives him with their son, Eli, and daughter, Gila.
At the end of the war, Eban stayed in Palestine and joined the Jewish Agency under Ben-Gurion. Posted to the United Nations, he lobbied for the partition of Palestine and for Israel's admission to membership. He served as his country's first ambassador to the world body and to the United States.
Despite the harsh resolutions the United Nations has often passed against Israel, Eban argued that the Jewish State gained more than any other nation from it. The U.N.'s recognition of Israel was "absolutely decisive," he said, in legitimizing the State after 1948.
After returning home, he was elected to the Knesset in 1959 and served successively as minister without portfolio, minister of education, deputy prime minister and foreign minister, a post he held for eight years, spanning the difficult days of the 1967 and 1973 wars. One of his legacies was the "creative ambiguity" of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which remained a cornerstone of Middle East peacemaking for the next 35 years.
Politically, Eban was a dove, a secular Zionist who advocated a two-state solution. "Israel's birth," he contended, "is intrinsically and intimately linked with the idea of sharing territory and sovereignty." Critics complained that he didn't fight hard enough against colonization of the West Bank after 1967. It was his disappointment with the Arab reluctance to make peace with Israel that prompted his aphorism that they "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."
In his final two years, Eban suffered from Alzheimer's disease. When the nation finally acknowledged his contribution last year by awarding him its highest honor, the Israel Prize, his wife accepted it on his behalf.
At the time of Israel's 50th anniversary in 1998, I asked Eban what would be his message for his divided countrymen. His answer: "Learn to live with people -- the United States, the democratic world, the free world. Above all learn to live with the neighbors."