Founding father Abba Eban, an eloquent statesman, dies

NEW YORK — After the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day War, Abba Eban addressed the U.N. Security Council, striking a tone that simultaneously defended Israel and extended an olive branch for peace.

"There is an intellectual tragedy in the failure of Arab leaders to come to grips, however reluctantly, with the depth and authenticity of Israel's roots in the life, the history, the spiritual experience and the culture of the Middle East," said Eban, then Israel's foreign minister.

Israel, he added, "is now willing to demonstrate its instinct for peace. Let us build a system of relationships from the wreckage of the old. Let us discern across the darkness the vision of a brighter and better dawn."

Such eloquence was not rare for the dovish Eban, who died Sunday in Israel at the age of 87. Eban, who had been in failing health, leaves a wife, Suzy; a son, Eli; and a daughter, Gila.

His most famous line came after the Palestinian Liberation Organization rejected a plan for Palestinian control over most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which was part of the Camp David accords that Israel and Egypt signed in 1978.

The Palestinians, he said, "never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

Eban made numerous visits to the Bay Area, championing the peace process and Palestinian rights, and telling U.S. Jews they absolutely have the right to criticize Israeli policies.

In a 1998 talk in Palo Alto, he spoke passionately of the need for religious pluralism in Israel, drawing applause. "The Orthodoxy has total control. There's no provocation to give diversity free play. That threatens the nation and state."

In a 1986 speech in Marin, he called annexation of the West Bank and Gaza tantamount to national suicide.

His Bay Area visits were not uneventful. In 1993, after speaking about the peace process to a sellout crowd at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, he fell off a temporary platform and broke his hip. Undergoing surgery, he was bedridden for several months and sued the Peninsula Speakers Series Inc., which booked the event, and the San Mateo Union High School District, which owns the property. Eban lost the suit in San Mateo Superior Court.

Discussing Eban's half-century of service to Israel on Sunday, Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the late ambassador a "founding father of Israeli diplomacy."

The longtime Cabinet minister and diplomat — who served as Israel's representative to the United Nations and the United States simultaneously from 1950 to 1959 — is likely to be best remembered for the eloquence of his speeches.

"He was a brilliant representative of the state of Israel in the United States and throughout the world," said Seymour Reich, a former leader of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "When he spoke, people listened."

And, says veteran U.S. Jewish leader Ted Mann, Eban spoke as if he were addressing a large audience even when he was having a private conversation.

When Mann was elected head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in 1978, he traveled to Jerusalem to meet one-on-one with top Israeli officials.

"When I met with him alone, I was sitting across the table from him and he was giving me his views of what he thought my role ought to be," Mann recalled. "And I had the feeling all the while he was speaking that he was speaking to an audience of 10,000 people behind me. He always spoke as though he was talking to a huge audience."

More recently, Eban has become known for narrating the popular public television series "Heritage: Civilization and the Jews."

The tall, jowled Eban could be formal and aloof. In an era when Israelis were known for their informal dress, he favored suits. And he wasn't the type of politician who would embrace people, preferring, in the words of one U.S. Jewish leader, a "warm handshake."

Born in Cape Town, Eban moved with his family to England when he was an infant. His father, Abraham Meir Solomon, a Lithuanian immigrant, died when Eban was a child. His mother later married Dr. Isaac Eban and he grew up with the name Aubrey Solomon Eban. Abba was his Hebrew name.

He studied Middle Eastern languages at Cambridge University, where he was also active in Zionist causes. During World War II, he served as a major to the British minister of state in Cairo and as an intelligence officer in Jerusalem.

Even before the state of Israel was formed, he was already involved in Zionist politics, working for the Jewish Agency for Israel and becoming the Jewish Agency's liaison to the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine. In June 1947, Eban toured Palestine with UNSCOP delegates on a fact-finding mission.

The UNSCOP delegates were not always well-informed.

Eban said in 1997 that after visiting a kibbutz, the Indian delegate said to him, "All right, we have seen a Jewish kibbutz; I assume that we shall be seeing an Arab kibbutz tomorrow?"

In 1947, Eban gave some impassioned speeches on behalf of Jewish statehood as the Zionist cause was debated at the United Nations.

When he served in his dual ambassadorial roles to the United States and the United Nations in the 1950s, Eban distinguished himself, Reich said.

"By his reasoning at the U.N., he was able in many instances to tone down anti-Israel resolutions. While he was not able to overcome the anti-Israel rhetoric in the U.N., his voice and his logic overrode the resolution itself," he said.

And his liberal views won him friends among Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike.

"He struck an American chord and he spoke an American language, notwithstanding his British accent," Reich said.

He was never as popular in Israel as he was abroad — which was attributed partly to his patrician style, and partly to his dovishness during the past few decades, when many Israelis were moving to the right.

Eban met with President Johnson several times in the weeks leading up to the Six-Day War.

After 1967, he quickly came out in favor of a Palestinian state, opposing Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

He once said "Israel was "tearing up its own birth certificate. Israel's birth is intrinsically and intimately linked with the idea of sharing territory and sovereignty."

But he never lost his commitment to his own version of pragmatic, dovish Zionism.

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he helped persuade President Nixon to airlift weapons and supplies to Israel.

In later years, Eban's role in Israeli politics diminished.

In 1988, he was dropped from the Labor Party's list for Knesset seats.

A member of the American Academy of Sciences, he wrote several books and received 20 honorary doctorates — and the Israel Prize in 2001.

His lessened political role left him slightly embittered, observers said, but he never expressed this publicly, instead gracefully accepting the role of Israeli statesman around the globe.

"I could have been elected prime minister if people abroad could vote in Israeli elections,'' he once joked.