Abba Eban: A Biography
by Asaf Siniver
Woodstock and New York: The Overlook Press, 2015. 464 pp. $40.
Reviewed by Asaf Romirowsky
Middle East Forum
Middle East Quarterly
Siniver, a professor of international studies at the University of Birmingham, presents a colorful account of the successes and failures of both Israel's Abba Eban and of Israeli diplomacy in his era. Despite Eban's tremendous contribution to Israeli diplomacy and history, this is only the second biography of the diplomat; the other, by Robert St. John, was published in 1972. In contrast to the St. John book, which venerated Eban, Siniver's account is much less sentimental and more balanced.
Born Aubrey Eban in Capetown, South Africa, the Cambridge-educated Eban was an accomplished Arabic linguist, former British intelligence officer, and a passionate Zionist. A master of ten languages, he was a remarkable speaker with a deep understanding of Washington.
He served as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations from 1950 to 1959, minister of education from 1960 to 1963, foreign minister from 1966 to 1974, as well as a Knesset member for the Labor party, which controlled the Israeli government during that whole time. He played a significant role in getting the U.N. General Assembly to agree to partition Mandate Palestine (UNGA Resolution 181) in 1947 and, twenty years later, in crafting the U.N. resolution that was intended to serve as a basis for a just peace in the region in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War.
However, despite these achievements, Eban was a fish out of water back home in Israel, never achieving the level of recognition there that he did abroad, nor generally accepted in Israeli politics, nor able to penetrate fully into the Israeli Labor elite. Unable to play rough as generally expected of Israeli politicians, Eban had strained relations with his own party, especially when military leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin entered politics. Eban, Siniver notes, was "dismayed by the blatant anti-intellectualism that accompanied the criticism against him."
Siniver argues that the difficulties Eban encountered are still part of the core of Israeli diplomacy today where political games of chicken supersede statesmanship. Yes, Eban is considered the gold standard of Israel diplomacy, which has evolved, but subtlety and tact are not always found or even sought. Eban's lessons have yet to be absorbed fully.
 Eban (New York: Doubleday, 1972).
Related Topics: Israel & Zionism | Asaf Romirowsky | Winter 2017 MEQ
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