The biography of a defender of Israel who advocated diplomacy over war.
Abba Eban (1915-2002) held significant positions in the Israeli government—representative to the United Nations, ambassador to the United States, Education and Culture minister, deputy prime minister, and minister of foreign affairs—but never served as prime minister, a position he coveted. In this engrossing, impressively researched biography, Siniver (Political Science and International Studies/Univ. of Birmingham; The Yom Kippur War: Politics, Diplomacy, Legacy, 2013, etc.) traces the career of a statesman acclaimed more outside of his country than within. Eban’s urbanity, fastidiousness, and flowery speaking style contributed to a perception that he was “aloof and condescending.” Although he spoke 10 languages, Yiddish was not one of them, and his “ingrained internationalism, suave demeanor,” and elite education set him apart from “rough and tumble Israeli politics.” In many ways, Siniver asserts, Eban was like his friend Adlai Stevenson, a victim of anti-intellectualism. As he chronicles Eban’s career, the author reveals fierce internal conflicts and rivalries: Eban made an enemy of Golda Meir early in his career; Yitzhak Rabin was Eban’s “biggest nemesis” for two decades; Moshe Dayan was “the most formidable of Eban’s political adversaries” in the 1960s. Eban consistently opposed military solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflicts. “Usually the dove is nicer than the hawk,” he said. “I haven’t found any reference in the Bible to a useful mission performed by a hawk.” Although often derided in Israel, Eban rose to prominence in the U.S., where he taught at Columbia, Princeton, and George Washington University and where he was a highly paid lecturer. In old age, when his cousin Oliver Sacks asked how he wanted to be remembered, Eban replied, “as a teacher.”
Based on interviews with dozens of people and research in more than 20 archival collections, Siniver’s sympathetic, cleareyed biography deserves to be called definitive.