Room at the Top?

Abba Eban: An Autobiography.
Random House. 628 pp. $15.00.

Abba Eban’s new Autobiography, written in the author’s customary sparkling prose, will attract the close scrutiny of journalists and academics concerned with Middle East politics. Like other memoirs by those who have played a part in the dramatic conflicts between Israel and the Arabs, it discloses new documents tending to enhance the image of the author and defend him against criticism. Yet although the currently available evidence regarding major controversial events of our times is enriched by this book, the controversies themselves remain tantalizingly unresolved.

The autobiography covers Mr. Eban’s childhood and student background and the whole course of his meteoric career until his present settled eminence, but the most detailed and concretely interesting material concerns the diplomatic history and consequences of three major clashes: the Sinai campaign, the Six-Day War, and the Yom Kippur War. For the first two, Mr. Eban, evidently basing himself on notes taken on the occasion, quotes directly from his discussions with the incumbent American Presidents and Secretaries of State. For the Yom Kippur War, he gives us a full running narrative of a diplomatic history that has already provoked acrimonious debate. Apart from its natural focus on his own outstanding contributions, his report in all three cases highlights the support and friendship Israel has enjoyed from successive American administrations, both Democratic and Republican—a point on which he sometimes differs sharply from the factual and interpretive accounts of many harsh critics of both Israeli and American policies.

Mr. Eban’s replies to specific attacks which have been made on him are strikingly brief and low-keyed. His apologia eschews direct rebuttal, relying instead on a full and lively exposition of the positive actions in which his personal involvement was most successful. Thus, he refers in an uncharacteristically laconic way to charges that his tour of European and American capitals in 1967 unduly delayed Israel’s reaction to Nasser’s renewed blockade of the Tiran Straits:

The story of a conflict [at a Cabinet meeting] on May 23 between counsels of immediate reprisal and prior political action has become something of a legend, diffused in many books. It is without any substance. No proposal of immediate riposte was made that day.

Instead of extended, indignant denials, Mr. Eban supplies a detailed account of what, in his view, actually happened on the day in question and on the subsequent tour. The polemical intent of these pages will be quite clear to those familiar with Israeli politics, but their main interest lies in the vividly documented record of considerations that moved policymakers in the governments, including that of Israel, with whose leaders Mr. Eban had to deal officially.

The Yom Kippur War has given rise to a considerable polemical literature, much of it devoted to the question whether the State Department or the Pentagon, Henry Kissinger or James Schlesinger, was more to blame for the delay in airlifting supplies to Israel at the nadir of its fortunes during the battle. Abba Eban could certainly contribute a great deal toward elucidating this question, but once again he avoids confronting it directly, concentrating instead on depicting the scene and the characters as he knew them, from his own (often enough, implicitly polemical) viewpoint. Thus, without mentioning the Pentagon or Schlesinger at all, he says in one brief paragraph:

An extensive literature has grown up on the responsibility for “delaying” the American airlift, and there has been much tendentious analysis of motivation. In this case, the facts are simpler than the legends. In my judgment and knowledge, there was no prolonged “delay” in the airlift at all. . . . I had the impression that the driving force . . . was Kissinger. . . . For those who know bureaucratic ways in Washington, the astonishing fact is that the airlift was in massive motion about three days after the idea of it was first conceived.

Similarly, Mr. Eban is silent on the statement by Moshe Dayan, of which he is certainly aware, that pressure on Israel to spare the encircled Egyptian Third Army included the threat to use American troops in resupplying them. As against this (unmentioned) fact, Mr. Eban provides an account of the actions and motives of the American government and particularly of Secretary Kissinger, as well as of Israeli political leaders, during the crisis. His presentation persuasively prepares the ground for his summary statements regarding American-Israeli relations:

All the Presidents with whom I dealt, from Truman to Nixon, were at ease with the special nature of Israel’s hold on American opinion. . . . American Secretaries of State . . . have found it more difficult than their Presidents to accommodate themselves to the weight of Israeli reality in American policy. . . . Yet there is not one among them whom I would ever have called an adversary of Israel’s basic interests. Some of them, especially Kissinger, deserved more Israeli appreciation than they received.



It is hard to quarrel with Mr. Eban’s calm, factual account and persuasive low-keyed rhetoric. Nevertheless, he himself, on one topic at least, presents a picture of American-Israeli relations that is far from rosy. “The years 1953 to 1956 are a gloomy period in [Israel’s] national recollection.” America, he says, “compounded our solitude by embarking on what Dulles called a ‘new look.’ ” To add to the difficulty, “The accumulation of clouds abroad was accompanied by a weakening of national resolution at home.” This combination of external pressures—especially the withholding of American support—and internal malaise ultimately brought down the dovish ministry of Moshe Sharett. Mr. Eban remarks:

While the United States and Britain should, in theory, have had an interest in strengthening [Sharett’s] position, they . . . behaved as though it was their deliberate purpose to inflict political death on him by sheer frustration. They stubbornly ensured that he should have nothing to show for his patient reliance on diplomacy and international opinion.

The outcome in Israel was the return of Ben-Gurion as Prime Minister, who broke out of the tightening encirclement with the Sinai campaign.

To a contemporary reader this account rings with familiar overtones of the more recent history of American-Israeli relations, from the cry for “even-handedness” in the early days of the Nixon administration to the several stages of pressure in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. Mr. Eban presents this period in a far more mellow light than many anguished commentators on the current scene.

Such matters are debated today on the basis of partial evidence leaked by interested parties to bolster their own cases. Even when future historians will be able to consult the whole corpus of documents, they will still debate the issue in continual cycles of revisionism. But one must say that for all its engaging charm, Mr. Eban’s account of American-Israeli relations during the period when the Labor regime in Israel was broken and was succeeded by the Begin administration—in a striking parallelism to the Sharett-Ben-Gurion scenario—will seem to most informed current readers excessively serene.



Foreign relations were not the only reason for the downfall of Labor in Israel; there was also moral, domestic failure. And even though it is the autobiography of a specialist in foreign affairs, this book cannot be read as exclusively a record of diplomacy. Another implicit theme, dominant in the basic plot if not in the detailed narrative of the book, is the story of the brilliant, but ultimately failed, career of Abba Eban in the perilous world of Israeli politics. (A review of this book in a Jerusalem newspaper was captioned “No Room at the Top”—a reference easily grasped by Israeli readers, even though it referred to nothing in the body of the review.) Mr. Eban, to be sure, is far from conceding political defeat. He closes his book with suggested prospects of still greater eminence in store for him in the future. But the very structure of his own account of his domestic political history, starkly contrasting with that of his diplomatic autobiography, reveals its unsatisfactory nature.

The record of Mr. Eban’s triumphs in the United Nations, in Washington, and in Israel’s Foreign Ministry is largely a tale of brilliant defensive maneuvers. The Israeli diplomat stood always under attack, a young David beating back numberless foes. If his story is a shining and happy one, it was not because of easy circumstances. Rather, as he continually acknowledges, it was because of his precocious youth and good fortune, the friendly support of Zionist leaders, and the warm acceptance by the general public that attended his success.

Public opinion, he tells us, catches up with policies; he attributes his own achievements as much to the cultivation of public opinion as to the persuasive and reasonable argument with policy-makers. And indeed, Mr. Eban was taken to the heart of the American public. Diaspora Jewry in particular saw him as its own fair-haired boy.

The same qualities and methods, one gathers from Mr. Eban, stood him in good stead in Israel. Yet his autobiography does not offer in the same warm tones any detailed record of successful persuasion in Israeli politics. Mr. Eban notes that he drew large audiences in Israel as abroad, and that his poll ratings were continuously high—a fact of which the Labor politicians were aware and gladly made use. Yet his story of his political career in Israel is strikingly dry and sparse. His references to Israeli colleagues, especially rival leaders of the Labor party, are perspicacious and fair-minded, but where his sketches of fellow-diplomats are warm and generous, his remarks about Israeli politicians seem to be repressing a certain resentment.

What does not emerge from Mr. Eban’s account is the fact that the Israeli public, unlike Diaspora Jewry, did not accept him as one of their own. The crowds he drew at election rallies loved the performance but not necessarily the performer. The political importance of this fact seems to have escaped Abba Eban. It may well be, as he repeatedly suggests, that the personal ambitions and biases of rival leaders stood in his way, but more critical was the fact that there has never been any considerable social force in Israel with which he has been intimately identified. In the end, however, this circumstance too may turn out not to be decisive, for the role of cohesive groups in Israeli politics is currently suffering a sharp decline; indeed, the phenomenon of Abba Eban’s political career is one of many symptoms of the change.



Mr. Eban came into the Zionist civil service as the personal protégé of people like Weizmann, Sharett, and Berl Katznelson, and into Israeli domestic politics as one of the young men sponsored by Ben-Gurion. (These auspices, being mutually opposed, do much to explain the limitations as well as the rapidity of his political promotion.) In neither case could such an introduction help integrate the young leader into Israeli society. Sharett and Katznelson (though not Weizmann) could offer entry into the social base that supported the ruling elite—but not in the case of a young man recruited from the start into the foreign service and long confined there. Mr. Eban joined Ben-Gurion’s group of Young Turks at a time when they were assaulting the group-based structure of Israeli politics and promoting an alternative style of individualistic meritocracy. He did not, however, share their common background in the Israeli youth movement or their military comradeship; rather, he represented a pure case of individual talent.

Nothing has contributed so directly to the atomization of Israeli politics as the introduction of television. Mr. Eban, a master of the direct appeal to masses, was naturally attracted to this medium, and as Minister of Education he pushed hard for its adoption by the government. This, together with other factors—the disgruntlement of some unintegrated groups and the growth of a floating vote of managerial and professional types—eventually broke down the long-standing regime based on cohesive, Labor-affiliated groups of loyal voters. The “upheaval” which brought in an alternative, the hawkish and anti-Labor Likud-led government coalition, was precipitated by the abandonment of Labor by disaffected and independent voters.

Unlike many others, Mr. Eban did not leave the sinking ship. His confidence in his old party rests on the view that Labor has the country’s best group of able leaders, who could cope with its problems if they all pulled together. But the fact is that many of those whom he so appreciates found it quite easy to transfer their own allegiances, if not before last year’s election then soon after. There are reasons why Mr. Eban did not join them, reasons that no doubt include lack of opportunity. One reason, however, is the curious strain of loyalty that pervades the whole life story recounted in this autobiography. Mr. Eban’s ties to his socialist Zionism may not be rooted in any intimate identification with a particular group; but they are evidently strong and rather deep emotional and intellectual convictions. In England, as a young man, he was a student socialist in Harold Laski’s circle; a close friend is remembered for having volunteered in the Spanish Civil War, where he met his death; and as for Israeli socialism, Mr. Eban reveals a rather curious, and totally unexpected, predilection for the autonomous “Labor trend” school system which was dissolved by the Labor regime in the name of national consensus.

While such oddly nostalgic sentiments are not pervasive in the book, a consistent theme of loyalty to persons is. That loyalty which, Mr. Eban ruefully notes, was sometimes not shown to him by others he nevertheless demands of himself, and he gives expression to it in appreciative references to deserving colleagues. Such loyalty is, of course, a standard virtue of politicians, the common coin in which their debts are paid and their power is accumulated. Thus Mr. Eban may after all have estimated his chances more correctly than many think. As this book itself surmises, he may still have more chapters to add to his autobiography in some future turn of the wheel of fortune.

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