Elder Statesman Out of Limelight : Eban Looks Back With Mixed Feelings


Abba Eban, who turned 70 in January, looks back on his career and the young country he helped to shape with pride but also a certain discomfort.

Eban is Israel's quintessential diplomat and one of the century's most eloquent statesmen--in several languages. He sat in his Knesset (Parliament) office recently and reflected on four decades of public life.

"We began with a utopian vision, with a kind of mystical view. We promised an approach to perfection. We created high expectations for ourselves and for others. Obviously we have fallen short," he told a reporter.

The one-time Cambridge don, known here for his academic manner and aloofness, spent a decade as Israel's first ambassador to the United Nations and the United States and was later foreign minister for eight years.

Idealistic Democracy

Israel's image in the West throughout that period of the 1950s and 1960s was that of an idealistic democracy rising from the ashes of the Nazi Holocaust. The image was due in no small measure to Eban's stirring speeches.

"I still consider Israel one of the greatest and most noble adventures of the 20th Century," he said. "There is no need to look back in anger."

But he said he wakes up sometimes with a twinge, worried that he helped create excessive expectations.

He is also concerned that what he sees as the values which inspired Israel's birth--"democracy, tolerance, pluralism and regional compromise"--no longer find sympathetic ears here.

For a growing minority in Israel, Eban says: "Our rights are asserted exclusively and not as rights to be brought into harmony with those of others."

He sees three reasons for this development.

First, the small group of dedicated Zionists who struggled a half-century ago to create the state of Israel were soon joined by hundreds of thousands who arrived not out of choice and conviction but because they were driven out of where they lived.

Second, Eban said: "You have to face the compromises imposed on a society at war, when military force becomes the guiding principle of existence."

Finally, Israel's conquest of the West Bank and Gaza strip in 1967 drew the country into what he calls the dilemma of coercion--rule by force over 1.3 million Palestinian Arabs.

Intellectual Ambivalence

"We have created an intellectual ambivalence in which people say, 'If democracy can be dispensed with there, perhaps we don't need it here'," he said.

Eban, on the left of Prime Minister Shimon Peres' Labor alignment now heading Israel's multiparty governing coalition, attacks the seven years of right-wing Likud rule that began under Menachem Begin in 1977 and ended last summer.

He calls the spirit of those years "fundamentalism, a desire for the absolute, a rejection of compromise," but he believes the nation has calmed down in the past six months.

South African-born and British-educated, Eban is a rare bird in Israel's political jungle. His civilities and mannerisms have never quite fitted in with an Israeli leadership dominated by former underground fighters from Eastern Europe and tough native farmer-soldiers.

An Arabic scholar, he wears tweeds and three-piece suits in a country where a necktie is a rarity. He speaks English, French, Hebrew and Arabic all with the same poetic brilliance--and with the same Cambridge accent.

Given his early prominence, one might expect to find Eban at the top of Israel's political hierarchy. But he must content himself with heading a Knesset committee.

Highly Unlikely

He likes the job, he said, but admits to a yearning to be foreign minister once again. Under present political circumstances, with that ministry in the hands of the Likud bloc, this appears highly unlikely.

Eban has devoted much time in recent years to research and writing rather than politics. His latest book, "The New Diplomacy", has been widely praised and is being included in university courses on both sides of the Atlantic.

From 1979 to 1984, he was engaged in writing and starring in a highly successful and critically acclaimed U.S. public television series on the interplay of Jewish and world history.

Entitled "Heritage: Civilization and the Jews," it was one of the most ambitious series ever filmed for American TV. About 20 million viewers watched all nine one-hour segments, and sales abroad have been brisk. A book by the same title has sold very well in the United States.

Eban says he is proud of articulating the feelings of America's Jewish community.

"American Jews are very short on pride," he said.

"Suddenly someone gives them a sense of lineage. We got thousands of letters regarding the Heritage program and the words honor, dignity, pride came in all of them. They've learned that Jewishness is not a hump on your back."

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