In some other country, for some other man, there might have been farewell speeches and maybe even a few tears to mark the official end of an illustrious parliamentary career spanning nearly 30 years.
But this was Israel, and this was Abba Eban. And not even the journalists, who are usually supersensitive to such things, paid much more than cursory attention on Wednesday as the 11th--and almost certainly Eban’s last--Knesset held its final scheduled session.
Elections for the 12th Israeli Parliament, from which the 73-year-old Eban has been excluded as a candidate by his party, are scheduled for Nov. 1.
In a sad sort of way, Wednesday’s lack of fanfare was fitting in light of what is the central paradox of Eban’s public life.
No living Israeli, with the possible exception of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, has had more of an impact than Eban on the world’s view of his country and his people. He was Israel’s first ambassador to the United States, its envoy to the United Nations and later its foreign minister. His speeches, his books and his epic television series, “Heritage: Civilization and the Jews,” reached an audience of uncounted millions.
Yet the man who abroad was “Mr. Israel” is, because of his personality and background, an outsider to his countrymen. In the end, even the political party he served for eight successive terms in the Knesset dropped him ignominiously last month from its list of candidates.
The closest thing to a tribute that Eban received as his Knesset career drew to a close was the “Courteous Knesset Member Award” for politeness and detachment in parliamentary debate. It was presented by representatives of the Israeli news media who cover the Knesset. Many of the journalists were not present for the ceremony, even though they were in the building.
“I was in the cafeteria, and I saw exactly who was sitting there and who bothered to go to the ceremony,” Eban’s parliamentary aide, Itamar Bartov, said Wednesday when one of the absentees wandered by the legislator’s quiet first-floor office.
Eban appeared there only briefly and avoided the Knesset floor, explaining that his wife was ill. He spent much of Wednesday in a suite he keeps at the King David Hotel during parliamentary sessions.
His official departure from the Knesset seemed to inspire little emotional response among his colleagues. He is widely viewed as aloof, if not arrogant. To an American Jewish leader who meets frequently with him, Eban is so cold, “he’s the only man I know you can be having a conversation with and still feel alone.”
No Fond Farewells
Knesset spokeswoman Sarah Yitzhaki commented: “Eban didn’t exactly cultivate personal relationships. He didn’t say goodby to anyone here.”
Bartov, the Eban aide, conceded that Eban is no glad-hander. “He doesn’t dance at weddings of people he doesn’t know,” he said.
But he said his boss’ reputation as a cold fish is exaggerated. “In his own way,” he said, “he is very personable. He didn’t call me every day to ask how I feel, but he did manage to create an impression that he cares. When we were working together at his house, he would see to it that I stayed for dinner.”
Few people who have heard or read Eban’s observations failed to remark on his eloquence.
“He is one of the finest speakers and rhetoricians in the English language today,” U.S. Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering said.
Ezer Weizman, a Cabinet minister, said: “He’ll probably go down in history as one of the great orators of our time, a great scholar and a great writer. In America he’d probably win a great prize for speaking.”
But, Weizman added, “I’m not sure the same would be true in Dimona,” referring to an Israeli development town in the Negev Desert.
Apart from his stirring speeches at the United Nations in Israel’s early years--speeches for which he is still famous--Eban added a touch of elegance even in the brutal political dialogue that is customary in Israel.
Two years ago, when Yitzhak Shamir, head of the rightist Likud Bloc, was about to take over as prime minister, succeeding Shimon Peres, head of Eban’s centrist Labor Alignment, Eban described the occasion as “the tunnel at the end of the light.”
Referring to the premium placed on consensus in the so-called government of national unity, which for the past four years has brought together the rival Likud and Labor parties in an uneasy coalition of convenience, Eban chided, “Consensus means that lots of people say collectively what nobody believes individually.”
Of the late U.N. secretary general, Dag Hammarskjold, Eban once wrote, “Not a single spark of political imagination illuminated the arid wastes of his legalism.”
And in a memorable passage from his autobiography, Eban recalled a mass meeting in Yankee Stadium in New York in 1956 where he shared the spotlight on Israel’s national day with Sen. John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.
“John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Abba Eban riding around Yankee Stadium in an open car receiving the plaudits of the masses is something to remember,” he wrote. “Miss Monroe seemed to make a stronger physical impression on most of the audience than did Kennedy or I, but we could claim to have a somewhat broader conceptual range.”
The multilingual Eban, born in South Africa and educated at Cambridge, noted in an interview Wednesday that he will continue to function until after the elections as chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. In view of the Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories, he said, that group is likely to meet several times before the election.
Its sessions are closed, and unless the full Knesset is recalled for some reason, Eban is not likely to make any more public speeches from its floor.
“There are so many channels for expressing views outside the Knesset that this is not a real landmark in that sense,” he insisted. In fact, he added, “some expectation exists that perhaps I’ll be able to talk a little more freely without party inhibition.”
Nevertheless, it seems clear that last month’s humiliation at the internal Labor Alignment elections still stings. Knesset Speaker Shlomo Hillel noted the other day that when he was in Belgium recently, for a meeting of the Council of Europe, he spent half his time trying to explain to people why Eban had been excluded from Labor’s list of candidates.
“When he came home,” Eban said Wednesday, “I said to him: ‘I’d like to hear what your answer was. Perhaps then I will understand.’ ”