IF AMERICANS VOTED in Israeli elections, Abba Eban would have been Israel's prime minister ten times over. No man in that nation's almost 40 years of history every projected to the world its essence and its anguish, its vision and its spirit, in nobler and more exalted terms or won more credit in doing it.
It is a mistake to ascrible Eban's accomplishments merely to his oratorical skill. Granted, for some decades he has been and still is the world's most brilliant orator, but no one makes speeches like his without a seething intellect and profound inspiration. And if, as now seems to be the case, his services are less than adequately appreciated by his compatriots, Israel's friends abroad - and perhaps even to a greater extent its enemies - can properly value the consequences of his diplomacy.
The specialist in Israeli history may not encounter in this book many great revelations or surprises. But he will find it hard to match in any other publication the immensely detailed, day-by-day chronicle of the diplomacy that accompanied and in good part accomplished the creation of the nation in 1948, the salvaging of it from a fool's game in 1956 (Eban claims to have been ignorant of the Paris-London connection until it was a fait accompli ), the avoidance of a fatal loss of American support had Israel not delayed its military reaction to Nasser's death challenge in 1967, and the sequel to the yom Kippur War of 1973 that may have established the conditions which - if we dare to hope - will allow today's peace efforts to flourish.
Eban's skill in narrating those events compares to that of Steven Runciman in The Fall of Consaantinople or of Cornelius Ryan in The Longest Day . He makes the tension mount almost unbearably so that the reader hangs on evey word almost as if he did not already know the outcome.
Eban's influence was felt early and in many ways: at the time of his work in Geneva and at the United Nations in bringing the Zionist vision to reality in 1947-48; then in Washington; and finally in turning what could have been a diplomatic disaster in 1956 into a relatively decent armistice. He admits, or comes close to it, that his original policy input was meager compared to the fruitful results of his exposition of Israeli policy to the crucial men and chanceries and to the broader, equally crucial, audiences of the whole world. But unless Eban grossly distorts the facts, his policy role became highly significant when he returned to Israel and became foreighn minister in 1966.
The author is at his best in the 130 pages he devotes to the political and diplomatic history of the Six Day War. He has been accused in Israel of being a dove in May 1967, in arguing against an earlier military strike against Egypt than that which took place on June 5. He did indeed so argue and makes an iron-clad defense of his position. Had not time been given for the naval demonstration that Lyndon Johnson vainly tried to organize, Israel would have had a Johnson another De Gaulle, with catastrophic results in the future supply of American arms and in world opinion.
As might be expected, his judgments of the men he dealt with are based on their attitudes toward Israel. In his book the white hats are Truman (though he was bullied, Eban thinks, by a short-sighted State Department), Bunche, Dulles, Johnson, Nixon, Willy Brandt, Lester Pearson, Kissinger in particular and, surprisingly, Harold Wilson. A prime villain is Britain's postwar foreign secretary, Ernie Bevin. Eban's view of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is dim to the point of disappearance: his tenure as ambassador to the United States goes almost unrecorded. Eban can wield a stiletto with the best. "Lord Halifax was a man of principle, but one of his principles was expediency." "Behind [Herbert Evatt's] abrasive interior." Onetime PLO commander Ahmad Shukeiry "had a unique capacity for causing relief in any place by the mere act of leaving it." As for Dag Hammarskjold, "Not a single spark of political imagination illuminated the arid wastes of his legalism."
The autobiography alludes, although only by an oblique approach, to what is already known: when Eban returned from Washington to Israel in 1960, he never became "one of the boys," a disability in his country much more severe than that of an American senator never accepted into the "Club." The Jewish state was run by the Sabras, the kibbutzniks , the pioneers from the Polish-Russian pale of Settlement. For them, Eban's fingernails were too clean, his demeanor too British, his English too scintillating, his Hebrew too elegant, his Abrabic too classical, his French and Spanish too easy. Above all, during the first desperate years when the politics of the infant state were molded and the blood of its youth spilled, he was abroad. He can take small comfort from being the central figure in a piece of irony: he worked for Israel's interests as valiantly and successfully abroad as anyone at home; but just as a prophet is without honor in his own country, so is a politican when he is not in his own country.
Eban writes that as foreign minister he never received a report from one of his own ambassadors admitting to coming out second-best in an encounter. That is stone-throwing from a glass house. Eban has never been accused of being overmodest and his autobiography will not engender any such charge. Except in the all-important arena of home politics, Eban never reports an episode where he came out second best. His book can be called vainglorious, but it is no less absorbing for all that. To stand Churchill's smart-crack about Atlee on its head, eversince Eban won a Triple First at Cambridge, he has had a great deal to be vain about.