I recently finished reading Abba Eban’s Personal Witness: Israel Through My Eyes (published 1992). From his childhood to his service in World War II, and into his career as a statesman for the newborn State of Israel, his account is filled with the insights and observations of a scholarly, well-mannered, intelligent thinker and actor. I admired his work showing other UN ambassadors the layout of the country and the nature of the dispute between Jews and Arabs before the Partition vote, taking part in the struggles over the ensuing decades in the UN which was marked by increasingly alliance-driven politics, and I couldn’t help but feel pride at Israel’s many (alas, unsuccessful) attempts to avoid war, especially in light of the current climate which accuses Israel of aggression no matter how it behaves.
There were many passages in which Eban illustrated in a brief encounter the nature of the actors with whom Israel found itself on the world stage. His meeting with Abdul Rahman Azzam Pasha, secretary-general of the Arab League, in summer 1947 shows the mentality operating in the Arab world then (and now):
I said that I had a simple suggestion. If there is a war, there will have to be a negotiation after it. Why not negotiate before and instead of the war?
Azzam’s reply was indignant but shatteringly candid. “If you win the war, you will get your state. If you do not win the war, then you will not get it. We Arabs once ruled Iran and once ruled Spain. We no longer have Iran or Spain. If you establish your state the Arabs might one day have to accept it, although even that is not certain. But do you really think we have the option of not trying to prevent you from achieving something that violates our emotion and our interest? It is a question of historic pride. There is no shame in being compelled by force to accept an unjust and unwanted situation. What would be shameful would be to accept this without attempting to prevent it. No, there will have to be a decision, and the decision will have to be by force.”
His wit and chutzpah are also reflected in tales of his encounters with unsympathetic powers such as the Soviet Union in the form of Ambassador Andrei Vyshinski:
A vice presidency of the General Assembly of the United Nations is not an onerous function, but it did bring me into frequent proximity with the heads of the major powers at dinner parties and consultations. At one of these functions, having watched Vyshinski’s lavish absorption of vodka, I decided to take advantage of his amiability to pose a question: “Tell me, Andrei Andreyevitch, why don’t you let the Soviet Jews emigrate? What does it really matter to the Soviet Union?”
His reply: “What are you talking about? If the Jews leave, everybody will want to leave!”
The next morning, in the cold light of sobriety, he sought contact with me very early and said anxiously: “I hope you understand that yesterday was joke.” Then with great formality, “Since was only joke I assume Your Excellency did not send telegram…” I left him in suspense for a castigatory moment and assured him that My Excellency had not cabled his heretical words. Siberia receded from his horizon.
Above all, Personal Witness at many points was a lesson in the political dictum, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Some examples include when Israel was accused of exacerbating the violence of Jordanian cross-border attacks by retaliating (recall the international response to Operation Cast Lead); Egypt’s belief in 1967 in its right to “exercise ‘rights of war’ against Israel, while claiming immunity from any Israeli ‘acts of war’ against themselves” (reference the Palestinian Terror War, when the world’s indifference to terror attacks on Israeli civilians contrasted with its loud condemnation of IDF incursions into terror cells in Jenin and Bethlehem and construction of the security fence); and the PLO’s shift from terrorist tactics to the political arena where they made enormous gains by repackaging the conflict from an Israeli-Arab one to an Israeli-Palestinian one, where “Israel was now portrayed as powerful, sated, established, and recognized, while the Palestinians were by contrast dispossessed, bitter, dissatisfied, and implacable. The current of world opinion flowed away from the embattled victor toward the defeated aggressor.” I have also heard many times in the past 15 years Israelis discounting the importance of Israel’s alliance with the United States. Whether because they find themselves frequently exasperated with the U.S.’s pressure on Israel to act in American interests at the expense of Israeli interests, or for pettier reasons (puffed-up pride, anti-Western feelings, etc.), I appreciated a thought experiment proposed by Eban in this context: “Imagine that some natural disaster were to cut America and Israel off from contact with each other; there would be no telephones or postal services, no commerce or tourism, no monetary transactions between the two countries. Who would notice it first?”
My impression from reading the book is that Eban was happiest, and most in his element, in the foreign service. That milieu seemed best suited to his cosmopolitan sensibilities, gave ample voice for his considerable rhetorical skills, and kept him far away from the rough-and-tumble of Israeli domestic politics. This stint as Foreign Minister took him through the UN vote for the Partition Plan, its recognition of the State of Israel, the War of Independence, the 1956 Suez-Sinai War, the Six Day War, the War of Attrition, and the Yom Kippur War.
It came to a disappointing end for him in 1974 with Golda Meir’s resignation, after which he resumed his Labor Party duties as a member of the Knesset. In this period, his narrative leaves the lofty world of international diplomacy and enters the viper pit of Israeli domestic politics. Not only are his descriptions of his rivals and enemies in the Israeli government withering, but his relative discontent in his new inferior role is palpable to the reader. After Likud’s meteoric rise to the government in 1977, the greatest obstacles to peace in Eban’s mind were no longer the Arabs (who, no matter what proposals are put to them to make peace, always refuse) but Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and the Israeli people who voted for them. Eban describes Begin as a phony and an am ha’aretz (a rube), with “courtly Polish manners,” a deft hand at flipping a kippah on and off his head depending on his audience, and a pathetic ignorance of protocol. Likud’s disinterest in giving away the territories acquired in the Six Day War earned it his scorn and disapproval, and the settlement movement is described as a diplomatic mistake indistinguishable from insanity and national suicide. In describing the 1978 Camp David Accords as having language built in which call for negotiations with Jordan and the Palestinians toward establishing a Palestinian state alongside peace with Egypt, he bitterly assigns blame for the lack of implementation of this part of the accords to Begin, and only mentions many pages later that the Palestinians had no interest in participating in the requisite negotiations either. Early in the book, he rejects the pat labels of “hawk” and “dove” to describe political leaders, explaining that “To be invariably in favor of military solutions is just as absurd as to be unrealistically opposed to any use of force in situations of conflict.” One of the more disappointing turns he takes is constantly applying those very labels to describe the Likud and Labor parties’ platforms and leaders in later years.
His descriptions of the abuses of the Palestinian Arabs by the Israeli government and army draw from the most extreme examples. His indignation at the absence of equal rights for Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza ignores the fact that in order to provide them with full rights, those lands would have to be annexed by Israel, something he strongly opposed. To leave the lands in a suspended state indefinitely, with no clear governance, no clear status as to borders, as an effective “hot potato” which neither Egypt nor Jordan would take back even in exchange for peace, is impossible to understand. While Realpolitik demands that the Arabs here have SOMEWHERE to live, the fact that 242 does not call for a retreat to June 4, 1967 lines, the fact that the Arabs have refused every offer of land made to them from these territories (and show every sign of walking away soon from Obama’s Washington talks with nothing but a show of pouting obstinacy and threats of self-destruction), and the fact that—hard though it may be for people like Eban to recognize—given the state of unremitting war we’ve been at with these particular Arabs, the presence of the IDF in the West Bank and Gaza are Israel’s only guarantee of safety from the increasingly well-armed, fundamentalist Muslim, Iran-sponsored terrorists who infest them. Moshe Ya’alon, Israel’s vice PM and Minister of Strategic Affairs, recently observed that when discussing territorial compromise with the Palestinian Arabs, if we’re talking about peace, the West Bank has plenty of room. If we’re talking about a continuation of the conflict, it’s more complicated.
Overall I enjoyed this book (particularly the first two-thirds or so). Eban’s mastery of the English language was a rare pleasure to read. His accomplishments in academia, history and diplomacy were impressive. His accounts of meetings with high-level government officials from all over the world (in which he clearly reveled) were fascinating, and the collegiality he shared with his equals and staff in the Israeli foreign service was heartening to read.
I recently reviewed Eban’s My People: The Story the Jews, which I found well-paced, uncluttered, inspiring (without being too adulatory), and beautifully written. But in Personal Witness, the reader gets to know Eban better as an individual, and sees that while Eban was motivated in his career by his care and concern for the Jewish people and Israel, his secular Jewish beliefs and inflexible attitude toward the more academic, high falutin world of diplomacy made it difficult—if not impossible—for him to understand the beliefs and behavior of disenfranchised Sefardi and Mizrachi Jews, settlers, and Orthodox or haredi Jews. Yet despite his distaste for these sectors of the Israeli population, he himself descends into imbecilic rapture in describing the Labor victory in 1992: “It was the end of the Likud era for years, perhaps a decade. The Zionism of the founders had returned. It would be pragmatic, visionary, terse in expression, concrete in affairs and alive to the movement and the impulse of the modern age. Rejoice, beloved country! Israel had come home to itself.”
Of course, it is easy to criticize Eban nearly 20 years after this book was written. I have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. There was no way for him to know that Rabin’s administration wouldn’t last more than four years, that Oslo would end such a colossal failure, and that Labor would find itself marginalized by the creation of Kadima and the nation’s disgust with the worn-out formula of “land for peace.” Or was there? I can’t help asking myself whether despite Eban’s careful study of Arabic, Arab history, and the Koran, he had a poor understanding of the Arabs’ attitude toward Israel’s presence in the Middle East. As far as wishing it gone, he understood that. But reading the Israeli side of the decades-long conflict feels like only half the story, and I couldn’t help but feel that the whole time Israel debated what to do with the territories and the Arabs living on them, there seemed little insight on the part of Eban and the Labor Party into what the concurrent debates were in the Palestinian Arab camp. It’s as though each decision was made in a vacuum, in a state of communication blackout, where the only contacts that ever surfaced between the two sides were offers made and rejected. (I wonder if there is an honest, polemic-free account of the inside of the PLO/PA during that time. Anyone?)
And too there is the temptation to wonder what Eban would have said after Camp David in 2000, when Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat nearly everything he asked, and was turned down? What would he have said in 2007, when Israel marked the 40th anniversary of its possession of Hebron, Shilo, Jericho, Gush Etzion, Beit El, and Shechem, which also marked 40 years of unsuccessful peace negotiations with the Palestinian Arabs? He was very good at reckoning the numbers of lives lost in war and the number saved by peace; what would he think of the number of Israeli civilian lives lost in “peace” since Oslo?
There is one passage that I will remember well, not only because it comes at the end of the book, but because of its saliency. Eban writes,
When I asked Anwar Sadat why he made the astonishing transition from the denial of Israel’s existence to the conclusion of a peace treaty, he said simply: “Because you had my land. I tried every way to recover it without the hazard of making peace: I tried UN action, four-power, three-power, two-power pressure. I tried war, armistice, international condemnation. I reached the answer that only by peace could I recover my land.”
If only Arafat, or now Abbas, could reach the same conclusion. The calculus of how many Israeli lives could have been saved by giving away land to the Palestinians at any time since 1967 is impossible to figure. Could it have prevented the first Lebanon War? The Intifada? The brutal attacks in the 1990s (the Oslo War)? The Palestinian Terror War of the early 2000s? Or would giving away the West Bank have resulted in the same sort of non-peace Israel got for unilaterally withdrawing from southern Lebanon and Gaza? The Left would have us believe the former; the Right, the latter.
Eban’s book sheds intriguing light on the events in the first half of Israel’s existence, while his commentary on the later years seems shadowed by doubt and uncertainty. Whether this is because he wrote the book chronologically and was beginning to feel his age when writing the latter part of the book, or because he simply couldn’t see well enough what currents were running through Israeli and Arab society, is unclear. In the end, his honesty in titling the book “Israel Through My Eyes,” thereby acknowledging his own limitations as an actor and reporter, is one of its chief strengths.