- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

Scholar, linguist, historian, diplomat and gentleman, Abba Eban was also the last great orator in an era when great oratory was fading away. He would see the whole art succeeded by the glib sound bite, and his own gifts rendered irrelevant. But when they were needed, how they shone.
Abba Eban, born Aubrey Solomon in Cape Town, South Africa, would have been comfortable as a Cambridge don or in the British Foreign Office. Instead, he cast his lot with a crude little state in the roughest of neighborhoods, seeing in it the struggle of an ancient people to re-enter its homeland and history.
Soon Abba Eban's resplendent words the man could scarcely utter a sentence without committing a bon mot would clothe his new-old nation's unending, unequal struggle with a Churchillian, indeed an almost Elizabethan, dignity.
His speeches at every juncture of modern Israel's perilous existence, each of which might have been its last, may represent the finest combination of Hebrew inspiration and English resonance since the King James Bible.
Here was his summation before the United Nations of the decisive war 35 years ago that changed the face of the Middle East, a war the U.N. had shown no great interest in preventing so long as Israel appeared vulnerable:
"The state thus threatened bore a name which stirred the deepest memories of civilized mankind, and the people of the threatened state were the surviving remnant of millions, who in living memory had been wiped out by a dictatorship more powerful, though scarcely more malicious, than Nasser's Egypt. From these dire moments Israel emerged in five heroic days from awful peril to successful and glorious resistance."
And it was Abba Eban who uttered the perpetually relevant epitaph for a Palestinian state whose people repeatedly refused to accept it because they thought it never enough. From Haj Amin al-Husseini in the 1930s to Yasser Arafat, said Abba Eban, the Arabs of Palestine had never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Some things never change.
As the years and untaken opportunities went by, and one war succeeded another, Abba Eban's brilliant words went from stirring to dated, from today's crisis to yesterday's museum pieces. The gap between his elevated phrases and the brutal choices facing his country grew ever wider.
Nothing better illustrated the difference between Abba Eban's perceptions and those of his endangered countrymen than his unsuccessful attempt to avoid war in 1967. He kept urging his colleagues back home to rely on international assurances that Israel's right to free transit of the Suez Canal would be upheld. An American-led armada, he cabled, would arrive any day now to reopen the canal, lift the blockade, restrain the Arab threat, and make war unnecessary. It never materialized.
As the days and then weeks passed, Israelis realized they could depend only on themselves. And that they could not survive forever mobilized, endangered on all sides, waiting for help that would never arrive. And the war came, like a swift, terrible sword.
As a distinguished ambassador and former foreign minister, Abba Eban remained a great favorite at international forums and in Jewish communities around the world in need of a guest speaker. But in Jerusalem, the sobering realization grew: Diplomacy and oratory would never be enough.
Ambassador Eban never ceased believing that peace was only a matter of negotiating this or that fine point, but most Israelis came to see over the harrowing years what was really at stake not this or that bargaining chip, but their very existence. It was easy to be lulled by Abba Eban's perfect diction in several languages, but too often his beautiful words had proved only beautiful words. And the wars came.
The names and faces have changed now, but not the game. The U.N.'s strange U Thant and strangely named Odd Bull have since been succeeded by the duplicitous Kofi Annan and the bumbling Hans Blix; the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser is now played by the genocidal Saddam Hussein.
None of the actors today can match Abba Eban's magnificent stage presence and plummy acccent; he was the Charles Laughton of diplomats. Shaking his wattles and thundering his thunder, he came on like a lesser but always eloquent prophet.
If the players are different now, the script has scarcely changed. Once again the world is invited to choose appearance over reality, word over deed, and play along until it is too late. Or act while there is still time.
The news of his death at 87 calls up the half-century of the history Abba Eban was so much better at writing than shaping. If in the end he proved only a mouthpiece, he was the best. Surely he of all people would appreciate the irony of his life and times, for among Abba Eban's many rhetorical gifts was an almost classical sense of tragedy.


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