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  • Abba Eban: A Biography by Asaf Siniver
  • Olivia L. Sohns
Abba Eban: A Biography
By Asaf Siniver. New York: Overlook Press, 2015. 449pp. Illustrated.

Asaf Siniver’s recent biography of Abba Eban is an extremely well researched, vitally important contribution to the literature on US-Israel relations and Israeli history in general. It should not be overlooked since many of the themes that Siniver discusses are still resonant today with regard to Israel and the US-Israel alliance.

Siniver is an associate professor in International Security in the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Bir-mingham. In this recent biography, Siniver revisits the life of Abba Eban, the most famous Israeli diplomat during Israel’s birth and early period of statehood. Eban served as Israel’s ambassador to the US from 1950 to 1959 and as Israeli Foreign Minister from 1966 to 1974. During this time, Eban became known as the “Voice of Israel.”

Prior to Siniver’s biography, Eban’s life had been examined only in his own autobiographies and in a biography by Robert St. John, which is more a hagiography than a critical biography. Siniver’s biography of Eban not only chronicles Eban’s extraordinarily interesting life, but also appraises Eban’s legacy with respect to the US-Israel alliance and Israeli culture and national identity.

Siniver credits Eban with many accomplishments, especially his contribution to securing US support for Israel during the first decades of Israeli statehood as Israel’s ambassador and foreign minister. As Siniver notes, Eban displayed an almost preternatural aptitude for diplomacy and public advocacy.

In order to advance Israel’s diplomatic objectives of enhancing Israel’s relationship with the United States and Western world, as ambassador, Eban [End Page 128] promoted a liberal democratic ideal of Israeli society to his fellow Israelis and the international community. In his writings, speeches, and personal relations with Congressmen and other American public officials, Eban presented Israel as a country that shared America’s values of democracy, tolerance, and the protection of minority rights and freedom of religion, as well as America’s Judeo-Christian cultural heritage.

One of Siniver’s most penetrating analyses is that Eban championed a vision of Israel and an approach to attaining peace with its Arab neighbors that that many Israelis did not then accept, thereby alienating Eban from many of his fellow countrymen. Siniver writes:

[Eban’s] support for multiculturalism against the popular Israeli delusion of self-reliance . . . his call to engage with the Arab world and understand its history and culture rather than adopting a prejudiced and embittered foreign policy—all led to a common view of Eban in Israel as detached and a stranger to his own community.

Although Eban urged Israeli engagement with the Arab world, Eban adhered, as Siniver notes, to Israel’s “official position” on the Palestinian refugee problem: that it originated during the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and that it was a problem “exclusively of the Arabs’ own making . . . by attacking the one-day-old Israeli state.”

Siniver documents that Eban achieved many substantial diplomatic victories in Israel’s service, including securing the initiation of economic aid for Israel in the 1950s, negotiating the first sale of American tanks and fighter jets to Israel during the 1960s, and rallying the Johnson administration’s diplomatic support for Israel during and after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Nonetheless, in Siniver’s analysis, Eban became increasingly disillusioned in his later career with the course of Israel’s policy of establishing settlements in the territories captured during the 1967 War, with the first such settlement established on the Golan Heights in mid-July 1967. Eban considered Israel’s indefinite retention of the captured territories to be untenable, having told his wife during the 1967 War that Israel “will have to give them back after some frontier adjustments which will be necessary for security.” Yet, Eban played a central role in convincing “the international community not to force Israel to return to the June 4, or pre-war lines (1949 Green line) without the conclusion of Arab-Israeli peace.” It is this irony that is most vividly expounded in Siniver...