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The Abba Eban exchange, part 2: Why were there no peace plans after 1967?

[additional-authors]
March 16, 2016

Dr. Asaf Siniver is Associate Professor (Reader) in International Security at the University of Birmingham, UK. He specialises in the politics, diplomacy and history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, with particular emphasis on the role of external actors in the conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He has published widely on these topics and held a Leverhulme Research Fellowship (2011-2013) on the Third Party Mediation in the Arab-Israeli Conflict.  His books include The October 1973 War: Politics, Diplomacy, Legacy (Oxford University Press, 2013); International Terrorism post-9/11: Comparative Dynamics and Responses (Routledge, 2010); and Nixon, Kissinger and US Foreign Policy Making: The Machinery of Crisis (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

This exchange focuses on Dr. Siniver’s latest book, Abba Eban: A Biography (Duckworth Overlook, 2016). Part 1 can be found right here.

***

Dear Dr. Siniver,

Let’s start round two with an excerpt from your round one answer:

Although Eban is rightly considered as Israel’s greatest ambassador and its most eloquent defender abroad, he did not hesitate to criticize the military adventurism of Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan. With varying degrees of impact and tenacity, Eban continued to posit himself as one of the most dovish markers in Israeli politics, speaking, for example, against Israel’s occupation of the territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War and the continued expansion of settlements. But in a country perpetually besieged by existential anxieties, Eban’s views were often derided as overly naïve and irrelevant, and insufficiently attuned to Israel’s very real security problems. 

I’d like to ask you to elaborate about Eban’s positions following the Six Day War, when he was Foreign Minister. While reading your book, it seems curious that “one of the most dovish markers in Israeli politics” didn’t seem to seriously advocate for, or believe in, any specific initiatives to reach a diplomatic solution regarding the occupied territories (basically asserting there was no partner for the time being); that he didn’t see any harm in, and even publically justified, the growing settlement project; and that he said that a return to the 1967 borders “reminds us of Auschwitz” (a comment he later regretted).

Although Eban talked about peace far more than his fellow politicians at the time, would his positions be considered dovish by today’s standards? What can revisiting Eban’s deliberations in the late 60s teach us about the nature of the peace process and the Israeli 'peace camp'?

Yours,

Shmuel.

***

Dear Shmuel,

There is indeed an apparent contradiction between Eban’s popular image as one of the fiercest proponents of Israel’s peace camp and the absence of a clearly articulated “Eban plan” for peace. This contradiction can be largely explained by Eban’s personality as well as the political environment in which he operated as foreign minister, especially following the 1967 Six Day War. The two are intertwined and one cannot be fully understood without the other; indeed they allude to some of the interpersonal traits which I referred to in my previous answer.

Eban had consistently advocated for a more moderate policy toward Israel’s neighbours since his ambassadorial years in the 1950s, and his succession of Golda Meir as foreign minister in January 1966 was heralded around the world as a wholly positive change which would likely lead to improved Arab-Israeli relations. Walt Rostow, President Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Advisor, told the president that “with Eban’s appointment, the winds in Israel might begin to shift away from the old timers’ idea of ‘fortress Israel’”, while the French daily Le Monde noted that Eban’s education, intellect and experience would undoubtedly lead him to deal with Israel’s problems in a more constructive and delicate manner than his predecessor. Even the Arab press lauded Eban’s appointment, with the Tunisian weekly Jeune Afrique hoping that “Israeli diplomacy under Eban could outline some kind of co-existence with the Arab world, unlike the views of the previous foreign minister.” So Eban’s credentials as a peacenik were firmly established when he assumed the role of foreign minister, and his criticism of his countrymen’s infatuation with the newly acquired territories following the Six Day War did not make him a popular figure around the government table.

Eban was particularly perturbed by what he termed as the absence of a “mystique” of peace in Israel, compared to the omnipresent mystiques of territories and security. Such views earned him the moniker of ‘Chamberlainite”, with the burgeoning Greater Israel Movement demanding the government to denounce Eban’s rhetoric. At the same time, however, Eban was pragmatic enough to realise that simply returning the territories would not bring Arab-Israeli peace. While he had no territorial aspirations, he did not rule out extending Israel’s hold in some unpopulated areas of the West Bank for security reasons. For Eban, there was no contradiction between Israel’s desire for peace and the budding settlement activity. While he was concerned that in the absence of peace over time “the very vision of peace will disappear among certain circles in Israel,” and noted that “I recently visited the West Bank town of Jenin but found no trace of a Hebrew letter, or Jewish grave, or blood and sweat of pioneers, or a national creation,” he also insisted that “we have taken a clear decision that the map of 4 June [1967] is null and void. Therefore there is no logic in behaving as if we live and will continue to live within the bounds of the map of 4 June.” Such and other statements by Eban articulated the Israeli government’s policy in the aftermath of the war, however they may have betrayed Eban’s personal view of what Israel ought to do with the territories. As long as Eban was surrounded by strong personalities such as Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin and Yisrael Galili in an immobilized national unity government, he had no leverage to exert and no allies to join him to propose a real alternative to a government policy which he did not necessarily agree with, whilst at the same time being its most eloquent defender. As foreign minister under Golda Meir – whose antipathy toward Eban was as public as it was reciprocal – Eban was routinely excluded from important deliberations, and he was completely bypassed by Meir and Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Yitzhak Rabin, on most matters concerning US-Israel relations.

Therefore, despite his support for peace and objection to Israel’s continuing presence in the territories, Eban had no real chance of presenting a credible alternative, let alone gaining support for it from his government and party colleagues. In his most incisive attack on the fallacies which Israel had succumbed to following the 1967 war, in November 1973 Eban listed the following “illusions” from which Israel had to unshackle:

– The illusion that a million Arabs would be kept under Israeli control forever provided that their economic and social welfare was impressively advanced;

– The illusion that Zionism forbade a sharing of additional sovereignty between two nations in former Palestine mandate area;            

– The illusion that Israel’s historic legacy was exclusively a matter of geography and not also, and principally, heritage of prophetic values of which a central value was peace;

– The fallacy that to see anything temporary in some of Israel’s positions west of the Jordan was tantamount to alienation from the biblical culture;

– The fallacy that a nation could not be strong unless it demonstrated its toughness in every contingency.

Such perceptive rhetoric did not amount to a peace plan or a strategy, but it did articulate a clear political alternative by pointing to some guiding principles of what Israel should aspire to be. To this extent Eban’s words are true today as they were more than four decades ago in as much as they speak to the core of what can be described as Israel’s peace camp. Such views would certainly be considered dovish by today’s standards, and had Eban been alive today he would most likely speak out against the current practices of the Israeli government. However, the failure of the peace camp to present a credible alternative to the hegemonic paradigm of ‘fortress Israel’ is as much a failure of Eban as a national leader as it is a failure of his compatriots to subscribe to his moderate worldview.

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