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Israeli Politician Abba Eban Dies at 87

Aired November 17, 2002 - 11:49   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Carol Lin at the CNN center in Atlanta. We are breaking into regular programming to report to you that a very well known and beloved diplomat for Israel, Abba Eban, has died at the age of 87 at a hospital outside of Tel Aviv. We don't know exactly what the circumstances are, but we are certainly learning much more about a remarkable man who lived a long and prestigious life. He was the Israeli diplomat who actually helped convince the United Nations to approve the creation of the Jewish state back in 1947. He served on Israel's Knesset. He was the foreign minister for eight years and witnessed and oversaw a span of two wars, as well as their aftermath. He was fluent in 10 languages and was known to be a remarkable speaker in arguing for the Jewish state.
Joining us by telephone right now is a noted Israeli historian. He is actually calling us from an airplane while he's trying to take off. Michael Basrahad (ph). Do you hear me? This is Carol Lin at the CNN center.


All right. While we try to re-establish that connection, we are also working sources in Jerusalem as well. Once again, Abba Eban, an Israeli diplomat, the first Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and the United States. One of the fathers of the Israeli state. Unfortunately, our Israeli historian did have to take off in his plane, in the plane, and was unable to speak to us by telephone. But we will bring to you more about this man as soon as we get it. We are trying to get in touch with our Jerusalem bureau chief, Mike Hanna, whom we are expected to have with us shortly in just a matter of moments.

In fact, here he is with us right now. Mike Hanna, we have just been breaking the news to our audience about this remarkable man, 87 years old, speaker of 10 languages. The first Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, and a man who talked about forming a Palestinian state long before it was even popular to do so. How big a loss is this?

MIKE HANNA, CNN JERUSALEM BUREAU CHIEF: Well, certainly in terms of Israel's history, this was a central figure in arguing the case of Israel in the international community. Mr. Eban was the first person, the first ambassador to the United Nations. He served there from Israel's inception as a state. At the same time, he was also U.S. ambassador to the United States up until 1959.

He advocated rapprochement to the Palestinians long before it became a fashionable thing at one stage within Israel to do. Very much a dovish man. He initiated the policy of what is now the Labor Party with regard to the Palestinians and with regard to forming a two-state scenario here, leading to Palestinian statehood.

He served as foreign minister for a long period of time. He was foreign minister during the 1967 war, which he attempted to prevent. He resigned from the Israeli government in 1974, this after the Yum Kippur War, in the wake of Israeli public criticism of the government's conduct in that war.

From then, he moved out of governmental politics. Still remained an active member of the Labor Party until the mid-1980s, when he moved out of politics and took up a lectorship at Columbia University, where he served for a number of years as well. But certainly one of the central figures in Israel's development as a nation, a very, very important man and a very, very sad loss.

LIN: And a very long life indeed. He even went on to write several books and even hosted a PBS series here in the United States. Mike Hanna, we are going to ask you to stand by for just a moment in Jerusalem, while we just bring our audience up to speed. We are reporting on the death of an Israeli noted diplomat. Much more right after a quick break.


LIN: Hello, I'm Carol Lin at the CNN center with this just in. We are reporting that Abba Eban, a famous Israeli diplomat, really one of the founders of the Jewish state, the first Israeli ambassador to the United Nations who argued the case for the creation of the Jewish state. Abba Eban at the age of 87 has passed away.

CNN's Jerusalem bureau chief Mike Hanna standing by right now in Jerusalem. Mike, do you know any more about the circumstances of his death?

HANNA: No, no circumstances, further circumstances of his death has been released apart from the fact that he died in a hospital in Tel Aviv in the course of the afternoon. And Mr. Eban, very famously was the one who coined the phrase that has had much currency in recent years and in recent months. Although he was a leading dove, although, as I said, he was a leading proponent of peace and tolerance towards Palestinians, he was the one who coined the phrase, "they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." A phrase that has been heard much from Israeli politicians in recent months and indeed in recent years.

But certainly, Mr. Eban was a very different style of politician within Israeli terms, a very formal man, always dressed in a suit and tie, in a society which tends to walk around with open collars for much of the time. A very, very important person in Israel's development. But more internationally. He was seen very much as the voice and the face of Israel as it struggled to gain international acceptance, as it came from its inception in 1948 to build itself up as a state. And Mr. Eban was right at the center of all those events, in the United Nations, as ambassador to the United States, and for nine years as foreign minister of the state of Israel.

So a very, very important figure, particularly in internationally in Israel's development and a reminder, too, of a very strong faction within Israeli politics that he was the forerunner of the party that today is known as Labor Party, a faction of Israeli politics that always advocated tolerance and always advocated coexistence with the Palestinian neighbors.

And so certainly a very, very important figure died today in Tel Aviv.

LIN: That's right, Mike. And interesting how he might have formed his dovish views. I mean, here he had witnessed two wars, including the Yum Kippur War, where he witnessed Israel under attack, a two-pronged attack by the Egyptians as well as Syrian forces, and yet he was one of the first people to argue for a Palestinian state. Where is it that people say that he may have gotten his more dovish views, more conciliatory views towards the Palestinians?

HANNA: Well, certainly the position that he was in. He was very much in touch with the international community. He was well aware of international criticism of Israel's (UNINTELLIGIBLE). He was very in touch with international views as to what the state of Israel at the time he began the new state of Israel should be doing to cement its position within the region in which it was created, within the region in which it existed.

So certainly, more perhaps than any other Israeli politician, he was exposed to a wide range of views, reflected in what became a very dovish stance, reflected in the position that there needed to be a Palestinian state in order for Israel to be secure.

LIN: Thank you very much. Mike Hanna reporting live from Jerusalem.

Once again, Abba Eban, first Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, dead at the age of 87. Born in 1915 in Capetown, South Africa.


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