Meddle with Israel, Eban urges in talk here

No one brings the Jewish community out like a visiting Israeli legend. They come in droves, pay hefty prices and even forego traditional Sunday night Chinese food.

So it was recently when Abba Eban spoke at Gunn High School in Palo Alto. Despite ticket prices of $18 to $50, the 750-seat theatre was filled to capacity. Although the topic was billed as "Israel on the Verge of Peace," Eban refused to predict the future and instead focused on the past 50 years.

Sitting alone on the stage, behind a table, the 83-year-old Eban bore a commanding presence. Born in South Africa, raised in England and educated at Cambridge, his delivery was more like that of an English nobleman than a passionate Israeli statesman. But beyond the measured, precise and eloquent style was directness and honesty sprinkled with humor.

"It's never done me any harm at all to hear my qualities described with abject restraint," said Eban, following a laudatory introduction by a slightly nervous Rabbi Sheldon Lewis of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. But Eban also recalled his first introduction to an American audience in which he was described as "a man of few words, which is enough to cover his range of thought."

The ex-Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and the United States, who has held several cabinet posts and been a member of the Knesset, described his country's first 50 years as a "victory of a society."

Often using personal anecdotes, Eban documented Israel's rise from a powerless nation to a world leader in the political, technological and commercial arenas.

But he broke from his modulated tone when answering audience questions on religious pluralism.

"In this day and age [there should be the] right of the Jews of the diaspora, especially of the United States, to exercise their spiritual views in the fullest way," said Eban, adding that 85 percent of Jews are not Orthodox. He advocated mutual tolerance, and said American Jews should not be content with the situation in Israel.

He drew applause when he said, "The orthodoxy have total control. There's no provocation to give diversity free play. That threatens the nation and state."

Eban, however, declined to say what the Israeli government and courts should or could be doing to resolve this dispute. Rather, he implied the impetus was on the American Jewish community to bring about religious pluralism in Israel.

Somewhat indirectly, Eban also acknowledged that hundreds of Palestinians are being held in prison without being charged with any crimes. This came in response to a question of what he would do if he were Madeleine Albright.

"I'd be wistful that a certain Israeli government would be susceptible to my view," Eban began. He said he would tell the Palestinians to cooperate by suppressing terrorism, and he'd tell the Israelis to modify those policies that create economic pressures by limiting the opportunity of Palestinians to work.

He also mentioned modifying arrest procedures. "Hundreds are detained without the due process that Americans enjoy in full. I would extend this to the Palestinians."

Although Eban did not give specifics, he alluded to the enormity of Israel's military weaponry while discussing the feasibility of establishing a Palestinian state.

"The immensity of Israeli military power makes it safer to live with a Palestinian state now than in 1947," Eban said.

Implications and hidden meanings aside, Eban's speech was a rare opportunity to hear Israel's history and present discussed by a man who has been intimately involved.

Eban, for example, was there when the United Nations Resolution was passed creating the state of Israel. "That was a moment that will linger and shine in our national recollection," he said. It was Eban who successfully pleaded Israel's case for membership in the United Nations.

He recalled sitting in meetings of the Security Council with representatives of neighboring Arab countries — who had side conversations in Arabic assuming Eban wouldn't know what they were saying.

"I understood every word," said Eban, who specialized in Oriental languages at Cambridge and was a lecturer in Hebrew, Arabic and Persian languages. He also recalled the Iraqi representative asking for his own ashtray because he didn't want to mix his cigarette ashes with Eban's.

"It was a tirade of hate, menace, violence and threats. For so many generations we lacked power and were vulnerable to savage hatred."

Eban talked about the hardships Israel endured before eventually emerging as a power in the Middle East, an accomplishment that was achieved largely without the help of the non-Jewish world.

He also acknowledged that Israel isn't perfect. "Israel has its faults and failings, and there's no lack of friendly advisors to tell us what they are."

But this doesn't diminish the first 50 years in the life of Israel as a great success story, he said.