Abba Eban, Israel’s first Ambassador to the UN and Foreign Minister of Israel, 1966-1974
Elie Wiesel, 1986 Nobel Peace Price recipient
Achival audio from Israel’s founders
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground. Israel celebrates 50 years as a nation
this spring. On this edition of Common Ground we go back to that historic moment when
Israel declared its independence. And one of the nation’s founders reflects on the Israel of today.
ABBA EBAN: Israel has succeeded beyond any legitimate expectations of what Israel could
be, when I look back on how we began with this small population.
DAVIDSON: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
DAVID BEN-GURION SPEAKING IN HEBREW
DAVIDSON: May 14, 1948. Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion proclaims independence for the
nation of Israel, creating a modern for the Jews dispersed throughout the world. And by the call
of the traditional shofar, Chaim Weizman was proclaimed the first President of Israel.
CHAIM WEIZMAN: I am fully convinced that all who have and will become citizens of the
Jewish state will strive their utmost to live up to the new opportunity which history has bestowed upon them.
DAVIDSON: Both Chaim Weizman and David Ben-Gurion were members of the international Zionist
movement which began in the late 19th Century. In part a response to the pogroms and
oppression of Jews in Eastern Europe, the Zionists worked to establish for the Jewish people a
home in Palestine. With the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany, home of the most assimilated Jews
in the world, the creation of a Jewish homeland took on a new urgency. [shouts of “Sieg
Heil” at a Nazi rally. Then Hitler begins to speak in German]. At the end of World War II
the world learned of the magnitude of the Holocaust carried out by Hitler’s regime. Three-quarters
of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, 6 million in all, had been murdered.
ELIE WIESEL: I still don’t understand it. To me the entire period is a question mark.
DAVIDSON: Elie Wiesel is among the survivors of Hitler’s death camps of Auschwitz and
Buchenwald, and more than a half-century after his release Wiesel finds no answers to that
WIESEL: I, I don’t know why it happened, how it happened. Why to my people? Why the
killers were perfect killers? Why the victims were perfect victims? Why a nation of culture and
art and education, a nation that had at that time the best universities in the world, could have
produced killers? I, I don’t, I don’t know the answers today.
DAVIDSON: Elie Wiesel became a writer and a scholar, with a mission to remember and bear
witness to the Holocaust. In 1986 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. In a Common Ground interview
a few years ago Wiesel talked about how one can go on living after such an incomprehensible event.
WIESEL: If we think of that period nothing really is left to hope for. The deception of
humanity was such and the crime was of such magnitude that, how can one have faith in humanity
afterwards? But then once again we say, because there is no hope I must invent it. And because
there is no faith I must imagine it. You know, Albert Camus said Sisyphus must imagine himself
“happy.” So he must imagine that it’s worth living, it’s worth having children and dreaming
of a future and building a future. And believing in some kind of possibility for human beings
everywhere to live together.
DAVIDSON: And so, many Jews put their hopes in a Jewish homeland. After World War II,
thousands of homeless Jews fled Europe, some going to America, others to Australia, and many to
the future Israel. [singing in Hebrew]
JEWISH IMMIGRANT TO ISRAEL: Actually, what I’d like is a house, apartment, room, just a
roof over my head for me and my family.. [more choral singing in Hebrew]
DAVIDSON: In reflecting on the anniversary of Israel today, Elie Wiesel says, “In
spite of all the dangers, the threats, and the wars, we have Israel. We can go to Jerusalem.
Generations and generations could not and we can.” Between 1948 and 1951 700,000 Jews moved
to Israel. Prior to the war there were only a half-million Jews in all of Palestine. Eventually
the world community recognized the new nation by admitting Israel into the United Nations. Abba
Eban, who argued for Israel’s admission to the U.N., became the country’s first Ambassador to the
EBAN: The delegation of Israel feels that if we rise from our deliberations without an
earnest effort to advance towards agreed settlements of major international issues we shall not
have served our destiny or risen to the full level of our cherished trust.
DAVIDSON: Mr. Eban subsequently became Israel’s Ambassador to the United States and then
Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1966-1974. Mr. Eban is with me today to talk about Israel’s
first 50 years as a nation. Now 83 years old Abba Eban says Israel has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
EBAN: I never envisaged an Israel that would be as successful as Israel has been. Israel
is a massive success story. It’s a story of growth, the growth of a people: 650,000 when its
independence was proclaimed and now a society of 5 million Jews and nearly 6 million citizens of
Israel. That’s created by intensive movements of immigration into Israel. Israelis do regard
Israel as their natural home. And there’s been an economic success because Israel now lives at a
level almost equivalent to that of most of the countries of the European Union. Nobody expected
that to be the condition some time ago. Israeli’s also have strategic predominance. In other
words Israeli forces are far superior in their equipment and in their technologies to anything
that anybody in the Arab world can demonstrate. Israel in fact is the leading regional power.
Therefore I would say that in general Israel has succeeded beyond any legitimate expectations of
what Israel could be, when I look back on how we began with this small population and these very
limited armaments. And an almost total absence of an ability to react against violence. I think
that if I were to take Israel as it is today and Israel as it was 30 or 40 or 50 years ago I
would say that Israel has not, has not failed the Jewish people in the expectations that Israeli
independence evoked. Israel really is a very spectacular success story. And therefore I believe
that the Israeli nation is entitled to look back with certainly an element of pride on the
achievements that have been recorded in these last 50 years.
DAVIDSON: And Israel today is essentially in accord with the vision Abba Eban held 50
EBAN: The vision that I sustained and that I expressed was of a nation that would first
of all be a democratic nation and therefore Israel should look very carefully at its own
structures and try to make sure that they are in harmony with the ideals of democracy. Secondly,
I believe it was believed and felt that Israel should be an economically prosperous society and
it certainly is that. And then it was expected that in its battle for security and for daily
tranquillity that Israel would have strong allies. Israel does have very strong allies and
especially the United States, which sustained the Israeli community in its resistance to
violence. So that, as I’ve said, Israel on the whole can say to the Jewish people and to the
world, “We are a success story.” We faced difficulties but we also have a tradition of
overcoming those difficulties. We know how to surmount them. And that’s why there is reason for a
fairly, for a reasonably triumphant feeling in Israel as we face our 50th anniversary.
DAVIDSON: On what does Israel’s long-term future as a Middle Eastern Jewish nation depend?
EBAN: I don’t believe that any nation has a long-term future. For example, when people
say to me, “What will Israel be like 50 years from now?” it’s not an intelligent
question. Nobody knows what Israel will be like 50 years from now. Nobody knows what the world
will be 50 years from now. Therefore my own terms of reference are very much more limited. What I
do believe is this: I do believe that Israel within the next few years will achieve a peaceful
relationship, firstly with the Palestinian nation and very soon thereafter with the other Arab
nations. After all, even 10 years ago Israel was well on the way to having a peaceful relationship
with the Arab world. We have good relations with Egypt and with Jordan and with Morocco and with
Tunisia and with some of the Gulf principalities. And I think it’s a very great pity that some of
those relationships have tended to weaken and to disintegrate recently. And I believe that the
Israeli government in particular should look very carefully and try to elicit to what extent Israeli
actions could have prevented that deterioration. But that there has been within the last 2 or 3
years a deterioration of Arab-Israeli relations that I think is impossible to deny.
DAVIDSON: In a previous book of yours, Personal Witness, you wrote that “most
nations exhort their new generations to fix their eyes resolutely on the future. Young Israelis
would do well to spare a thought in memory for the poignant early days when our founding fathers
first put our flag into the winds of history.” Is that still true today?
EBAN: Oh yes, I believe that there’s a lot to be learned from out past experiences. That
those experiences ought to teach us first, that Israel can only flourish as a democracy. Second,
that Israel’s rights to physical security for its people should not be challenged. And thirdly
that every effort should be made for Israel to become integrated into the neighboring world and
to establish peaceful relations with the Arab states. I believe that Israelis ought to devote
much more thinking than they do at the moment not only to the idea of Israel at peace with its
neighbors, but about Israel in constant harmony and concert of relationships with the neighboring
DAVIDSON: And that gets lost sometimes you feel?
EBAN: I believe that it would be useful if there were, if there was more discussion in
Israel than there is today about not only how to live at peace with the Arab world but how to
live in harmony of mutual interests with the Arab world.
DAVIDSON: We’ll pause here for a short break. And when we return, we’ll continue our
conversation about Israel’s 50th anniversary. Plus the struggle between the Jews and
the Arabs of the Middle East and the quest today by the Palestinian people for a homeland.
ELIE WIESEL: We shouldn’t, morally, humanly, we have no right to ignore their, their
suffering or their plight or their aspirations.
DAVIDSON: You’re listening to Common Ground, a service of the Stanley Foundation,
a non-partisan organization that also publishes the monthly magazine, World Press Review.
The Stanley Foundation works to provoke thought and encourage dialogue about the world. Printed
transcripts and audio cassettes are available of this Common Ground program; at the end of
the broadcast, I’ll give you details on how you can order. [singing ends cheering]
DAVIDSON: The songs of celebration in Tel Aviv 50 years ago were quickly followed by a
series of wars between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and Israel has not yet achieved the safety
and tranquillity its founders envisioned. One of the most pressing security issues in the region
today is the fate of the 2.6 million Palestinians living in areas occupied by Israel. Many of the
Palestinians are refugees. Their fate dating back to 1947, when the Arabs rejected a United
Nations plan to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish, one Arab. When Israel declared
its independence in 1948 five Arab countries attacked the nation. The Palestinian Arabs who didn’t
flee to other Arab countries became refugees in the area acquired by Israel during the fighting.
Mistrust, fear and violence have abounded on both sides ever since. For Abba Eban, one of Israel’s
founders, there is only one solution.
EBAN: I believe that a Palestinian state is inevitable. And if something is inevitable
one should stop trying to resist it. I believe the Palestinians are very much in the condition
that Israel was in, let’s say 50 years ago when I, on behalf of the population of Palestinian
Israelis, declared that the, that the Israeli state already exists. It had its workers organizations,
it has its democracy, it has its armed forces, it has its diplomats, who are universally respected.
And I believe that the Palestinian nation is approaching that kind of system. And that therefore
there is no real reason for opposing Palestinian statehood, especially as Palestinian statehood
was really part of the deal over which President Truman presided at that time. The United States
for example has never accepted the idea that there should be a Jewish state and that there should
not be an Arab state. That is not part of the American tradition in this matter. In fact, I
believe that the United States would not do any harm if it were to come out and say openly that,
“Yes, a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel is not a negative idea.”
DAVIDSON: Several commentators have pointed to the recently signed agreement over
Northern Ireland as a possible model for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Is Northern Ireland’s
situation at all analogous to the Middle East?
EBAN: I think the analogy rests on the fact that they are happening at the same time.
But I think it is very significant that there is a kind of ecumenical spirit which is affecting
more conflicts than was recently expected. For example we’ve had meetings between what I call the
“odd couples”: Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Arafat; the Prime Minister of the
United Kingdom and of Ireland; the discussions which led to the signature of the Dayton, Ohio
agreement between the various former Yugoslavian leaders. In other words there is today in the
international system a tendency for leaders to overcome their inhibitions about whom to talk to.
And I believe that that’s a very favorable development.
DAVIDSON: To what do you describe this new ecumenical spirit?
EBAN: One of the characteristics of the international system today is that national
leaders are overcoming the prejudices which inhibited or prevented them so far from meeting with
opposite numbers. And we’ve had very spectacular meetings which began of course when President
Nixon met the Chinese leaders. They have continued with the meeting between Chairman Arafat and
the Prime Minister of Israel. They went on when King Hussein overcame whatever inhibitions he had
and started meeting with the Israeli leaders. And has continued further when the Irish heads of
government began to meet each other. What we’ve therefore seen is that national leaders are
surmounting the prejudices which caused them, until now, to refuse to meet opposite numbers even
when opposite numbers were in fact the decisive forces in the lives and the leadership of their
countries. I think that’s a favorable development. And I hope it continues. And of course the
recent Irish settlement at Belfast is one of the most spectacular breakthroughs in the lives of
many countries. I can only hope that the contagion of that very favorable event will spread to
the Israeli leaders, the Israeli leaders and the Palestinian leaders.
DAVIDSON: Five years ago Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed a Declaration of Principles
known as the Oslo Peace Accord, which called for, among other things: the withdrawal of Israeli
troops from much of the occupied territories; the creation of a Palestinian police force; and
Palestinian elections. However, radicals on both sides have tried to derail the process with
violence, including the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. While the peace
process has been stalled for many months it has not been completely abandoned and British Prime
Minister Tony Blair achieved a small victory in April when he persuaded both Yassar Arafat and
Benjamin Netanyahu to attend new talks in London. When I spoke with Abba Eban in late April, just
prior to those talks in London, he mostly blamed the Israeli government for the current stalemate
and hoped the Netanyahu government would accept proposals to suspend building of Israeli settlements
and for further troop withdrawals.
EBAN: Now, what we need now however, is to go beyond these Declarations of Principles,
the most spectacular of which was signed in the presence, and with the participation of President
Clinton on the 13th of September in 1993. That was a very sensational breakthrough,
and very few people in the United States have forgotten that epoch-making meeting.
DAVIDSON: A major issue for Israelis that will determine how far the country is willing
to negotiate is Yassar Arafat’s ability to curb Palestinian violence against Israelis.
EBAN: I think he has capabilities and that they are at the moment being exercised
efficiently. But his abilities are not unlimited. For example, if the Palestinian people is a
suffering people, if they are deprived of various human rights, if they are deprived of any
continuity of their economic prospects, if they can be held for unlimited periods of detention,
if they are subjected to a condition of squalor and of economic deficiency, then it’s not realistic
in those conditions to imagine that they will be able to deliver on their own promises and obligations
toward Israel. And therefore one of the ways of creating a better atmosphere for Israel would be
to create a better atmosphere for the Palestinians in their daily lives. Not to suspend their
capacity for work. In other words there are mutual links between the destinies of the Palestinians
and the destinies of the people of Israel.
DAVIDSON: You’re here speaking in the American heartland and while the U.S. government is
very focused on what happens in Israel, the American people are much less aware. What is it that
you would like to tell the American people? What do American people need to understand about
Israel, about the peace process?
EBAN: I think what the American people have to understand about Israel is the enormous
sensitivity in Israel on all matters affecting national security. After all, Israel is the only
country in the world which has been violently assailed, physically attacked by its neighbors, on
3, 4, 5 or 6 occasions, and the traumatic recollections of those assaults, with a consequence of
heavy loss of life, is a very permanent and painful complex in the minds of the Israeli people.
DAVIDSON: Almost a constant state of siege.
EBAN: We have been in state of siege; the siege hasn’t been very successful because siege
means that there is no outlet for creative energy. That is not the case of course with Israel
because Israel has virtually overcome the siege. It is no longer besieged internationally because
it has relations with over 150 nations. It is not besieged economically because Israel trades
freely with all the nations of the world. It is not besieged in terms of public opinion because
Israel is sustained by the massive support of public opinion. Therefore I would say in general
that Israel has broken the siege that, with which the Arab states attempted to surround it.
Nevertheless, in spite of the absence of a successful siege there has not been recent progress to
the settlement of specific issues, three of which I’ve mentioned: the need to suspend settlements,
because if settlements are not suspended the Palestinians will have not incentive to continue with
their present, relatively cooperative policy. The second one was to define when and how and in
what conditions the next Israeli withdrawal would take place. And if those two things had been
done, as I’ve said, then the peace process would be flourishing.
DAVIDSON: U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright and her envoy Dennis Ross have been
actively working on the Middle East peace process but Abba Eban feels the U.S. could be even more
EBAN: Well, I believe that the United States could be very effective if it would use its
full influence with the government of Israel. Some people say it is not using its full influence.
Some ?? goes that the United States is so sensitive to what it calls “pressure” on
Israel. I don’t believe that that is a very valid argument because the, Israel has enormous
influence on American policy. On the other hand the United States has almost no influence on
Israeli policy. That’s a very unexpected development.
DAVIDSON: Abba Eban has been my guest on Common Ground. He was Israel’s first
Ambassador to the United Nations. Then he became Israel’s Ambassador to the United States and
eventually Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Abba Eban has written many books about Israel,
including My People: The Story of the Jews; Personal Witness: Israel Through My Eyes, and
new this year, Diplomacy for a New Century. For Common Ground I’m Mary Gray Davidson.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security