The late Abba Ebban was an Israeli diplomat who served his country in a variety of offices throughout his long and distinguished career. But his most important posting may have been as Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations where he was an articulate and perceptive voice.

In addition to being a diplomat, Ebban was also an accomplished linguist who was fluent in several languages and the author of several works on recent Middle Eastern history. He served as a visiting professor at Columbia University for several semesters during his tenure at the United Nations. The diplomat also narrated a critically-acclaimed American public television series about the creation of the State of Israel.

And throughout his career, Ebban made statements that were based on his shrewd observation of people and events. He once said that “The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

The continuing truth of that observation seems to have been confirmed in recent days. Two years ago, at an annual gathering known as the Herzliya Conference, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his plan to withdraw Israeli forces from the Gaza strip. That announcement angered many of Sharon’s supporters, who believed that Israel had a right to maintain all the land it has acquired during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. Sharon had been one of the most vigorous proponents of maintaining those territories for most of his political career. As a cabinet officer in the government of Menachem Begin in the 1980s, Sharon oversaw the construction of Israeli settlements throughout the occupied territories and assured the settlers who moved into them that the Israeli government would always support their right to live there. But with characteristic tenacity, Sharon made good on his intentions, and last year the Gaza Strip was transferred to the Palestinian Authority. This occurred despite the fact that most of the supporters of Sharon’s party deserted him and he had to start a new political party as a result. Earlier this month, Ariel Sharon — who is 77 — suffered a stroke, and while he is still at this time the official head of the government of Israel, he is no longer performing the duties of his position. And last week at this year’s Herzliya Conference, the acting Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, announced a plan that would entail Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank of the Jordan River and turning that territory over to the Palestinian Authority Olmert explained that the State of Israel did not wish to rule over the Palestinians, and he specifically endorsed a “two state” policy for the Israelis and the Palestinians, and said that his government was developing good working relations with the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas. Olmert paid an eloquent tribute to Ariel Sharon in his speech, stating “I witnessed how he withstood the supreme test faced by every leader: the temptation to preserve the status quo and not take the risks even if they could insure a better future. Ariel Sharon did not act in this manner. He knew it was better for Israel to initiate political steps, and not be dragged into dangerous moves forced on it by others.” And he quoted a statement that Sharon made in response to his critics that gives us insight into the visionary side of the often-combative Israeli leader: “We must not let this new spirit, which grants our people hope, pass us by and leave us empty handed. I have no intention of missing this opportunity.”

But earlier this week, the militant Hamas Party captured a majority of the seats in the Palestinian Parliament and will form a new government as a result. The moderate Fatah Party — which was pledged to cooperation with Israel — was rejected by the Palestinian electorate. Hamas has steadfastly refused to recognize the right of Israel to exist, and pointedly ignored former American President Jimmy Carter’s request that it do so before the election. Both the Israeli and American governments have expressed concern since the election about cooperating with a Palestinian Authority that is dominated by Hamas.

Shortly after the Arab Israeli War of 1973, Abba Ebban made a statement when a peace proposal was made for the Middle East that may also be relevant at this time. The diplomat cautioned “Lest Arab governments be tempted out of sheer routine to rush into impulsive rejection, let me suggest that tragedy is not what men suffer but what they reject.”


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