OBITUARY: Ephraim Evron

Joseph Finklestone
Sunday 13 August 1995 23:02

At the Israeli Foreign Ministry, where he was director- general, and in Arab capitals Ephraim Evron was accorded a mysterious, magical quality because of his ability to strike up close, almost intimate, friendships with such world figures as Lyndon Johnson and Harold Wilson. However, admiration was occasionally counterbalanced by resentment or envy when Israeli ministers and ambassadors were baffled by Western leaders' preference for chatting cosily to "little Eppie" rather than having weighty discussions with them.

Physically small, Evron had a vivacious personality added to a puckish sense of fun and intrigue which Western leaders found irresistible. Heavyweight practitioners of diplomacy such as Henry Kissinger and Abba Eban found his style bewildering, but he owed his success not to magical dilettantism nor to fictitious bonhomie, but to a thorough knowledge of Israeli and world history and the stresses felt by forceful leaders.

Evron had obtained a deep insight into government and the mysteries of leadership by working for Moshe Sharett, the Foreign Minister, the prime minister David Ben-Gurion and Pinchas Lavon, the Defence Minster. Evron saw how the powerful Ben-Gurion, exasperated by Sharett's constant, though ineffectual, protests against reprisal raids against Egypt and Jordan, peremptorily dismissed him.

When Abba Eban, the Foreign Minister, was sent by the Israeli government, led by a then sadly hesitant Levi Eshkol, to Washington in May 1967 to discover President Johnson's reaction to President Nasser's threatening moves - which involved the withdrawal of UN observers, the closing of the Tiran Straits and the dispatch of 100,000 troops to Sinai - it was Evron, then Minister at the Israeli Embassy, and not the Ambassador, Abe Harman, who played a crucial role in the negotiations. The Israeli generals, led by Yitzhak Rabin, were seeking a quick decision for a pre-emptive strike. Eshkol and Eban wanted first to ensure Great Power support, or at least compliance. Johnson and the State Department advocated delay and caution.

At midnight on 22 May 1967, Evron was called to the State Department and told that Johnson had asked for "de-escalation" of the crisis and a delay in Israeli action of at least 48 hours. Eban noted that Eppie was a "cherished friend" of Johnson. Even White House staff who knew of the friendship between the President and Evron were amazed when Johnson called him in half an hour before Eban was due to arrive. The US President wanted to rehearse with Evron the conversation that he was going to have with Evron's chief, the Foreign Minister.

Johnson's heart-to-heart talks with Evron and the weighty encounters with Abba Eban did lead to a fateful change of mind which altered the whole history of the Middle East. Again Evron was the channel for the news. President Johnson sent a message to the Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas who immediately sent for Evron - probably at the President's suggestion. Though written in highly diplomatic language, the message indicated that the US would not censure Israel if it took action against Nasser's forces. This was in stark contrast to de Gaulle's warning against Israel firing the first shots. Given the green light, the once-tied Israeli Cabinet gave the forces permission to launch what became the Six-Day War.

President Johnson gave Eban unexpected, though characteristically blunt, advice on the departure of Abe Harman from the Israeli Embassy after the 1967 war. "If you know what's good for you, you will leave Eppie here as long as I am here." This was the reason why, Eban explained, there was a long interregnum at the embassy with Evron in charge though not with the title of ambassador.

Possibly it was thought that Evron did not possess the gravitas essential for an ambassador in Washington. However in 1979 he was appointed to this post - after previously being appointed director-general of the Foreign Ministry in 1977 - and served with some distinction until 1982.

While serving as Minister at the Israeli Embassy in London from 1961 to 1965 Evron had displayed his ability to win friends and admirers. As Leader of the Opposition and then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson had a particularly close friendship with Evron, admiring his knowledge and wit. Even when Evron left London, the two kept up their contacts and held typically clandestine meetings at critical junctures in Israeli history.

Joseph Finklestone

Ephraim Evron, diplomat: born Haifa 12 June 1920; Political Secretary to Israeli Foreign Minister 1949-51; Secretary to Prime Minister 1951- 52; Second Secretary, Washington Embassy 1953; Executive Assistant to Defence Minister 1954-55; Israeli Federation of Labour 1957-61; Counsellor, then Minister, Israeli Embassy, London 1961-65; Minister, Washington 1965- 68; Ambassador to Sweden 1968-69; Ambassador to Canada 1969-71; Assistant Director General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1972-73, Deputy Director General 1973-77, Director General 1977-78; Ambassador to United States 1978-82; married 1943 Rivka Passman (one son, one daughter); died Ramat Gan 17 July 1995.

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