The Man In The Middle

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He was an African-American with no previous experience or special interest in Palestine. He evinced no special warmth for either Zionist or pan-Arab positions. He was working for a new and untested international organization. He was little known to the general public before 1948, and it’s reasonable to suspect that his name rings no bell today with most Israelis or Americans.

But during the May 1998 celebration of a half-century of Israel’s independence, Ralph Bunche ought to be recalled with respect by Israelis, American Jews, and in fact Americans of every faith and color. If President Truman’s recognition of the state of Israel eleven minutes after it was proclaimed gave an enormous psychological and diplomatic boost to its embattled creators (see “Present at the Creation Again?” American Heritage , April 1994), Bunche did an equally important job in giving that recognition practical force by getting de facto boundaries set for the infant nation.

In 1941 Bunche, age thirty-eight, belonged to a group of gifted African-American scholars on the graduate faculty of Washington’s Howard University. Raised in Los Angeles by a strong-willed grandmother who encouraged educational achievement, he earned a bachelor’s degree at U.C.L.A. and went from there to advanced work in political science at Harvard. His specialty was in an “international” field, the reaction of African peoples to European colonial rule.

World War II provided an escape from an academic life for which Bunche had aptitude but little zest. He went to work for the Office of Strategic Services as a specialist in African matters. Next stop was the State Department, which had him work on the plans for the United Nations, then in the process of being created.

In April 1947, as a savant on problems of decolonization and with a reputation as a prodigious worker, Bunche was named the U.N. Secretary General’s special assistant to the representative to the eleven-nation U.N. Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), charged with making recommendations for the area’s future after Great Britain completed its announced pullout in 1948. That plunged him straight into the maelstrom.

In his first year of involvement Bunche learned that everyone concerned had a stake and an agenda, none of them capable of reconciliation. UNSCOP’s options boiled down to three: creation of a single Jewish-Arab federated state; partition into separate Jewish and Arab states; or a U.N. trusteeship, which would stick the new organization with the job Britain had found impossible: controlling Arab-Jewish clashes. The Jewish Agency for Palestine, the moderate Zionist body that was the unofficial voice of the approximately six hundred thousand Jewish settlers, would accept partition because even a small independent state would have control over immigration and so provide asylum (denied by the British) to the wretched survivors of the Holocaust. But two Jewish “underground” organizations, the Irgun Zvai Leumi and Lechi (the latter known in English as the Stern Group or the Stern Gang—one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist gangster), rejected anything less than Jewish control over all of biblical Israel, and they were already in an anti-British campaign that included bombings and assassinations.

The resident Arabs and neighboring Arab countries flatly opposed any kind of Jewish state. The British Foreign Office, still a major Mideast player, leaned toward the Arab position. So did the U.S. State Department when not overridden by Truman’s pro-partition sentiments. The Soviet Union also favored partition. So did U.N. Secretary General Trygve Lie.

Whatever Bunche favored, he kept it to himself as he dashed from one fact-finding interview to another with Arab and Jewish leaders. “I am now a Near East expert,” he confided to a correspondent, “completely befuddled.” Bundle’s discretion, capacity for continuous work “at a terrific pace,” and personality “incapable of flamboyance,” according to his Howard University colleague Kenneth Clark, earned him the job of drafting both the majority pro-partition and the minority pro-federation reports for a divided UNSCOP. When both were submitted, he sighed happily: “The Palestine episode is over.” Never had he been so wrong. The U.N. adopted the majority report, but as the British let go, Jews and Arabs in Palestine struggled to seize the advantage. The Haganah, the Jewish Agency’s “army,” battled Palestinian irregulars armed by Arab kingdoms. Thousands died on both sides, but by April the Jews controlled important major cities.

Then, immediately following the proclamation of independence on May 14, 1948, the armies of Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan, and Egypt launched a full-scale invasion to crush the young nation. Israel was fighting for its life, but the U.N.’s concern was almost equally great. If its decision could be instantly annulled by force, it was already on its way to the paralyzed ineffectuality that had killed the old League of Nations.

An African-American could readily respond to the plight of both peoples. But Bunche favored neither.

So the U.N. called for a cease-fire and named a mediator to explore possible avenues toward a permanent peace. He was Count Folke Bernadotte, head of the Swedish Red Cross. And Trygve Lie chose Ralph Bunche as his special representative on Bernadotte’s staff. So ended Bundle’s brief hope of emancipation from the Palestine problem.