The Man In The Middle

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By June both the Arabs and the Israelis had little choice but to agree to a month-long truce. The Israelis had suffered losses and needed to regroup; the Arabs were beginning to learn what they would not publicly admit: that they couldn’t militarily eliminate the Jewish state. Bernadotte plunged ahead with a proposal to rearrange the original partition plan and give the Negev, the huge southern region of present-day Israel and its outlet to the Red Sea, to an Arab state that would be joined to Transjordan. Neither state would be economically independent, and Jewish immigration would be left in U.N. control, but the thousands of Palestinian Arabs who had fled the fighting zones would be repatriated. Even in a later, modified version, Bernadotte’s plan struck Israel as an outrageous betrayal. Bunche seems to have had little input into the scheme, being busy at the time supervising the deployment of truce teams to monitor the cease-fire, a dangerous assignment that put him often in the line of sniper fire. “We risk our lives out here every day,” he wrote home.

He did not exaggerate. On September 17 he flew from mediation headquarters on the Greek island of Rhodes to the Lod airport, where he was supposed to meet Bernadotte and ride into Jerusalem. His plane was late; Bernadotte went on ahead alone and at a roadblock was shot dead by three members of the Stern Group. Bunche became the acting mediator. In the midst of chaos and hate, the chances for peace now lay in his hands.

Early in his tenure Bunche loyally backed the Bernadotte plan. This earned him cascades of obloquy from pro-Israeli liberals who accused him of anti-Semitism. The charges were unfair. Bunche’s record shows clear sympathy for the Arabs as victims of colonialism and for the Jews as sufferers of persecution; an African-American could readily respond to the plight of both peoples. But if he understood both sides, he favored neither. Fortunately for Israel, however, in the face of new military realities Bunche did begin to distance himself from Bernadotte’s solution. Fresh fighting between truces yielded big gains for the Israeli Army; the world would have to recognize the permanence of the upstart rebels. In addition, the political scene changed when the U.N. General Assembly ordered the warring parties to negotiate a formal cessation of hostilities along lines of demarcation that would in effect be Israel’s guaranteed frontiers.

Ralph Bunche brought those boundaries into existence. He did so in a set of separate armistice talks between Israel and each of its invaders, beginning with Egypt. His major contribution was unbelievable energy and will. Rhodes’s Hotel des Roses fortunately offered no diversions (other than Ping-Pong and pool) to distract the delegations, so in day after day of nonstop effort he would move back and forth between Israeli and Egyptian teams, listening imperturbably, recapitulating, rephrasing, clarifying, and narrowing gaps on questions of pullbacks, weaponry, and timing.

On February 24, 1949, the Egyptian-Israeli armistice was finalized. Bunche hosted an evening’s entertainment at which the Israeli colonel Yigal Yadin beat his Egyptian counterpart at billiards. As the party broke up, at 4:30 A.M. , Yadin smiled a thank-you at Bunche and said simply: “Patience pays.” The Egyptian talks provided a pattern that was followed to yield agreements with Lebanon, Transjordan, and Syria in succeeding months.

Abba Eban, Israel’s first representative to the U.N., who had his disagreements with Bunche, wrote in 1992 that “the life of Israel still flows, for the greater part, in channels of legitimacy and authority that Bunche had conjured out of the turmoil of 1949.” Bunche won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for his work and died in 1971 after a further distinguished career at the U.N. and outspoken support of the American civil rights revolution. He would be happy to know that Israel now has permanent treaties with Jordan and Egypt—and sad to learn that outstanding issues like the fate of Jerusalem and the political future of the Palestinians everywhere remain unsettled while innocent blood is spilled on both sides.