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A Hero of Diplomacy

In 1947, Britain gave notice of its intention to give up the League of Nations’ mandate for Palestine. The General Assembly then established the UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) to review the problem of Palestine and make recommendations. Bunche’s notes from the period reveal an astonishing ignorance and confusion on the part of the eleven-member panel, which included representatives from Canada, Uruguay, Guatemala, Poland, and Peru. When it convened, it was, he said, “just about the worst group I have ever had to work with.” Bunche joined the committee as Trygve Lie’s special representative and, according to his notes, in the absence of any coherent view on the part of its members, and an Arab boycott of its field investigations, he took on much of the responsibility for formulating its conclusions. The majority report advocated the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, a proposal, in the form of Resolution 181, that was formally adopted by the General Assembly.

The charge made by some Arabs that Bunche was secretly pro-Zionist and was part of a conspiracy against them dates from his UNSCOP involvement. Urquhart quotes from his private papers to show that, to the contrary, he was an astute and compassionate analyst of the situation of the Palestinians and that he tried to achieve compromises that would be realistic and fair to all sides. Just two weeks after setting foot in Palestine for the first time, he grasped the central point: “This problem can’t be solved on the basis of abstract justice,” he wrote. “Reality is that both Arabs and Jew are here and intend to stay.”

While Bunche had largely drafted UNSCOP’s majority report, he also wrote the minority report, which opposed partition in favor of a federation. He seems to have had no clear preference himself. “I have written two solutions,” he wrote to his wife, “Whatever the solution decided upon…the basic paper will have been mine. I’m not at all satisfied with my scheme [the partition plan], but this is the sort of problem for which no really satisfactory solution is possible. The best that can be done is a reasonable and workable compromise, and I worked out my proposal on that basis.”

Any student of Palestine’s history, in fact, must be struck by Bunche’s sympathy for the Palestinian Arabs, a group largely ignored then and for many years afterward by the other parties to the conflict. Before the state of Israel was established Bunche wrote privately about the threat to the Palestinians from “crafty Abdullah,” the king of Transjordan, who saw “the possibility of enlarging his domain by partition.” Bunche also observed that a number of UNSCOP’s members were anti-Semitic and therefore supported the Zionists “as a means of dumping world Jewry on the Arabs.” In a letter to Walter White, secretary of the NAACP, Bunche acknowledged he had some sympathy for the Zionists, but stressed, “as long as Iam on the job, Ishall continue to call each play just as I see it.”

In 1948, a week after Israel declared independence and neighboring Arab armies rushed to Palestine’s defense, the Security Council appointed a UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden. Trygve Lie asked Bunche to accompany Bernadotte as chief representative of the secretary-general in Palestine. Bernadotte, after reviewing the situation, suggested that Jerusalem be placed within Arab borders rather than become a divided city like Berlin, a position later amended by calling for UN control of the city. He also proposed that the Negev Desert, though awarded to the Zionists in the partition plan, be granted to the Arabs as a quid pro quo for the Israeli capture of Galilee in 1948.

In response to these positions, Bernadotte was assassinated by the Stern Gang on the outskirts of Jerusalem while on his way to inspect a prospective new UN headquarters. Bunche had planned to accompany him but he had been held up at Israeli military checkpoints, and Bernadotte had gone ahead without him. The Security Council appointed Bunche to take on Bernadotte’s almost impossible task. Not only was the new State of Israel at war with all of its neighbors, but none of the combatants, Israel included, was willing to accept the borders set by the partition plan. The fighting continued. Bunche’s great achievement was to seize the one moment when a truce seemed possible. Within weeks of his appointment, he perceived that an Israeli attack deep into the Negev Desert had opened the way for negotiations. An Egyptian division, whose officers included Gamal Abdul Nasser, were surrounded and trapped by Israeli forces. Bunche immediately sought to take advantage of the shifting balance of forces. After the Security Council adopted a resolution calling for Israel and Egypt to accept a cease-fire, both countries accepted Bunche’s proposal to begin truce negotiations.

With the Egyptian division isolated in al-Faluja, military leaders in Cairo were more open to such a suggestion. In January 1949, Bunche convened armistice talks on the island of Rhodes. He never intended that the Rhodes talks would amount to a full-scale peace conference, and said so at the time. He believed that in view of the military confusion and intensity of political feeling, nothing could begin to be settled until a permanent truce could be agreed on. As the weeks of bargaining dragged on, Bunche, Urquhart writes, was privately impatient and miserable, and longed to go home to his family. But his mood was not always visible to the delegates. By using his diplomatic skills, patience, and good humor he painstakingly held the volatile talks together, drawing up a compromise and convincing both sides that they could live with it. Not the least of the reasons for Bunche’s success here and elsewhere was his extraordinary skill in drafting diplomatic agreements.

Bunche’s main tasks during the negotiations were to convince the Israelis to make territorial and strategic concessions at a time when they were enjoying victories on the battlefield, and to convince the Egyptians that, in accepting those concessions, they could honorably agree to a truce. Bunche could be both flattering and tough with the Israelis when he had to. He took aside Yigael Yadin, the Israeli army chief of staff, and put it to him that the test of a leader’s greatness was the ability to accept victory gracefully. At another point he scolded Yadin for Israeli complaints that the Egyptians were building fortifications at al-Faluja. The Israelis, he said, were themselves ignoring the provisions of the UN truce resolution asking that Egyptian soldiers be allowed to leave.

Evidently at Bunche’s initiative, the State Department cabled David Ben-Gurion to urge his government to accept Bunche’s proposals. The last sticking point was Israel’s refusal to withdraw from the Negev town of Beersheba, in effect the gateway to the Negev. Bunche, with Trygve Lie’s help, persuaded the Egyptians that the gains they would make from the armistice were not worth risking for the sake of Beersheba.

Bunche’s initiative in breaking the deadlock, as Urquhart puts it, was “immensely ambitious.” Besides handling the immediate problem of al-Faluja, Bunche outlined fair cease-fire lines, made suggestions on the withdrawal and balance of forces, and proposed a joint armistice commission under UN auspices. The agreements he arrived at became a model for the armistices he later negotiated between Israel and Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. These kept the peace until the Suez crisis in 1956 and remained the only Israeli peace agreements to be made until the Camp David accords thirty years later. After the signing ceremony at the Hotel des Roses, Bunche gave a party for both sides in which, for the first time since the conflict began—and the last time for some years—the Israelis and Egyptians met informally in public.

The low point in the armistice talks on Rhodes occurred during the Israeli-Transjordanian talks. As they got underway, Israeli forces launched a new offensive in the Negev, seizing territory all the way to the Gulf of Aqaba and securing an outlet on the Red Sea. The move jeopardized Bunche’s credibility, coming, as it did, so swiftly after his negotiations to remove the Egyptians from the Negev. His conference on Rhodes had become a cover for the secret negotiations King Abdullah was having with the Israelis at his winter house in Shuneh near the Jordan River. Abdullah, it turned out, was willing to let the Israelis have the Negev if the Israelis in turn accepted his control over the Palestinian Arabs on the West Bank (“Another deal, and as usual the Palestinian Arabs lose,” Bunche commented when news arrived of the Shuneh agreements. It is they, he added, who “by and large have been the innocent victims of the dispute.”)

Bunche himself seems to have regarded his later work in organizing the first UN peace-keeping operations as more important than his achievement at Rhodes. With Bernadotte in Palestine, he had been responsible for recruiting and directing the UN’s first truce observers. The idea of a lightly armed international peace brigade was first put forward by Lester Pearson, the Canadian foreign minister, in response to the invasion of Egypt by Israel, Britain, and France in 1956. The attack could have achieved the military aim of destroying Palestinian guerrilla bases in Egypt and taking back international control of the Suez Canal. But politically the Suez invasion was folly, based on a secret deal with Israel to invade Egypt. When it became apparent that Washington, Moscow, the UN, and even British public opinion would not stand for it, a UN peace-keeping force of six thousand troops was created to bring about the withdrawal of the invading forces.

Dag Hammarskjöld assigned Bunche the difficult job of organizing and then directing the multinational force, which included contingents from eight countries. Here there was none of the diplomatic drama of negotiating the historic armistice agreements, only a thousand details to be looked after: arranging accommodations for the troops, keeping them sober, defining their relations with their Egyptian hosts. Bunche insisted that the troops be deployed under the UN flag rather than their own various national banners as a way of emphasizing the force’s neutral position.

By all accounts Bunche handled the task brilliantly, and the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) became the example for later UN peace-keeping missions to follow. Bunche’s careful administration of UNEF made it acceptable to Nasser and tolerated by the Israelis. The Egyptian-Israeli armistice lines were remarkably quiet and free of cross-border guerrilla raids for the next ten years.

The Congo crisis a few years later proved even more complicated. Bunche was in Léopoldville representing Dag Hammarskjöld at independence celebrations in 1960 when he saw that the transition from Belgian colonial rule was collapsing into chaos. During the next two months, amid great confusion, Bunche directed a major emergency UN peace-keeping operation, Organisation des Nations Unies Au Congo (ONUC), intended to restore calm, take over from interfering Belgian troops, and secure the Congo with its pre-independence borders. The UN, Urquhart writes, was “split…down the middle,” with the US supporting President Joseph Kasavubu and the Soviet Union backing the radical prime minister Patrice Lumumba. Bunche resisted demands that ONUC be used to advance the political fortunes of one side or the other. The result was far from satisfactory, but it saved the Congo from becoming the kind of cold war battleground that later destroyed newly independent Angola and Mozambique. Bunche, Urquhart writes,

had to defend, and to maintain in action, the basic principle of UN peacekeeping—maintaining peace without using force or taking sides. He had done this in the face of opposition from his own military and from Western representatives, including the United States, knowing very well that any other course would certainly have landed the UN in a bloody debacle which would have quickly put an end to the whole operation.

But Bunche took a lot of heat. Some of the Congolese politicians and the Soviet Union attacked him for not using UN forces to crush the Belgians and to end the Katanga secession led by Moise Tshombe, and Khrushchev accused Hammarskjöld of doing colonialism’s dirty work in the Congo. Hammarskjöld was killed in an air crash in September while trying to mediate the Katangan conflict. ONUC’s military pressure finally put an end to Tshombe’s resistance in early 1963. No doubt the UN intervention had the effect of keeping the Soviets out of the Congo, as the United States wished. But in Léopoldville Bunche was hardly taking orders from Washington. Bunche for example had a running battle with the American ambassador over his continued refusal to use UNforces to disarm the Congolese army.

The murder of Patrice Lumumba in February 1961 after a coup by Mobutu Sese Seko appalled Bunche* but he refused to join those who eulogized Lumumba as a great African hero of anticolonialism. He saw him as an intransigent and deeply unstable man whose recklessness threatened to destroy his country. Urquhart describes in detail how he irrationally denounced Bunche, demanded that the white soldiers in the UN forces be withdrawn, and had Bunche’s security assistants arrested and threatened with death. Bunche’s position hurt his relations with some pro-Lumumba African-American intellectuals just as the civil rights movement was about to enter its most active phase.

Perhaps another reason for Bunche’s drift into relative obscurity today even among African Americans is that his most dramatic achievements came so early in his career. By 1967, when the Six Day War broke the peace in the Middle East, UNEF was among its casualties. In May 1967 Nasser asked the UN to “redeploy” troops in the event that Egypt came into conflict with Israel. Bunche refused, saying that UNEF was a peace-keeping force and it could not stand aside and allow battles to break out in one part of Egypt—the Sinai Desert—while standing firm to prevent them in another part, the Gaza Strip, then under Egyptian rule. Nasser’s response was to request UNEF’s complete withdrawal, which U Thant quickly agreed to.

The UN’s acceptance of Egypt’s requests to remove UNEF increased the momentum toward war. It is true that the original agreement gave Egypt the right to have troops withdrawn. But U Thant and Bunche, it can be argued, would have better served the cause of peace if they had taken a less legalistic position and tried to find excuses to delay a response, hoping that Nasser would have second thoughts and that other nations would try to cool down his aggressiveness. Indeed, Urquhart interprets as precisely such an attempt Bunche’s instructions that UNEF’s withdrawal take place “in an orderly way” which “would be worked out and would take time.” However, Bunche’s efforts came to nothing. UNEF remained on Egyptian territory but, as Urquhart sums up Bunche’s account, “it could not function once Egyptian troops had moved up to the line”; and the Israelis refused to have UNEF within its borders. The UN was blamed by the Israelis for not standing up to Nasser and later, by Nasser’s apologists, for somehow drawing Egypt into a military disaster by quickly acceding to Egypt’s request. The latter claim is particularly hollow in view of the repetitive and reckless Egyptian threats during the weeks preceding the war.

It was nonetheless a blow to UN peace-keeping, and there have been others since. The 1967 war, Urquhart writes, undid an important part of Bunche’s life’s work. To his credit, however, Bunche was never under any illusions about the UN’s capacities. As he told Abba Eban in 1956, “The real importance of UNEF is that it does buy time…in which political developments can take place and progress on fundamental issues can be made.” As Bunche well knew, whether these fundamental issues will be seriously addressed by the UN is still largely up to its members, especially the more powerful ones. But Brian Urquhart’s finely written book also makes it clear that the UN is much more than a vehicle for great power maneuvers. Whatever effectiveness it has also depends on whether an international civil service, with its own integrity, can build up a repertory of workable procedures for peace-keeping and other functions. If it is to do so, Urquhart’s book suggests, it will have to draw on Bunche’s work and the example of fairness and dedication he set.

  1. *

    For years questions have arisen whether the Central Intelligence Agency was behind Lumumba’s murder. A recent book by a former Voice of America correspondent, Sean Kelly (America’s Tyrant: The CIA and Mobutu of Zaire, American University Press, 1993), indicates that while the CIA definitely plotted to kill Lumumba, it is not clear who actually carried out the murder. Lumumba had many Congolese enemies and Mobutu’s new regime, for example, had its own reasons for wanting him eliminated. Lumumba’s death occurred while he was in the custody of Mobutu’s troops but after he had been transferred from a military camp in Thysville to Katanga province. Urquhart writes that Washington was “in secret making its own ruthless plans for Lumumba’s removal,” but implies that Bunche did not know about them.

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