Count Folke Bernadotte was a member of the Swedish royal family, a Red Cross official who was coordinator of rescue efforts towards the end of the Second World War, and the man appointed by the United Nations in 1948 to broker a peace between the new State of Israel and the invading Arab armies after the United Nations partitioned the land, and Britain pulled out its mandatory forces. A hopeless task it even seemed then, but Bernadotte did not think he could turn down the opportunity, no matter how remote the possibility of success. In September 1948, his role in seeking a stop to the fighting abruptly ended, as he was assassinated in Jerusalem by members of the Stern Gang (led by Yitzhak Shamir, a thug and terrorist who later became Prime Minister following Menachem Begin), a group of Jewish extremists and terrorists.
I did not know it, but Bernadotte kept a diary (which he dictated daily to his secretary) and which he intended to form the basis of a book he would write at the end of his mission. In 1951, the diary was published, along with an explanatory preface and a detailed narrative of his assassination written by another passenger of Bernadotte’s fateful convoy. I don’t know the history of the publication, but see that it was never published in the United States and that the 1951 London edition, while not being sold for a high monetary value, is hard to find even in the used book market.
Why was Bernadotte murdered?
In the first place, it didn’t take much to make any non-Jewish foreigner a target of the Stern Gang. It started as a break off from the Irgun, the terrorist organization led by Begin, in the believe that the Irgun was too mild in its activities. The goal was to get Britain out of Palestine (the British running the League of Nations Mandate on the former Ottoman territory) by any means necessary, including totally random terrorist attacks on military and non-military installations. It sought unsuccessfully an alliance with Hitler and the Nazis – joining Hitler to fight the British in return for Hitler allowing Jews under his control to come to Palestine. It later sought a similar alliance with Stalin. (How did Shamir ever get to be Prime Minister? That’s another story.)
In the second place, many Jews believed that Bernadotte was favoring the Arab position in his mediation attempts. Of course, the Arabs felt that he was favoring the Jews. And neither side believed that the other side was sincere in its accusations regarding his perceived lack of neutrality.
In the third (and perhaps most important) place, after several months of what today would be called shuttle diplomacy, he proposed a complex arrangement that he wanted to use as a basis for more detailed peace conversations. His fatal (as it turned out) mistake was to suggest that Jerusalem be part of the Arab sector of Palestine. Specifically, “inclusion of the City of Jerusalem in Arab territory, with municipal autonomy for the Jewish community and special arrangements for the protection of the Holy Places.” This would be coupled with “That religious and minority rights be fully protected by each Member of the Union and guaranteed by the United Nations.” (There were many other recommendations regarding territorial boundaries and the creation of one Palestinian entity with two autonomous members, one Arab, one Jewish.)
It’s hard to say, from reading the diary entries, that Bernadotte was favoring one side over the other. His goal was to get the fighting to stop – I don’t think he really cared about what the final arrangements were. He was successful at one point in arranging for a four week ceasefire which the parties more or less complied with, but it didn’t end the fighting after the ceasefire terminated, and it was left to his successor, the American Ralph Bunche, to finish the task.
What is most interesting (and most depressing) is that the main issues then remain the main issues today. The Arabs were dead set against allowing any autonomous Jewish state to come into existence on what they regarded as Arab territory, and gave no respect to any western or UN action that purported to create and recognize such a state. They made it clear, well before the end of the British mandate and the self-creation of Israel, that they would attack the Jewish state. The Jews were obviously committed to the new state, and also to free Jewish immigration to the state. The Arabs, who believed that Palestine should be under a unified government with majority rule, naturally opposed further Jewish immigration (they pledged to protect the religious rights of the Jews in the territory, as Jews were protected in other Arab countries at the time, and understood that Jewish commercial superiority would lead to great Jewish influence over a joint government even though they would be a numerical minority). Finally, the Arabs felt that the 250,000 Arabs who had fled (willingly, unwillingly, or because they were frightened) Jewish territory and were living in “temporary” camps in neighboring countries, should be allowed to return to their homes and villages. The Jews, seeking to secure a Jewish majority in their territory, objected. Nothing new under the sun.
Bernadotte found the negotiations with both sides extremely difficult. The Jews (his main contact was Moshe Shertok, although Ben Gurion did play a role) were too stubborn. But, then, so were the Arabs and, to make it worse, the Arabs were divided amongst themselves (Egypt’s king and Transjordan’s king were obviously bitter rivals for control over an Arab Palestinian state), and the Palestinian Arabs themselves took no part in the negotiations, had no leadership, and were not a material factor in the fighting.
And then there was the question of who was winning the war. The Arabs maintained that they were winning and that their superior numbers would tell the tale. Of course, they reported victories even in battles where they were badly defeated. But Bernadotte thought that the Jews would probably win the war, but be subject to continual future wars because of the size of their neighbors’ populations unless a peace treaty could be achieved (he was right there). During the four week ceasefire, each side thought that the other side would cheat and turn things to its advantage. Two of the agreed upon ceasefire terms were that no arms would be brought into the country, and that any men of military age coming into the country would be kept in restrictive areas for as long as hostilities continued. (It was this agreement that led the Israeli government to fire on the Jewish ship Altalena, where the Irgun was trying to off-load men and arms in violation of the treaty terms, resulting in Jewish-Jewish fighting and multiple deaths.) As it turned out, although there were no serious violations of these terms, it was Bernadotte’s impression that the Israelis were in better position than the Arabs when the four week ceasefire ended. And he thought that the Israelis recognized this, as they hardened their negotiating position after the ceasefire. I imagine it was the taste of victory that spurred Shamir and his buddies to target Bernadotte, then seen by them as a stumbling block to their eventual success.
It’s a very sad story. There was no reason to murder the UN mediator. He had actually not done anything to harm the Jewish position and was very helpful during the fighting in protecting Jewish convoys bringing food and supplies to Jewish residents of Mount Scopus (The Hebrew University and the Hadassah Hospital), otherwise behind Arab lines, and to Israeli troops in the Negev. He was actively seeking a way to structure a compromise between the two parties that would give them each sufficient autonomy over their sectors to feel that they were secure in their own societies and cultures, yet to bring them together in an overall union that would foster civic and economic ties for the future. He probably did make a mistake in assigning Jerusalem to the Arab sector (Jerusalem for a long time has had a Jewish majority), although he thought that Jewish autonomy in the city could be protected, and of course this was all up for further negotiations.
I don’t think that the murder of Bernadotte affected the ultimate outcome of the fighting. It was just a low point in the Jewish fight for the existence of the state of Israel.