A Murder Waiting to Happen

This book on the shocking assassination in Jerusalem of a scion of the Swedish royal family is riddled with inaccuracies, large and small.

"Nesikh yerushalayim" ("The Prince of Jerusalem") by Ofer Regev, Porat Publishing, 278 pages, NIS 63

Just after 5 P.M. on Friday afternoon, September 17, 1948, during the final months of the War of Independence, a jeep blocked the small cavalcade of cars in which the United Nations mediator for Palestine, Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte, was riding. Bernadotte was on his way from the office of the UN High Commissioner in Armon Hanatziv, east of Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood, to the Rehavia home of the military governor of West Jerusalem, Dov Joseph. The cavalcade screeched to a halt on Palmach Street (before it was called by that name), on the edge of Katamon - which was empty of Arabs by this time - in front of what is today apartment building No. 17.

Three young men, only identified decades later, leaped out of the jeep. Two of them, Yitzhak Ben Moshe and Avraham Steinberg, shot at the tires of the UN vehicles. The third, Yehoshua Cohen, opened the door of Bernadotte's car and shot him at close range. The bullets also hit a French officer who was sitting beside him, Colonel Andre Serot. Both were killed.

Within minutes, the whole thing was over. The assassins fled, with a fourth accomplice, Meshullam Makover, in the driver's seat. No one was ever brought to trial. An organization called Hazit Hamoledet (Homeland Front) took responsibility for the act. Actually this was a cover name for a cell affiliated with the pre-state underground militia - the Lehi - in Jerusalem, under the command of Yehoshua Zetler.

Dozens of books, research studies and articles have been published about this shocking episode over the years. Many have tried their hand at analyzing the dramatic political assassination of a scion of the Swedish royal family. Now Ofer Regev has jumped on the bandwagon with a book that examines the events from the perspective of the two main characters: the assassin, Yehoshua Cohen (Regev, like many other Israelis who have written on the subject, avoids calling him a "murderer") and his victim, Count Bernadotte.

Murderer's fan

Regev describes Cohen and Bernadotte in lively prose, but makes it clear, almost from the very first page, that he detests Bernadotte. On the other hand, he is a supporter, even a fan, of Cohen. While that may be legitimate, the book is riddled with inaccuracies, large and small. This is unfortunate, considering that the author has consulted a very long list of sources and quotes from them freely. The errors in the book could easily have been avoided. Regev writes, for example, that Moshe Sharett spent his childhood in the village of Ein Siniya, north of Ramallah, where he was friendly with the neighbor's son, Amin al-Husseini, later the mufti of Jerusalem. That is highly unlikely. Ein Siniya may have been the village of the wealthy Al-Husseini clan, but not the branch of the family the mufti belonged to, and it is doubtful he ever spent time here.

The mistakes are everywhere. For example, Regev writes that 20,000 Danish Jews were saved during World War II, while the correct figure is 7,000. The military administration in the Israeli Arab sector was abolished in 1966, not 1964. Names of people and places have been misspelled, attesting to plain sloppiness. Regev's book might have been better if he spent less time on beautiful prose and more time proofreading.

One of the more serious distortions in the book is Regev's portrayal of Bernadotte as a supporter of the Nazis during World War II. Many scholars have explored this claim, but very few have come to the conclusion that it was anything more than perhaps a tendency. Most say there is no basis for such a claim whatsoever. Ofer Regev not only describes Bernadotte as pro-Nazi, but makes him out to be a paid Nazi spy who supplied the Germans with information on where their bombs fell. In other words, he worked for them as a kind of scout, to help them improve their aim. Bernadotte, according to Regev, was an anti-Semitic Nazi agent who traded in blood (while working to free Scandinavian prisoners from the camps toward the end of the war), and an idiot, to boot. With respect to all these allegations, scholars seem to agree that Bernadotte was no great brain. He also bragged a lot. But he was certainly no war criminal, as one might think from this book.

Reading the chapters on the assassination, which are admittedly fascinating, one begins to see why the author has chosen to portray Bernadotte in such a negative and appalling light. This, it turns out, is the only way to justify the murder. The more Bernadotte is shown to be a despicable man and bad for the Jews, the more we see that he deserved to die. He was assassinated because of his political proposals, which were condemned by the leaders of the Jewish Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community), with David Ben-Gurion at the head. Bernadotte was a man "who threatened Jewish freedom and Jerusalem," states Regev. So he had it coming to him. It was an assassination just waiting to happen.

To make things clearer, Regev does a fast-forward to our own times, comparing Bernadotte's murder to the targeted assassinations that the Israel Defense Forces carries out in the West Bank and Gaza on orders of the government, to get rid of people like Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. The implication here is that if Israeli cabinet ministers and IDF generals can pass death sentences on enemies of the state like Hamas chiefs, what could be the matter with bumping off a hater of Israel like Count Bernadotte?

The book does offer a portrait of Yehoshua Cohen, the man who shot Bernadotte, that is interesting and important. He was an intriguing character, no doubt about it. Much has been written about him, and all those who knew him agree that he was extraordinary in everything he did, from his younger days as a daring fighter in the underground, to his somewhat odd relationship with Ben-Gurion at Kibbutz Sde Boker, and his endeavors on behalf of Gush Etzion after the Six-Day War.

The idea of a book that links up Cohen the assassin and Bernadotte the victim is an original one. Too bad Regev did not invest the same seriousness and attention to detail in writing it as he did in researching it.