Seeds of Peace

UN negotiator Gunnar Jarring failed to produce an Arab-Israeli agreement after the Six-Day War, but was the first to plant the idea of peace in the minds of Arab statesmen. A new study explores his diplomatic work.

Reuven Pedatzur
Reuven Pedatzur
Reuven Pedatzur
Reuven Pedatzur

These days, as the U.S. government attempts to mediate talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and its envoy George Mitchell continues to shuttle between Ramallah and Jerusalem, it is worth recalling the experiences of the first mediator to dive into the stormy waters of the Israeli-Arab dispute, following the Six-Day War.

Gunnar Jarring at a meeting with FM Abba Eban in 1972.Credit: Archive photo: Camera 13

A new, comprehensive study, due to be published soon, analyzes the diplomatic mission undertaken by Sweden's Dr. Gunnar Jarring, who was appointed by UN secretary-general U Thant to implement Security Council Resolution 242. The resolution, adopted unanimously by the council's 15 members on November 22, 1967, called for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict," and "termination of all claims or states of belligerency, and respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the area." It also called for the appointment of a "special representative," who was "to proceed to the Middle East to establish and maintain contacts with the states concerned in order to promote agreement and assist efforts to achieve a peaceful and accepted settlement ..."

Jarring was Sweden's ambassador in Moscow. Israeli politicians who were engaged in secret contacts with him, and Israeli historians who have researched the period, are convinced that his diplomatic mission was a total failure. Now, however, Madeleine Mezagopian, a Jordanian scholar of Armenian descent, claims in her research that Jarring's efforts were by no means a failure. Mezagopian quotes Zayd al-Rifa'i, a close confidant of Jordan's King Hussein and subsequently prime minister in the Hashemite kingdom, who observed: "It is unfair to say that Jarring succeeded or failed ... He laid the foundations for peace agreements that came later."

Mezagopian devoted six years of research and writing to her study, entitled "Multifaceted Impartial Mediation Bridging Theory and Practice: The Gunnar Jarring Mission in the Middle East." Her labors included learning Swedish. She is the first researcher to gain access to Jarring's own archive, which includes diaries, letters and other documents that have never been published. Her study throws light on a fascinating personality.

Jarring earned a doctorate in Turkic languages, operated as an intelligence officer for the Swedish Army in the Middle East, and changed his name from Jensen following a journey to China: His adopted name, Jarring, means "your friend" in the language of the Uighur, a Turkic ethnic group living mainly in China.

In the early 1940s, Jarring started working for Sweden's foreign ministry, and served as a diplomat in Iran, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka ), Iraq, Ethiopia and India. Subsequently, he was appointed Sweden's ambassador to the United Nations. In 1958, he became ambassador to the United States, serving until 1964, when he was assigned to serve as Sweden's ambassador in the Soviet Union.

"In terms of his background," Mezagopian explained, during a discussion with this writer in Jerusalem, "he came to the Middle East as the UN's envoy, as an expert in the region's affairs, and as someone who had studied and done research about the region." Trying to advance implementation of UN Resolution 242 in Jerusalem, Jarring encountered a dual problem. First, he represented the United Nations, which Israel has traditionally seen as a hostile body. Second, he was a Swede, and Israel did not view Sweden as a friendly country.

Another problem was the personality of UN secretary-general U Thant of Burma, who sent Jarring as a special representative. Thant was viewed by parties to the dispute as being "problematic," and as having played an extremely negative role in the process leading to the eruption of the Six-Day-War. Relating to the UN secretary-general's actions before the conflict, then Jordanian minister Hisham al-Khatib noted, according to Mezagopian: "Even Israel did not want the war. U Thant was a weak, submissive person. Had Dag Hammarskjold [the previous UN secretary-general] been in office, there definitely would not have been a war in 1967."

Jarring's 'invention'

The new research indicates that U Thant was a great believer in astrology. In one of his diaries, Jarring notes that on one occasion, when he asked the UN secretary-general to take action on some issue, U Thant rejected the request on the grounds that the timing was bad - in view of the alignment of the stars.

Jarring "invented" shuttle-diplomacy techniques that were subsequently adopted and refined by Henry Kissinger following the Yom Kippur War. Delivering messages to the different sides, Jarring shuttled between Jerusalem, Amman and Cairo, and sometimes also Beirut. Damascus was not part of the picture, since the Syrians categorically rejected Resolution 242. Nor did Jarring enter negotiations with Palestinian representatives, including Palestine Liberation Organization figures, since Resolution 242 ignored the Palestinians' existence, referring to them only as "refugees."

According to Mezagopian, Jarring attempted to advance negotiations between the sides by relying on preliminary discussions that were supposed to become formal, direct talks. He considered deploying the "Rhodes model," which had been used by UN envoy Ralph Bunche in 1949. After the 1948 War of Independence, delegates from the warring states convened at a Rhodes hotel, where Bunche conducted negotiations until a cease-fire accord was forged between Israel and its neighbors. Jarring intended to gather representatives from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon in Cyprus, and lead negotiations among the sides; but this plan was never executed.

In his statements to the media, and even to delegates from the various countries, Jarring repeatedly used terms and phrases such as "secret," "classified," "no comment," "I am optimistic," and "there are no public declarations." The press dubbed him the "secret Gunnar," and he appeared pleased by such appellations, which referred to his desire to stay out of the limelight.

Goran Berg, Jarring's personal secretary for this Middle East assignment, told Mezagopian: "Jarring related to the media with deep indifference, believing that the newspapers' sole interest was to sell more editions. His attitude toward newspapers was also negative since he wanted to avoid making statements in favor of one of the sides, and thereby creating an unpleasant situation."

At the start of his UN mission, Jarring encountered a feeling of optimism in the Middle East, but large gaps between the sides quickly appeared, and doubts arose regarding the ability of any mediator to narrow them. Jarring's authority derived from Resolution 242. While Arab states interpreted that decision as stipulating Israeli withdrawal from all territories occupied during the Six-Day War, Israel insisted that the resolution mandated withdrawal from "territories." The argument over whether the resolution refers to "all" conquered territories was never resolved.

On June 19, 1967, the Israeli government reached a secret decision holding that the state would be willing to sign peace agreements with Egypt and Syria, in exchange for withdrawal from all territories occupied in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. This proposal, which was relayed to Egypt and Syria via American intermediaries, was rejected. Thus, when Jarring took up his assignment, Israel already believed it had "nobody to negotiate with."

Another reply to the Israeli offer came in the form of a decision reached by the Arab summit in Khartoum, in August 1967. This was the "three no's" resolution, which solidified the stance taken by Arab states toward Israel: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiation with Israel.

Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban claimed that in addition to the three no's from Khartoum, two additional factors influenced the outcome of Jarring's mission. The first was the tremendous speed with which the Soviet Union rebuilt the Syrian and Egyptian armies; the second was the changed climate in Israel that led to the strengthening of the Greater Israel movement, as well as an increased determination among policy-makers to hold onto the territories. Once the activities of other players are added to these factors - most importantly, steps taken by the U.S. government, such as the Rogers Plan - it is easy to understand why the sides related to Jarring as just one of many actors who were trying to work things out in the Middle East.

The Rogers Plan

Jarring's first round of talks ended in mid-1968 without results. In the meantime, Israel and Egypt became engaged in the War of Attrition, which produced the Rogers Plan, stipulating that negotiations led by Jarring would lead to full Israeli withdrawal in exchange for peace agreements. This proposal, however, was never accepted by the sides.

The fear that the War of Attrition going on then would escalate into a conflict between the superpowers (the Soviet Union sent many military "advisers" to Egypt; and in one air battle fought over the Suez Canal, five Soviet pilots were downed by the Israel Air Force ) led to public release of the details of the Rogers initiative in June 1970.

As part of this initiative, Jarring was supposed to mediate between the sides during a planned 90-day cease-fire. Israel accepted the proposal, which included recognition of UN Resolution 242. This move caused the Gahal party, led by Menachem Begin, to quit the government, and the coalition disbanded. The Egyptians violated the cease-fire terms, moving missile weaponry toward the canal area; in response, Israel froze the peace talks.

On February 8, 1971, Jarring submitted his own proposal, suggesting that Israel withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for being allowed freedom of passage in the Suez Canal. The Egyptians were asked to sign peace accords with Israel that featured a number of components: a ) an end to the state of war; b ) mutual recognition of sovereignty and political independence; c ) respect for each side's right to live in peace, with recognized, safe borders; d ) assumption of responsibility to use resources to prevent terror groups from launching attacks; and e ) no intervention in the internal affairs of the other country.

The Egyptians notified Jarring of their acceptance of this proposal. Israel rejected it, however, declaring that it would not withdraw to the June 5, 1967 borders with Egypt, and that it had no intention of entering negotiations preconditioned on full Israeli withdrawal. Israel's negative reply brought an effective end to Jarring's mission, although he maintained the status of the UN secretary-general's special representative until his retirement in 1990. He passed away in 2002 at the age of 95.

In his writings, Abba Eban devotes a few short lines to Jarring, saying that his efforts slid off the rails as the result of a memorandum the envoy submitted in February 1971, in which he endorsed Egypt's territorial demands and thereby lost credibility with Israel.

Jarring's initiative may have failed, but it prompted a groundbreaking statement from Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who announced for the first time that he would be willing to recognize Israel and work out a peace deal with it. Sadat's statement reinforces Mezagopian's thesis: Jarring's main contribution was that his diplomatic work was the first to plant the idea of peace in the minds of Arab statesmen.

The scholar Kamel Abu Jaber, who served as Jordan's foreign minister, stated that Jarring's work was "the first diplomatic mission after the 1967 defeat. The Arabs rejected the idea of peace, both on an official level, and also in terms of mass feeling. Thanks to Jarring, this idea did not die. His contribution was to plant the concept of peace in the Arab camp."

Jarring later claimed that his diplomatic mission inspired Jimmy Carter when the U.S. president labored to secure a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel at Camp David. Jarring believed that the parameters of the proposals drafted during his own diplomatic mission were not very different from those adopted by Carter in 1979 at Camp David. "The main difference," noted Jarring, was that "Carter could propose incentives worth millions of dollars to the sides," whereas the UN could offer no such deal-sweeteners. In fact, the main points of the peace deal signed in 1979 are virtually identical to items in Jarring's February 1971 proposal, items whose incorporation in the proposed plan brought about the downfall of the Swedish diplomat's efforts.



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