First Peace Effort: What Can We Learn From Count Folke Bernadotte and 1948?

Bernadotte’s important contribution to peace and security and his tireless humanitarian commitment deserve respect. We can learn from both his achievements and his mistakes as we continue the quest for a peaceful solution.

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In May 1948, Sweden’s Count Folke Bernadotte was appointed United Nations mediator in Palestine — the body’s first such effort — and was sent to try to mediate between Israel and Palestine. It is probable that he was given the assignment because of his historic contribution in the final stages of World War II, when he successfully led a humanitarian expedition to Germany. It was known as the White Buses campaign because of the color the vehicles were painted in order to avoid Allied attacks. Under Bernadotte’s leadership, thousands of prisoners were rescued from Nazi death camps, to begin new lives of freedom in Scandinavia.

In April of this year, the Swedish Embassy in Tel Aviv and the Folke Bernadotte Academy, of which I am director general, hosted a screening of a documentary on the White Buses. I had the privilege to meet two of the survivors who were rescued by Bernadotte and who today live in Israel.

While Bernadotte gained international respect after this momentous operation, his appointment three years later as UN mediator in Palestine was greeted with scepticism, his optimism and his dynamic approach considered naive. How could this Swedish aristocrat contribute where Britain and the United States had failed? How could a man who had never set foot in the Middle East possibly understand the complexities of the conflict? But doubt and distrust soon turned to admiration, and he gained the respect of both sides: Figures such as Moshe Sharett and Henry Cattan acclaimed Bernadotte’s ability to quickly understand and navigate the conflict, and they praised his courage and independent thinking. Just two weeks after arriving in the region, Bernadotte achieved a month-long cease-fire through whirlwind negotiations and shuttle diplomacy.

But Bernadotte would soon become a hated man. His first peace plan, formed as a basis for further talks, drew harsh responses from both sides. It proposed a union between Jews and Arabs, with Jerusalem belonging to the Arab part and municipal autonomy for the Jewish committee.

The strong reactions taught Bernadotte a lesson, but he continued, pragmatically and tirelessly, to talk to both parties to the conflict. He began to form a second plan, much different from the first, where Jerusalem would instead be under UN protection. The refugee issue was already prominent in the first plan, and remained significant in the second. Bernadotte was uncompromising on the right of return for Palestinian refugees and if return was not possible, then compensation would be paid.

In secret meetings the British and American governments backed the plan, which Bernadotte would soon present to the UN, and London and Washington would ensure the approval of the Arab and Jewish sides. Finally, the difficult matter of Palestine would be out of the way.

But the plan would die with its creator; the first UN mediator would also be the first to be assassinated at his post. On September 17, 1948, Bernadotte was murdered in Jerusalem. The assassination was planned by the central committee of the Lehi pre-state underground militia. No one was ever convicted, though years later several of those involved bragged about it publicly.

The Bernadotte Plan was in some circles considered pro-Arab, and the issue of refugees was especially galling for the Jewish side. If Palestinian refugees were allowed to return, then half the population of the Jewish state would be Palestinian. It was understood that Bernadotte was passionate on the issue and would fight to the utmost for the rights of Palestinian refugees. If he were allowed to argue the case before the UN General Assembly, it could threaten Israel’s very existence — the Swedish mediator had to be removed, some thought.

There is no doubt that Bernadotte’s mediation efforts failed. While he made several misjudgments, his work has nevertheless been underestimated. The truce he achieved would later form the basis for the armistice agreement for which Bernadotte’s closest associate, Ralph Bunche, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. Bernadotte talked and listened to all and his proposals took into account the views of all sides. His mediation methods were unpretentious and socially competent, and should be an inspiration for today’s peace mediators. There is also cause to look on his deeds with sober reflection, given that this conflict, 60 years on, is still far from resolution.

Had he lived, the second Bernadotte plan could have been developed and modified into an important basis for conflict resolution between the parties. His territorial thoughts are, of course, outdated but the assessment of the status of Jerusalem in the second Bernadotte plan is still interesting, as is the position on the refugee issue.

Bernadotte drew early attention to the suffering of Palestinian refugees and his tireless work for their rights led to the foundation of the UN Relief and Works Agency. He was also the initiator of the UN Truce Supervision Organization, whose initial task was to support Bernadotte and monitor the truce in Palestine. Both are still in operation, 67 years later, doing important work.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that it was partly his work with Palestinian refugees that cost him his life. Today, more than ever, in light of the worse refugee situation since World World II, we should remember his commitment to those who are forced to leave their homes. Bernadotte’s important contribution to peace and security and his tireless humanitarian commitment deserve respect. We can learn from both his achievements and his mistakes as we continue the quest for a peaceful solution.

Sven-Eric Söder is director general of the Folke Bernadotte Academy, a Swedish government agency working internationally for peace, security and development.