Excerpts from talk at conference "Rethinking the Nation State", Florence October 1999

The Squaring of the Warm Circle – Bernadotte in Palestine


The lasting significance of warm loyalties is of course most obvious in the midst of violent national or ethnic conflict, where ”enlightened” concepts of justice and human rights are overtaken by irreconcilable and exclusionary collective claims of right and wrong. Each party will excel in reducing or belittling the rights of the other. Accommodations and compromises that would seem perfectly rational and reasonable from a strictly neutral and emotionally detached position, will appear naïve, unrealistic or even completely mad, not only to the parties involved, but also to cooler observers asserting a ”realistic” view of the situation.
From this perspective the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine is a most illustrative case in point. Unlike many other and more ”traditional” ethnic conflicts, the territorial clash between Zionism and Arab Nationalism was in its initial stages embellished by a universalistic rhetoric and shrouded in a universalistic mythology, perhaps best symbolized by the Herzlian utopia of Altneuland, in which all ethnic and religious conflicts were harmoniously dissolved in an enlightened haven of tolerance and modernization. The new Jewish state would overcome national and ethnic strife by being more tolerant, better planned, more modern, more European – than Europe itself. The self-understanding of the mainstream Zionist movement was in parts influenced by similar images of a common Jewish-Arab or even all-human, interest in the Jewish settlement of Palestine. The tension between the practical struggle on the ground for Jewish territory and power, and the theoretical rhetoric of universal and social liberation, thus became very visible and a source of conflict in itself. ”Patriotism – that is, national egoism – must not induce it to disregard justice and to seek self-fulfilment through the destruction of other Nations”, wrote characteristically the founder of ”spiritual Zionism”, Ahad Ha’am, who believed the idea of ”absolute justice” to be at the core of Judaism..

A dramatic and perhaps illustrative manifestation of the conflict between the notion of wider justice and the impact of ethnic or national phobias, is the short and tragic intervention by the UN-appointed mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, in the war of 1948. Bernadotte, a Swedish aristocrat with little experience in high diplomacy, was appointed on May 21 1948 with the primary task to attain a truce in the ongoing war and the more unclear task to bring the conflict under control. Bernadotte himself aimed higher, basically at bringing an end to the Arab-Jewish conflict as such, and immediately started to work out plans for a lasting settlement. After a truce was successfully negotiated and accepted on June 9, Bernadotte and his team (foremost Ralph Bunche) quickly set their eyes on ”a compromise /…/ where both parties leave their most ultimate wishes and opinions” and where a strict national logic should give way to the transnational idea of a federal union consisting of two separate states, one Jewish and one Arab. The purpose of the union, according to Bernadotte, was to further common economic interests, establish common customs, initiate common enterprises ” to promote the general development”, coordinate foreign policy and actions for a common defence. The powers and functions of the union were to be vested with a central council ”and other organs to be determined by the members of the union”. Each member could assume full control over its own internal matters, including its foreign relations. The touchy issue of immigration was to be left to the member states to handle independently, with a possibility of appeal to the council of the union, which in its turn could bring a potential dispute to a UN body with authority to make decisions ”binding for the member whose policies are under discussion”. Religious and minority rights had to be fully protected and guaranteed by the UN. The plan included an exchange of territories to make for more contiguous borders, giving the Western Galilée to the Jewish state and northern Negev to the Arab state. Jerusalem would be part of the Arab territory, with municipal autonomy for the Jewish inhabitants and with special protection for the holy places. The still secret plan was brought to Rhodes to serve as a basis for direct negotiations between the parties, but within less than a week its total failure was apparent. It is safe to say that it astonished and puzzled and disgusted most parties concerned – and that it had the chance of a snowball in hell. Instead it made Bernadotte’s further mission all but impossible.

So why did Bernadotte put it forward? And why did Ralph Bunche, an expert on the conflict and its history, not only assist him in doing so, but also claim responsibility for originating its ideas? How come they most predictably infuriated almost everybody on the Israeli side by giving Jerusalem to the Arab state? And how come they did away with the idea of a separate Palestinian state (as decided in the UN partition plan of 1947) in favour of a larger Transjordanian entity?
The most apparent answer is that they did not focus on territory but on union, not on loyalty but on justice. They most reasonably and logically concluded that a war could theoretically be averted if both parties were made to subordinate their exclusionary territorial ambitions to a common federal regime of law. Bernadotte, in a written response to the Israeli government’s rejection of the plan, tried to explain that he was only trying to explore a common platform for further discussions, and that his territorial proposals all stemmed from an impartial ambition to explore ”objective” structures on which to build a future common understanding. The territorial affiliation of Jerusalem was in that context a matter of practical convenience, not a matter of history and blood. Jerusalem was in his view firmly within the borders of the future Arab state and he wished to avoid another arrangement ”of endless complications”. Both Bernadotte and Bunche had the experience of Berlin, Trieste and Tanger fresh in their minds. Bernadotte later explained that he had become wary of the possibility for an internationalization of the city under the auspices of UN. As he would become increasingly disappointed by the apparent reluctance of the UN (and most prominently the Americans) to commit peace-keeping troops to Jerusalem. Bernadotte personified in many ways the internationalist rhetoric of a new UN-elite, and perhaps the still untested ambitions of a new UN-leadership, but it happened in a conflict where this rhetoric had an almost inverse impact on the ”warm” realities of national and ethnic exclusion.
The main charge against Bernadotte was that he did not take the ancient and recent history of the region into account, the feelings and resentments of the parties involved, the actual distrust and hatred built up during two decades of conflict. At the time the charges seemed perfectly correct. The exclusionary logic of combative nationalism could not be invalidated by decree or plan, the armed fighting soon resumed, each party still convinced they could improve its territorial hand by means of force, and Bernadotte’s mission bogged down in failure and disaster. The mere suspicion that he would win international backing for a second plan (based on separation and not union) by bringing it directly to the UN most likely precipitated his assassination by Jewish extremists on September 17 1948.

Bernadotte’s mission, based on the presumption that the rationality of a supranational order of law and justice could be imposed on the ”irrationality” of a prolonged and exclusionary national conflict, has often been described as naive and tragic. As the impossible meeting of a cool and aristocratic mind fostered in the benevolent circumstances of low-conflict Scandinavia, with the full ferocity of human fears and phobias. The universalistic ideal of impartial justice with the particularist ideal of conquest and state-building. James MacDonald, the first US ambassador in Israel, who met Bernadotte a week before he was killed, could not help ”but feel that Bernadotte, speaking here with such charm and such cheerfulness was in truth a tragic figure.”
But in what consisted the tragedy? The ideas and ideals of Bernadotte had in one way or the other accompanied the Jewish-Arab conflict from its incipience, whether in the form of ”spiritual Zionism” proposing a non-national view of the Jewish settlement, or in the form of ”binationalism”, recognizing the rights of to people to the same land, or towards the end as proposals for a federal union similar in principal to Bernadotte’s plan. In 1947 a group headed by Martin Buber, Ihud, published a plea for a ”Bi-National State” stating that ”the whole history of Palestine shows that it just has not been made for uni-national sovereign independence”. And as late as October 1948, the ailing Judah L Magnes submitted an article to Commentary with the proposal ”a Confederation of Two Independent States” with Jerusalem as ”an international, demilitarized, neutralized city”, a corpus separatum. He sided with Bernadotte’s idea of a supra-national body deciding matters of common interests, underlining that ”questions of foreign policy, defense, immigration and land ownership in the last analysis [would] be met under United Nations auspices if they could not be met, as is to be preferred, by direct understanding between the independent members of the Confederation.” In a postscript added after the murder of Bernadotte, Magnes wrote that ”Count Bernadotte had come closer than any other man to bringing Jews and Arabs to an understanding, and his murder is a tragedy of historic importance for both peoples.” In a similar vein wrote Hannah Arendt, Magnes’ assistant during his final months in New York: ”What neither Jews nor Arabs could understand was that there could exist one single man without any prejudices and without any interests of his own to pursue.”
One does not have to accept Arendt’s idealization of Bernadotte to get a glimpse of the intimate relationship between justice and loyalty. The prerequisite for impartial justice here becomes the ability to rise above the suspicions and the prejudices generated by and anchored in a particular conflict. Since neither Jews nor Arabs could extend their loyalties to such a system of justice, and since the ability to do so apparently required saint-like amounts of trust and good-will in combination with a uniquely disinterested frame of mind (Bernadotte), narrow loyalty had to prevail on larger justice.
The tragedy of not heeding the advice of Bernadotte or Magnes or Buber or any other proponent of Arab-Jewish reconciliation and cooperation, can of course be measured in the many wars that ensued and the immense human suffering that the ongoing conflict has caused to both sides. Whether there were any options, we will never know. The remaining question is of course whether we can learn anything from the failure of Bernadotte.

Bernadotte strongly insisted on the creation of common institutions to both Arabs and Jews, new arenas for discussions and decisions. He thought that if the institutions could be put in place and made to work, albeit as a result of international political pressure and perhaps the physical presence of international troops and bodies, new trust and new interests would develop, breaking the evil circles of ethnic strife and promoting the virtuous circles of larger loyalty and justice.
Today the reasoning of Bernadotte seems pretty much up to date, including his insistent but unheeded demands for international troops in Jerusalem. In the post Cold War world, the problem of breaking evil ethnic circles has become a major task for ”the international community”. The methods, as well as the definition of ”international community” undoubtedly vary, but the search for institutional arrangements to sustain and promote ethnic pluralism instead of ethnic cleansing, is a most urgent one. In this context, federal and con-federal solutions, perhaps imposed by international fiat and force, are no longer the naive expressions of isolated idealists.
History has to some extent exonerated Bernadotte in Israel-Palestine as well. For all practical purposes, what will emerge from the current peace process, is an arrangement between two states, featuring both federal and con-federal institutions.