A forgotten voice in world affairs Peacemaker: Ralph J. Bunche deserves major recognition for Israel's existence.


During the media coverage of the 50th anniversary of Israel, there has been scant mention of the African-American who won the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating a truce in the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. This overlooked figure is Ralph J. Bunche, the United Nations diplomat who prodded the Arab states into implicitly recognizing Israel and helped to legitimize the Jewish state in the international community.

Bunche's legacy goes well beyond the truce that earned him numerous awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. Indeed, those familiar with his work consider him to be one of the great figures of the century.

Bunche was actually born in Detroit in 1903, although many biographical accounts based on poor records say he was born in 1904. His parents died when he was a child, and Bunche was reared by his grandmother in Los Angeles. Bunche's intellectual brilliance became apparent in high school. He received an athletic scholarship to UCLA, where he excelled at basketball and graduated with honors in 1927 with a degree in international relations.

When Bunche received his doctoral degree in political science at Harvard University in 1934, he became the first African-American to hold a doctorate in that field. While completing his dissertation, he organized and chaired the political science department at Howard University. During the 1930s, Bunche was noted for his research on colonialism, race relations and anthropology. In 1941, he joined the U.S. State Department, where he held a succession of influential jobs.

With the notable exceptions of Bunche, Andrew Young and Donald McHenry, few African-Americans have played major roles U.S. foreign policy. Ironically, at the time when Bunche was gaining recognition for his knowledge of foreign affairs, he was not allowed to live in certain racially segregated neighborhoods in Washington, and he could not eat in downtown restaurants. He also suffered racist snubs from congressional leaders.

In addition to his interest in international affairs, Bunche was involved in the civil rights struggle in the United States, serving for 22 years on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and marching alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the Selma to Montgomery march. He recognized the links between colonialism abroad and racism at home, arguing that "segregation and democracy are incompatible."

Bunche's skills as an international mediator, however, were unsurpassed. "The great thing about Bunche was that everybody who dealt with him, even those who disagreed with him, knew he was absolutely fair and honest. He never would tell anyone something that wasn't true," said the British statesman Sir Brian Urquhart.

Bunche was not a sentimental idealist. He entered negotiations with the presumption that governments were primarily motivated self-interest. But he also believed that peace was possible if governments could be persuaded to consider their long-term interests. It was his ability to appeal to enlightened self-interest that made Bunche such a successful negotiator. Said Urquhart, "He understood, better than anybody I've ever seen, the concerns and fears and worries that are on the minds of people in conflicts. The result was that he enjoyed the complete confidence of the people he dealt with."

Bunche's words say much about him: "In this dangerous international age, notions of exalted and exaggerated nationalism, national egocentrism and isolationism, of chauvinism or group superiority and master race, of group exclusiveness, of national self-righteousness, of special privileges, are in interest of neither the world nor of any particular group in it."

His insightful world view also made him a sometimes lonely voice in U.S. foreign policy circles, as when he became an early critic of the Vietnam War, a supporter for a stronger United Nations and an advocate for a more consistent U.S. stance in support of human rights and international law.

At the United Nations, he served as director of the trusteeship division and later as undersecretary-general for special political affairs. During the 1950s and 1960s, Bunche played a major role as a U.N. envoy to many of the world's trouble spots, including Cyprus, Kashmir and the Congo, as well as the Middle East.

He was never particularly eager to be a globe-trotting diplomat. A committed family man, he was greatly pained by the enormous amount of time he spent away from his wife and children. Bunche also suffered from diabetes and other health problems, which were exacerbated by his travels. Yet he was repeatedly solicited by leading U.S. and U.N. officials to take on sensitive assignments because he was recognized as the best choice for the job. Recognizing the high stakes involved, Bunche nearly always accepted the call, working for the United Nations until just before his death in 1971, at age 67. It was this deep sense of social responsibility that set him apart from so many other diplomats.

Still, it was his Middle East diplomacy in the late 1940s for whic he will probably be best remembered.

Believing that nationalist passions would be too high for the creation of a binational Jewish-Arab state in Palestine, Bunche helped draft the partition plan for the territory. Recognizing that there could be no peace unless the national rights of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs were met, Bunche and his colleagues divided Palestine evenly between Jews and Arabs. Appreciating Jerusalem's significance to Arabs and Jews, Bunche and his colleagues placed greater Jerusalem under U.N. control. The plan was approved by the U.N. General Assembly on Nov. 29, 1947.

Tensions flared as thousands of Palestinians were forced out of their homes and farms in the designated Jewish areas, and Jewish and Arab terrorists targeted civilians. When the state of Israel was declared six months later on May 14, 1948, armies from neighboring Arab countries attacked. In the resulting war, Israeli forces were able not only to defend the half of Palestine designated for Jews in the U.N. partition plan, but to expand into much of the designated Arab areas as well.

Most of the Palestinian Arab population was driven away - they either fled the fighting or they were victims of a deliberate plan - as recently released Israeli documents confirm - to push them out. Meanwhile, Jordanian and Egyptian forces seized the remaining areas of Palestine now known as the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

After a series of cease-fire agreements broke down, the United Nations worked hard to arrange a permanent armistice. On Sept. 17, 1948, the U.N. chief mediator, Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, was assassinated by Jewish extremists. Had Bunche not been unexpectedly delayed at a checkpoint, he would have been accompanying Bernadotte and would have probably been killed with him.

It was into this situation that Bunche, who had been Bernadotte's assistant, was forced to forge some kind of peace as the new U.N. mediator.

Bunche has been bitterly criticized by many Arabs for his role. Jews were less than one-third the population in Palestine in 1947 and owned an even smaller percentage of the land. Arabs found it unfair that Bunche's partition plan gave Jews nearly half of the country.

The Arabs argue that Bunche did not push hard enough to insist that Israel repatriate Palestinian refugees - they and their descendants still live in exile today. Rather than fight for a return to the boundaries demarcated in the partition plan, the armistice agreement effectively codified Israeli control of 78 percent of the country and the division of Jerusalem.

Bunche's defenders argue that dividing the country evenly in the original partition plan was the best way to maintain peace. The post-war demarcations were simply a reflection of what was on the ground. Realistically, the new Israeli state would not be expected to compromise at that point and its Western backers would not force it to do so. Indeed, the Truman administration overruled Bunche's belief that Israel should be pressured to abide by the U.N. charter and subsequent U.N. resolutions.

Bunche did not believe that the cease-fire lines would become internationally recognized borders and sincerely hoped there would be a quick end to the refugee problem.

He did believe, however, that before any progress toward peace could take place, the fighting had to end, and both sides had to be willing to talk, a goal made difficult by the reluctance of the Arab states to even implicitly recognize Israel. The Palestinians, however, were excluded from the diplomacy.

To get the talks moving, Bunche came up with a provisional territorial arrangement, not a long-term political arrangement that would guarantee peace.

Bunche's demarcation lines proved to be temporary. In June 1967, new fighting erupted and Israel took control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In recent years, Israel has granted limited administrative control of small sectors of the West Bank and Gaza to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian authority.

It is ironic that Bunche has traditionally been criticized by the Arab side. Not only was he quite disturbed by Israel behavior during and after the war, but he was far more sympathetic to Palestinian aspirations than most U.S. politicians are today.

The U.S. Congress, for example, has effectively recognized Israel's unilateral control of greater Jerusalem, rejecting the position of Bunche and the United Nations that the holy city be shared. Rather than upholding Bunche's belief that Palestinians should have close to half of Palestine, the Clinton administration opposes Palestinian statehood and has only supported limited Palestinian autonomy for some segments of the West Bank and Gaza, constituting barely 8 percent of Palestine.

With the current phase of the Middle East peace process in jeopardy, it is important to remember Bunche, a statesman who never gave up in his belief that any crisis can be resolved when peoples and governments truly believe that it's in their best interest to do so.

Whether it was negotiating an end to the Arab-Israeli war, analyzing the effects of colonialism in Africa or waging the battle for civil rights in the United States, Bunche demonstrated a level of integrity, persistence, intelligence and principle rarely seen in contemporary international affairs. It is remarkable that, except for Bunche's appearance on a 20-cent stamp in 1982, there is little recognition in the United States today of this remarkable diplomat.

When Bunche died, then U.N. Secretary-General U Thant, described him as one who was "modest but tough, brilliant but unassuming, tireless but compassionate, strong but understanding, and he gained a position and reputation in the world at large which any man might well envy.

"No one could doubt that beneath his extraordinary ability and performance was a driving passion for peace, for justice and for human decency and dignity," the secretary-general said.

Stephen Zunes is an assistant professor in the department of politics and chair of the peace and justice program at the University of San Francisco.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad