Tuesday, August 16, 2016

118 - Editors' Notes on UN Secretary-General Hammarskjöld’s Report of May 9, 1956

On May 9, 1956 Dag Hammarskjöld submitted his “Report to the Security Council Pursuant to the Council’s Resolution of April 4, 1956, on the Palestine Question.” On May 11, the UN SG held a press conference to discuss his findings.
            Israeli spokesmen initially presented an upbeat and optimistic picture of the SG’s Middle East mission for public consumption. The DG of the MFA welcomed the report as “a political paper of first-class importance, the most important ... to deal with Israel-Arab relations since Israel came into existence.” After praising the Report’s sophistication, tone, balance and forthrightness, Walter Eytan added that it was “difficult to resist the feeling that Mr Hammarskjold’s report has done more than state the facts or clear the air: it seems to have created an opportunity for a real advance towards better relations in the Middle East.” For his part, British Ambassador Jack Nicholls in Tel Aviv was “struck by the apparent contradiction between Israeli satisfaction with [Hammarskjöld’s] visit and his own indications that he found the Israelis most difficult and unhelpful.”

          Hammarskjöld’s impressions of Israelis and Egyptians were conveyed to Britain’s chief delegate at the United Nations in New York, Sir Pierson Dixon. During an “extremely confusing lunch-table discussion” on May 8, Dixon reported that: 

Mr Hammarskjold was very critical of Colonel Nasser, but unstinted in his praise of M. Fawzi. [- - -] [H]e had spent 27 hours in discussion with Mr Ben Gurion. Towards the end he had come to like and respect the old man, who had been very considerate to him. Mr Ben Gurion’s basic attitude however shocked him deeply. He was not prepared to accept the authority of the United Nations or basic principles of the Charter. At all stages he insisted on reserving the right of Israel to repudiate or reject decisions of the United Nations where Israel believed her sovereignty to be threatened or prejudiced. In the end he thought he had brought Mr Ben Gurion round to a more charitable view of the United Nations and to a greater sense of his international obligations. [- - -] There can be no doubt that Mr Hammarskjold feels that he had a very rough time and had to resort to methods very different from his favourite quiet diplomacy in order to achieve as much as he did. Several times he said that it had been like being in a mad-house, and constantly stressed how often he had been obliged to thump the table and deliver ultimatums. All this was obviously highly uncongenial. I think also that there is an element of bitterness against the Israelis. He confessed that at one moment he thought he was going to be able to bring off a deal in connexion with the reduction of Egyptian troop concentrations in Sinai etc. [- - -] But Mr Ben Gurion, who had encouraged him to talk to the Egyptians on these lines, had absolutely refused to go along with the idea once Mr Hammarskjold had shown that the Egyptians might play.
Hammarskjöld’s attitudes were much more colorfully described by Dixon in a subsequent letter:
     During a conversation on May 9 the Secretary General spoke to me very frankly about his misgivings and the impressions the Israelis had created on him. He said that he had returned profoundly depressed from his visit to the Middle East. To be quite frank he did not think it would be possible to find a solution to the Palestine problem. His reasons were as follows.
     Israel, for all outward appearances, had not the makings of a state. It was not really a nation. The motive power came from a few fanatics at the top. He did not believe that on a longer view anything more than a “symbolic enclave” could be visualised.
     Then, apart from Ben Gurion, there was no real leader; and Ben Gurion, though not without a touch of greatness, had so many faults that he could not be relied on to lead the country into nationhood.
    But what had depressed Mr Hammarskjold most of all was the underlying state of mind of the Israeli leadership – a combination of an inferiority complex and a fatalistic conviction that violence was their only weapon for survival. This was a very unhealthy pathological attitude which was far more dangerous than the “madness” of the Arabs. The Israelis were as doomed as Oedipus. The Arabs were just plain simple crazy.
     Mr Hammarskjold likes rationalising international situations along psychological lines, and his remarks as such need not perhaps be taken too literally. Still, I feel sure that these impressions are deeply imprinted and account for his present disinclination to be involved in the future as a principal in the Palestine imbroglio.

SOURCES: The Report is in SCOR 11th year, supplement Apr-May-June 1956, document S/3596;text published in Public Papers of the Secretaries-General of the United Nations: vol.III Dag Hammarskjöld, 1956-1957, eds. Andrew W. Cordier & Wilder Foote, (New York / London: Columbia University Press, 1973), 84-111; news conference in ibid., 111-23.
       Israeli comments given in the "Voice of Zion" broadcast in English, May 13, 1956, ISA FM 130.02/3/5934/33; “New Opportunities following the Secretary-General’s Report,” Omer, May 15, 1956, transl. extract in TNA FO371/121741 VR1074/292; “After Hammarskjold – the First Test,” Jewish Observer and Middle East Review, May 25, 1956, clipping in UNA S-0159-0004-07
       Other impressions are in: Nicholls to Rose, May 23, 1956, FO371/121741 VR1074/292; Dixon to FO, May 8, 1956, TNA FO371/121739 VR1074/225; Dixon to Ross, May 11, 1956, Secret, TNA FO371/121740 VR1074/274.