The Winner Takes All: The 1949 Island of Rhodes Armistice Negotiations Revisited

By Waage, Hilde Henriksen | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Winner Takes All: The 1949 Island of Rhodes Armistice Negotiations Revisited


Waage, Hilde Henriksen, The Middle East Journal


Why is there no peace between Israel and the Palestinians? This article draws the line all the way back to the very first Arab-Israeli negotiations. In 1949, on the Island of Rhodes, UN mediator Ralph Bunche negotiated an armistice agreement between Israel and Egypt. The outcome of the first Arab-Israeli war constituted the immediate context for the negotiations and was important for the final outcome. Israel had won; the Arab states had lost the war. A large number of Palestinians had fled and had lost their homeland. After the war, Israel was in a much stronger military position than Egypt, and could resume the war if necessary. New empirical evidence shows that this imbalance of power on the ground was strengthened by strong support in Israel's favor from the UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie, as well as from the US administration. Such support served to limit the UN mediator's room for maneuver and ultimately contributed to a biased agreement. An analysis of the negotiations between Israel and Egypt at Rhodes sheds light on and widens our understanding of the approach and power relations which marked the 1949 negotiations. The armistice negotiations represent the first example of a process and an agreement based largely on Israeli premises. Such an agreement could not provide the basis for peace in the Middle East.

Ever since 1947, mediators have tried to convince Israel, the Palestinians, and their surrounding Arab neighbors that a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict is both desirable and possible. Still, all initiatives launched by the United Nations in the years following 1947 and the subsequent establishment of the State of Israel have failed. Similarly, repeated attempts by the United States have had limited success.

On the Island of Rhodes, Israeli and Egyptian delegations entered an armistice agreement under UN auspices on February 24, 1949. Ralph Bunche, a US doctor of political science and a former US State Department official, was the UN Acting Mediator (henceforth mediator). The agreement signed on Rhodes in 1949 between Israel and Egypt was the result of the first round of negotiations in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and formed the basis for three further armistice agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors: Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The armistices were intended to provide the basis for later peace negotiations, which were expected to commence within a year.1 They were initiated in Lausanne, but nothing came of them. On December 10, 1950, Ralph Bunche received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to negotiate the armistice agreements in the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbor states.2

Arab-Israeli peacemaking in the 1940s represents the crucial beginnings; the formative years that would later influence similar attempts. An appreciation of the approaches, processes, and outcomes of peace initiatives during this period is arguably of utmost importance for understanding the entire post-war era. This article seeks to shed light on the 1949 Israeli-Egyptian armistice negotiations and, through this exploration, call into question the accuracy of the traditional explanations offered with reference to this process.

In fact, crucial issues with regard to the armistice negotiations on the Island of Rhodes have not been adequately studied.3 This article will provide fresh insights into what took place on Rhodes during the Israeli-Egyptian armistice negotiations. Why did the armistice agreement reached on Rhodes fail to contribute to later peace negotiations in the Middle East? Can the answer be found in the nature of the final agreement and how this agreement was reached? Could it be that the very nature of the negotiations, with specific reference to the mediator's room for maneuver and the role of external actors, such as the United States and UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie, proved decisive in terms of the final outcome? Mediation theory points to the fact that process symmetry rarely serves to redress existing power asymmetry between negotiating parties. …

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