In France, where news and opinion are blurred, Mr. Daniel, a self-described non-Communist leftist, used journalism as a means of advocacy.
A half-century before President Barack Obama ordered a restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014, Jean Daniel, a French journalist on a secret mission to Havana in the autumn of 1963, delivered a proposal by President John F. Kennedy to Fidel Castro.
It was an offer to explore a rapprochement.
Despite the distrust and raw feelings of the Cuban missile crisis, which had nearly plunged the world into nuclear war a year earlier, Mr. Daniel, a confidant of political leaders in many capitals during the Cold War, found Castro surprisingly, if cautiously, receptive to Kennedy’s overture.
Three days later — it was Nov. 22, 1963 — over lunch at Castro’s seafront retreat on Varadero Beach, they were still discussing the offer when the phone rang with urgent news. Castro, the Cuban leader since 1959, picked up the receiver.
“Herido?” he said. “Muy gravemente?” (“Wounded? Very seriously?”)
Mr. Daniel — who died on Wednesday at 99 at his home in Paris, according to L’Obs, the left-leaning weekly newsmagazine he co-founded — recalled the dramatic scene with Castro in an article in The New Republic days after it happened.
“He came back, sat down and repeated three times the words: ‘Es una mala noticia.’ (‘This is bad news.’)” They tuned into a Miami radio station as the reports trickled out of Dallas. Mr. Daniel paraphrased them: “Kennedy wounded in the head; pursuit of the assassin; murder of a policeman; finally the fatal announcement: President Kennedy is dead.”
Both knew instantly that rapprochement had died with the president. “Then Fidel stood up,” Mr. Daniel related, “and said to me: ‘Everything is changed. Everything is going to change.’”
In the swirl of investigations and conspiracy theories that followed the assassination — many of them linking the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, to Castro — Kennedy’s offer became a footnote to history, and Mr. Daniel moved on to other crises in a career that touched major conflicts of an era: the French-Algerian war, Israeli-Palestinian clashes, Indochina, the Cold War and, more recently, terrorism
Mr. Daniel, a self-described Jewish humanist and non-Communist leftist, was one of France’s leading intellectual journalists, a friend and colleague of the philosopher-writers Jean-Paul Sartre, who rejected his 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, and Albert Camus, who accepted his 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature. Like Camus, Mr. Daniel was born in Algeria.
In France, where news and opinion are blurred and journals typically report and interpret events with a political or cultural bias, Mr. Daniel used journalism as a means of advocacy. He also had influence in high government circles. He was a friend of David Ben-Gurion, the Zionist who became Israel’s founding prime minister in 1948, and for 60 years he supported Israeli interests.
But Mr. Daniel also defended Palestinian and Arab rights. He condemned the Arab-Israeli War in 1967 as an unwarranted expansion by Israel. In lightning airstrikes and ground assaults, Israel inflicted heavy losses on the Arabs and seized the Sinai Peninsula, East Jerusalem and cities and territory on the West Bank.
From 1954 to 1964, he was a correspondent and editor of the leftist weekly newsmagazine L’Express, which opposed French colonialism in Indochina and Algeria. He was also a confidant of Pierre Mendès-France, the French premier who withdrew French forces from Indochina after their defeat by Vietnamese Communists at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
As a correspondent in Algiers, Mr. Daniel supported Algeria’s war of independence from French colonialism. But he also deplored torture and atrocities on both sides, which continued for decades after the brutal six-year war formally ended in independence for Algeria in 1962. Mr. Daniel was close to Ahmed Ben Bella, the revolutionary who became Algeria’s first president, in 1963.
In 1964, Mr. Daniel quit L’Express and co-founded Le Nouvel Observateur, a reincarnation of the left-wing newsmagazine France Observateur. Le Nouvel Observateur was later sold and renamed L’Obs. Under his direction for 50 years, Le Nouvel Observateur became France’s leading weekly journal of political, economic and cultural news and commentary. His editorials opposed colonialism and dictatorships, and ranged over politics, literature, theology and philosophy.
Mr. Daniel, who was also a correspondent for The New Republic in the late 1950s and early ’60s, wrote for The New York Times and other publications for decades. He was the author of many books on nationalism, communism, religion, the press and other subjects, as well as novels and a well-received 1973 memoir, “Le Temps Qui Reste” (“The Time That Remains”).
His book “The Jewish Prison: A Rebellious Meditation on the State of Judaism” (2005, translated by Charlotte Mandell) suggested that prosperous, assimilated Western Jews had been enclosed by three self-imposed ideological walls — the concept of the Chosen People, Holocaust remembrance and support for Israel.
“Having trapped themselves inside these walls,” Adam Shatz wrote in The London Review of Books, “they were less able to see themselves clearly, or to appreciate the suffering of others — particularly the Palestinians living behind the ‘separation fence.’”
Jean Daniel Bensaïd was born in Blida, Algeria, on July 21, 1920. His father, Jules, was a flour miller. As a young man, Jean moved to France, studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and enlisted in the Free French Forces during World War II. He fought at Normandy, in Paris and in Alsace.
In 1947, he founded the literary review Caliban, adopted the pen name Jean Daniel and was the editor until 1951. In 1948, with permission, he republished essays by Sartre, Camus and other intellectuals that had first appeared in the polemical journal Esprit. Camus wrote an introduction to Mr. Daniel’s first novel, “L’Erreur” (1953).
Mr. Daniel married Michèle Bancilhon in 1966. She survives him, as does a daughter, Sara Daniel, a reporter at L’Obs.
In the late 1950s, Benjamin C. Bradlee, a future executive editor of The Washington Post who was then a correspondent in France for Newsweek, became acquainted with Mr. Daniel through mutual contacts in the Algerian guerrilla group FLN. It was Mr. Bradlee, a longtime friend of Kennedy’s, who suggested Mr. Daniel when the president needed a private go-between to carry his proposal to Castro in 1963.
In a meeting at the White House, Kennedy asked Mr. Daniel to convey his view that improved relations were possible, and that the president was willing to authorize exploratory talks. Mr. Daniel met Castro in Havana on Nov. 19. He said that Castro had listened with “devouring and passionate interest” and expressed cautious approval of such talks.
Three days later, after learning that the president had been slain, Castro told Mr. Daniel, “They will have to find the assassin quickly, but very quickly; otherwise, you watch and see, I know them, they will try to put the blame on us for this thing.”
After the announcement of Oswald’s arrest, Mr. Daniel recalled, “The word came through, in effect, that the assassin was a young man who was a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, that he was an admirer of Fidel Castro.”
The Warren Commission’s investigation of the assassination concluded in 1964 that Oswald had acted alone in killing Kennedy and that Jack Ruby had acted alone in killing Oswald two days later. Its report has been challenged and defended over the years.
The stalemate between Cuba and the United States, meanwhile, was continued by eight American presidents until Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother and successor, agreed on Dec. 17, 2014, to establish diplomatic relations, sweeping aside one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.
It lasted until President Trump announced in 2017 that he would keep a campaign promise and roll back the policy of engagement begun by Mr. Obama. He later reversed key portions of what he called a “terrible and misguided deal.”
Constant Mehéut contributed reporting from Paris.