Future of U.S. Initiative on the Arab Refugee Problem

(November 28, 1962)

This is a memorandum from the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Talbot and the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Cleveland to Secretary of State Rusk analyzing the future of the U.S. initiative on the Palestinian refugee problem.

We have reached a crossroads in this initiative. There are before us both short and long range considerations, the former related to handling of the Special Political Committee debate now scheduled to begin November 28, and the latter dependent on a basic Presidential decision (sought in proposed Memorandum for the President attached at Tab A) as to the degree of US interest in progress on this problem and willingness to commit greater US influence than has been the case to date. In addition, Mrs. Meir is expected to see the President soon.

Regarding the problem posed by the imminent debate, you had earlier approved a course looking toward a non-specific, non-abrasive, US-sponsored resolution tied back only obliquely to the general substance of Johnson's approach. In effect, this would have patted the PCC on the back and said: you have gained some useful experience, keep up the good work. After debate, with impetus clearly preserved by the Assembly's action and with a broadened international appreciation of some basic do's and don'ts on this problem, we would have looked forward to renewed substantive discussion with the parties within the conceptual framework of Johnson's approach, with Johnson in or out of the picture as the situation warranted but almost certainly with a more active role by the US.

In the acting out of this scenario there were two important developments so far this week. On November 26 Dr. Johnson handed us a 28-page draft report. This does not present his "Plan", but reviews the history of his endeavors, presents an analysis of broad elements which would have to be part of any solution under Paragraph 11, and gives the parties' reactions, including Israel's peremptory rejection. We understand he has sent you a copy. He is understood to be willing to modify his report, or defer its presentation, only if there is sufficient modification of Israel's adamantly negative response as to permit reasonable expectation that there could be useful discussions carried on after the debate.

The second important development was the holding on November 26 of an informal PCC meeting. At this, the Turks took a far harder line than we had expected, insisting that there must be no Johnson report and no substantive reference to his work by PCC members at any stage in debate. The Turks went so far as to say they would come out in opposition to Johnson's work if we alluded to it favorably. (However, Ambassador Menemencioglu today said Turkey would support whatever course we elect to follow.) The French position was "in-between" and recent reports indicate considerable flexibility.

Thus, neither the parties nor our PCC colleagues want to deal with Johnson's work or the substantive aspects of this problem. We are asked to limit our objectives in the General Assembly to an extension of UNRWA and go on subscribing 70% of its budget in the absence of political progress on this problem of ever growing dimensions--with all the troubles this stores up for us with Congress. So far, the French and Turks have been hearing largely the do-nothing demands of the parties, particularly the Israelis. Their positions, particularly the Turk, are probably susceptible to change. We suspect there is also give in the Israeli position which has not yet been exposed. It is difficult to believe that they would wish to sustain in open debate the obdurate position Mrs. Meir took with you November 21. But moving either our PCC colleagues or the Israelis, or for that matter keeping the Arabs in line, requires an immediate Presidential decision as to whether this Government can now and in the longer run use a greater measure of its influence to induce cooperation, or whether we should move rapidly to achieve our fallback objective (set the stage for withdrawal of our support from Paragraph 11, for a new look, and for gradual United States disengagement or modification of the nature of its involvement). In this regard, a Memorandum for the President is attached for your consideration (Tab A). This also suggests that, if it is decided we should sustain a firm line, he signal this to Mrs. Meir at his impending meeting with her. We would like to know his decision as soon as possible as it will also determine what we will do vis-à-vis Johnson's report and our PCC colleagues over the next few days, and our course of action in debate.

If your decision and that of the President is that we are unwilling to engage sustained US influence in the effort to advance a solution built on Dr. Johnson's valuable experience, and if we are directed to achieve our fallback position, we would urge Dr. Johnson in the national interest to submit a full report. If such a report were rejected by the Arabs, or by both the Arabs and Israel, we should have achieved our fallback objective.

If the decision is to place greater United States weight behind a continuation of the refugee initiative, there are two alternative courses of action we might take:

First Alternative

This is premised on the belief that it is undesirable for Johnson to submit a report embodying his original "Plan" and written "Explanation," but that it is important that his distillation of the principal considerations, concepts and elements involved in any settlement of the refugee issue under Paragraph 11 should be put in writing in order (a) to allow the world community better to understand the problem and more intelligently to deal with it, (b) to offer the refugees reasonably full and accurate information concerning Johnson's work in the hope of increasing the ferment now at work among them, and (c) to provide the US Government with a document for use in informing accurately those American citizens who are subject to misconceptions. There is also the longer range purpose of preserving them for possible future use. This alternative postulates that to keep these elements under the table would be to lose a singular opportunity to put misconceptions to rest and build support for the initiative; one of the recurrent problems in winning support and countering distortion has been the lack of a public awareness of the dimensions of this problem or of the general nature of Johnson's proposals.

This would involve our urging Johnson to avoid unnecessarily, in his report, antagonizing either the Arabs or Israel. For example, he could change the last few paragraphs to show that neither party was willing to acquiesce in initiation of the process he had originally proposed. We would make necessary efforts with the French and Turks to get them to go along with us in agreeing to Johnson's submission of a report. We would tell Israel we would expect it to do nothing to embarrass us or Johnson; we would advise the Arabs not to isolate themselves, not to lose any chance of a reasonable amount of repatriation, and not to force us to disengage from the refugee problem; we would issue a brief press release praising the Johnson report and requesting all UN members to examine and consider it carefully. In debate, our initial speech would urge moderation upon the part of both parties and would propose that the PCC effort continue. We would reserve our position on the extension of UNRWA until our two-pronged resolution is introduced calling for: (1) continuation of the PCC effort, and (2) extension of UNRWA for one year.

Under this alternative, if the Arabs kick over the traces we shall still have achieved our fallback objective. If they do not, and if Israel stands still, we shall be enabled to pursue the initiative, allowing time for world and refugee opinion to marshal.

To persuade Israel to cooperate, we would propose that the President speak firmly to Mrs. Meir along the lines suggested in the proposed memorandum to him.

Second Alternative

This, too, would involve the President's giving a strong signal of our firm intention to Mrs. Meir. The main difference from the first alternative is that Dr. Johnson would be asked not to submit a substantive report at this time. In exchange for going along with their collective wishes in this respect, our PCC colleagues, the Arabs and Israel would be asked to agree that (a) they will not attack in the General Assembly debate the Johnson initiative, (b) discussions under the aegis of the PCC (carried out either by Johnson or the USG) within the general conceptual framework of the Johnson proposals would be carried on following debate, (c) partisan proposals, including Israel's direct negotiations resolution, would not be introduced, and (d) the PCC would publish a substantive report, including a report from Dr. Johnson, by mid-February if no progress had been made. We understand Dr. Johnson is informing the Turks and French that assurances in accordance with (b), (c) and (d) are prerequisites if he is to consider submission of a non-substantive report or no report at this time. In addition, Dr. Johnson has made clear that under this alternative he would expect, if any misrepresentations of his proposals were made in the General Assembly debate, a member of the PCC would promptly take exception.

This approach would minimize the risk of a cross-fire debate centering on the Johnson proposals and perhaps leading one party or both to a foreclosure of continued meaningful negotiation along the lines of the Johnson proposals.

This general line of approach is set forth in the attached cable from New York--sent prior to Ambassador Menemencioglu's remarks here.


1. That you sign the attached Memorandum for the President and urge that he inform the Department at the earliest possible moment of his views.

2. That, if the President decides to proceed with the more active US role, you direct us to pursue either

Alternative One

Alternative Two.


Arab Refugees

1. The Situation

Our efforts to advance the Arab refugee problem toward solution have now reached a crossroads: (a) the Arab governments, having objections to the Johnson proposals and fearing their acceptance would constitute tacit recognition of Israel, but not wishing to bear the onus of outright rejection, have kept relatively quiet and are maintaining freedom of maneuver; (b) the Arab refugees are reported by qualified observers to be showing interest in the prospect of receiving compensation and to be largely in favor of resettlement rather than opting to live under a Jewish government; and (c) in private Israel has flatly rejected the Johnson approach or anything deriving therefrom, has scorned the utility of the Harman-Talbot talks that sought to find common "building blocks" for a refugee settlement, but has avoided clear public rejection of the Johnson Plan.

In our discussions with the parties we have not directly supported Johnson's proposals but have limited ourselves to describing their merits as we see them and commending them to the careful attention of the Parties.

2. Objectives

a) Primary. Resolution of the Arab refugee problem over a period of years on the basis of a reasonable amount of repatriation and a large amount of resettlement with compensation.

b) Fall-back. Freedom to cease active support of Paragraph 11 of Resolution 194 as a result of rejection of the Johnson proposals by both the Arabs and Israel or by the Arabs only and to move at a time of our choosing toward disengagement from the Arab refugee issue.

3. Possible Course of Action

Two acceptable courses of action are available: (a) we can give up, or (b) we can decide it to be in our interest to seek seriously to gain the acquiescence of the Parties to a process roughly along the lines charted by Johnson and our bilateral negotiations with Israel. The latter course would require engaging our influence with both the Arabs and Israel, but we would be obliged to "lean on" Israel particularly hard because the process envisioned by Johnson cannot begin unless Israel changes its position from rejection to acquiescence. Likewise, our fall-back objective becomes more difficult of achievement if Israel does not acquiesce.

Whatever our decision, the principles of the Johnson approach should be made public at some time so that they become a part of the Parties' thinking in the future just as Eric Johnston's unsuccessful Jordan Valley plan has been a determining element in projects for the development of the Jordan waters.

4. Pro's and Con's of Giving Up

By giving up we would avoid fully engaging United States prestige in a project which at best has only small chance of succeeding, and we would avoid creating stresses in our relations with Israel and to a lesser extent with the Arabs. If in the process of giving up we were successful in achieving our fall-back objective we would be in a position to disengage when and if circumstances permit.

But if we give up now, rising domestic pressures for disengagement may rule out another major effort to find an equitable solution involving repatriation of a reasonable number of refugees to Israel. In any event a new major effort based on equity probably could not be cranked up for five or six years (the last major effort was in 1955-56). In all fairness, the Arabs should not be forced to resettle all the refugees unless they have refused a reasonable proposition. If we stop our effort now, the Arabs will know that Israel is blocking us. As a result (a) our image of even-handedness as between Israel and the Arabs will be tarnished, and (b) our effectiveness in dealing with the Arabs on other Arab-Israel issues such as the Jordan waters will be impaired. Further, if we give up now, we shall have greater difficulty in achieving our fall-back objective without transparently forcing Arab rejection. Also, by giving up we would clear the way for Israel to press its troublesome direct negotiations resolution and for the Arabs to urge reconstitution of the PCC and establishment of a custodian for Arab properties in Israel. Finally, if Israel defeats us on this issue, Israel will be encouraged to believe it can defeat us on other important issues such as improvement in the effectiveness of UNTSO.

5. Pro's and Con's of Leaning on Israel to Acquiesce

Your Administration is pledged actively to seek progress in ending the Arab-Israel conflict. The present PCC initiative, which is a step in this direction, was undertaken at the instance of the United States Government and was launched by despatch of your letters of May 11, 1961, to six Arab leaders and your talk with Ben-Gurion on May 30, 1961. Given the central role of the refugee problem in the Arab-Israel conflict, there is merit in mounting a full-scale effort to resolve it. The problem becomes more pressing each year with the growth in the number of refugees and their discontent, and the rising impatience of contributor nations to get out from under the financial burdens of supporting the refugees. Ben-Gurion agreed with you that a solution on the twin bases of resettlement with compensation and repatriation was "worth a try". Yet Israel so far has refused to acquiesce in proposals which would enable a try to be made despite our far-reaching efforts to meet Israel's vital concerns. (In this connection, I recommend you read Enclosure 1.) There is general consensus, including domestic Jewish leaders, that Israel can accept 100,000 Arab refugees without endangering its security. If Israel acquiesces, any failure to achieve progress will clearly be attributable to the Arabs and will open the door to United States and United Nations disengagement.

Generation of influence strong enough to move Israel from a position of rejection to one of acquiescence will create stresses in our relations with Israel, with a reflection of these stresses in the attitude of the domestic supporters of Israel toward the Administration. Creation of the stresses may bring no immediate benefits in terms of progress on the refugee issue (but would facilitate achievement at least of our fall-back position).

If we do decide to "lean on" Israel, we would propose also to exert on the Arabs, to encourage their acquiescence, those limited pressures available to us, such as hinting at a change in our attitude toward the direct negotiations resolution, reduction of financial support for UNRWA, and movement toward disengagement from the refugee issue.

6. Consequences of Failure

a) Failure of a strong line with Israel. If you take the decision to "lean on" Israel but Israel does not cooperate despite the pressures and the present favorable conjunction of circumstances, our ability to induce Israel's cooperation in other courses of action we consider useful would be correspondingly reduced.

b) Failure of a strong line with the Arabs. We believe that failure to obtain Arab acquiescence need not result in any marked change in the nature of our relations with the Arab states.

c) Failure of a strong line to achieve progress. We believe that engagement of United States prestige in an effort that eventually fails to solve the Arab refugee problem will not be damaging to the United States. To the contrary, the international community is likely to applaud our attempt and will be more likely to go along with the withdrawal of our support from Paragraph 11.

7. Conclusion

Your decision is required whether it is in the over-all United States interest to pursue seriously the PCC initiative on the Arab refugee problem understanding that (a) there is only a limited possibility of achieving our primary objective; (b) it will be necessary to "lean on" both parties--Israel probably harder than the Arabs--to gain acquiescence; but (c) if no progress is made, we would at least be able to achieve our fall-back objective under which it would be possible in due course to disengage from or modify our existing commitments on the refugee issue.

If you decide that the United States should throw added weight behind the PCC initiative, we recommend that you (a) inform Mrs. Meir of this fact and request that Israel take no public action either in the coming General Assembly debate or elsewhere which would embarrass the United States or Johnson, (b) make clear to her that following the General Assembly debate the United States will expect there to be meaningful consultations under the aegis of the PCC on the refugee issue, using the conceptual framework which Johnson's work has established, and (c) advise her that you are displeased at Israel's lack of reciprocity on a matter of major importance despite the numerous benefits received from the United States.

If you decide, however, that we should give up the PCC initiative, we recommend that you (a) inform Mrs. Meir only that we look to Israel to do nothing in the General Assembly debate that would embarrass either the United States or Johnson, (b) state our expectation that Israel will honor its commitment not to introduce the direct negotiations resolution, and (c) express to her your dissatisfaction with Israel's attitude in dealing with us on this matter.

Whatever decision you take, we recommend you receive Dr. Johnson prior to initiation of the General Assembly debate on the refugee item.

Dean Rusk

Source: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963: Near East, 1962-1963, V. XVIII. DC: GPO, 2000.