Review of Johnson's Visit to the Near East
(September 29, 1961)
This memorandum highlights Dr. Joseph Johnson's visit to the Near East, where he met with representatives from Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and the United Arab Republic, after which he conveys a lack of coherence in terms of the means necessary in solving the Palestinian refugee problem, and the necessity for U.S. involvement.
Washington, September 29, 1961.
Dr. Johnson's Mission to the Middle East/2/
Dr. Johnson said he assumed the Department has received a report from USUN of his interim, oral report to the Palestine Conciliation Commission on September 26./3/ On the surface, there has been no change in public attitudes toward the refugee problem on the part of host governments or Israel. The Arabs insist on repatriation as the sine qua non of any movement; the Israelis insist there can be no repatriation without a change in basic Arab attitudes toward Israel. In effect, each side says action depends on the other. At the same time, there does appear a real possibility--"not a great possibility and certainly not a probability"--that an individual working over a period of several months, exploring, needling, making the parties aware of UN and US concern, might achieve some progress. Even so, a hard core of refugees will remain for at least 15 years, requiring a continuation of UNRWA or its equivalent. A substitute in the form of contributions to governments to enable them to care for the refugees is simply not practical.
Mr. Cleveland remarked that we are very cautious about a hasty extension of UNRWA's mandate. It is the only leverage we have with the Arabs.
Dr. Johnson said he recognized this to be the case, although he cannot feel our financial support of UNRWA is a very effective lever.
Dr. Johnson said he had not, at first, been convinced of the desirability of appointing an American as Special Representative of the PCC. His trip had convinced him that the job must be undertaken by an American. Any movement toward solution must at some point involve United States Government action or the parties will have no faith in US willingness to follow through. Dr. Johnson said he believes his own degree of association with the U.S. Government has perhaps been ideal. It is known that he is acquainted with officers in the Department, yet his connection is neither too close nor too visible. Dr. Johnson commented that he believes the decision not to send a Department officer with him as escort was entirely right. The presence of such an officer would have identified him with this Government to an undesirable degree. As it was, Mr. Moe of the UNRWA staff had been a most helpful and well-informed companion. The efficiency of UN and UNRWA administrative support had been extremely gratifying. American diplomatic representatives had also been most helpful and demonstrated a sympathetic understanding of the Special Representative's need to protect his identity as a UN emissary.
Responding to questions from those present, Dr. Johnson said it was clear to him that the Arabs had not coordinated their positions in advance of his arrival. Obviously, Lebanese suggestions that "resettlement" means settlement only within the confines of former Palestine were motivated by special domestic considerations. Jordan showed itself the country most anxious to resolve the refugee problem on realistic terms. Perhaps the least rewarding of the conversations which had taken place was that with UAR Foreign Minister Fawzi. The talk with Prime Minister Ben-Gurion was the "roughest". So harsh did Ben-Gurion become that at one point Dr. Johnson said he had considered walking out, if only for tactical purposes. Interestingly enough, Ben-Gurion had sent a note of apology: apparently an unusual step for him.
Compensation of refugees, per se, constitutes no problem in the minds of people of the area, either Israeli or Arab, since they are convinced the US will foot the bill. It is equally clear that compensation is not enough. It will help only a very small number of the refugees. Something will have to be done for the others to make them feel that they are being "compensated" and that they are receiving something with which to make a new start.
In terms of specifics, the "hunch" is that Israel might accept somewhere up to 10,000 refugees per year for an initial period of 2 or 3 years provided there were some movement on the Arab side as well. The refugees must be given a meaningful choice, not just an alternative between remaining in the camps or going to Israel. They must be given a chance to see what Israel has become. When they have the opportunity of meaningful choice, their true wishes must be ascertained, perhaps by something along the lines of the Upper Silesia referendum. In the end, of course, any solution may be rejected by the Arabs on political grounds, as was Eric Johnston's Jordan waters plan; "still, the effort is worth a try".
Dr. Johnson said he had informed the Secretary, in confidence, that he intends to frame his report to the PCC as if he were discontinuing his connection with the refugee problem. It would genuinely be very difficult to disregard his responsibilities to the Carnegie Endowment if, despite the nature of his report, there should be a request that he continue to engage himself in the problem after the Assembly session.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, 325.84/9-2961. Confidential; Limit Distribution. Drafted by Crawford (NEA/NE) on October 5.
/2/Between September 1 and 17, Johnson visited the following Near Eastern cities: Beirut September 1-3, for talks with UNRWA Director Davis; Amman September 4-7, for talks with Jordanian Foreign Minister Talhouni; Beirut September 8-10, for talks with Lebanese Foreign Minister Takla; Cairo September 10-13, for talks with UAR Foreign Minister Fawzi; Israel September 13-16, for talks with Israeli leaders; Amman September 16-17, for talks with Jordanian Prime Minister Talhouni. Additional documentation on Johnson's trip is ibid., 325.84. See also Supplement, the compilation on the Arab-Israeli dispute.
/3/Johnson reported to Secretary Rusk on his mission during a meeting at USUN in New York on September 26. The memorandum of conversation is in Department of State, Secretary's Memoranda of Conversation: Lot 65 D 330. Telegram 918 from USUN, September 26, contained a summary of Johnson's interim report. (Ibid., Central Files, 825.84/9-2661) For text, see Supplement, the compilation on the Arab-Israeli dispute. Johnson submitted his final report to the General Assembly on November 24. (U.N. doc. A/4921/Add.1) See Document 140.
Source: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963: Near East, 1962-1963, V. XVIII.