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John F. Kennedy Administration: Account of the Lake Tiberias Incident and the U.S.'s Involvement

(April 18, 1962)

This is a memorandum is from the Deptrtment of State to the President's Special Assisatnt for National Security, regarding Israel's use of force against Syria and the Syrian government's complaints in relation to the Lake Tiberias incident.

Memorandum From the Department of State Executive Secretary (Battle) to the President's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy)/1/

Security Council Consideration of the Lake Tiberias Incidents

Mr. Feldman requested Assistant Secretary Cleveland to provide the White House with a recapitulation of the recent Security Council consideration of the Israeli-Syrian controversy, with appropriate material which could be drawn upon in response to complaints and inquiries.

Nature of the Complaints

The Syrian complaint centered on an Israeli raid in force, launched from within the Demilitarized Zone on the night of March 16/17. Israel counter-claimed a) that Israeli fishermen and police patrol boats on Lake Tiberias had been fired upon by the Syrians and b) that Israel's political independence had been threatened in statements by high officials of the Syrian Government.


The Lake Tiberias region is a particularly sensitive one because: a) Syria has traditionally been particularly and vigorously anti-Israeli and is determined to resist Israeli encroachments in the Demilitarized Zone and b) the Arabs are agitated about Israel's plan to withdraw Jordan Basin waters from Lake Tiberias in late 1963. Israel alleges absolute sovereignty over the entire lake. In response to Mr. Feldman's request, the Legal Advisor is preparing and will shortly transmit a thorough legal exposition of the position of the U.S. Government on this question of sovereignty./2/The Israelis continue to be acutely sensitive regarding anything which might conceivably be construed as derogating from their claim of absolute sovereignty over the Southern Demilitarized Zone and the lake. Thus, they have rejected proposals for the stationing of an UNTSO patrol boat on the lake and have refused since 1951 to participate in the Mixed Armistice Commission which was set up under the General Armistice Agreement (Tab A) to cope with complaints regarding breaches of the Agreement.

Israel had been called before the Council four times previously for making retaliatory raids. Israel was specifically condemned by the Council for a similar Tiberias raid in 1956 (Tab B).

The Formulation of the U.S. Position

Our major aim during this exercise was to strengthen the U.N. peacekeeping machinery in the field and to encourage the parties to cooperate more fully with it so as to render the recurrence of such hostilities unlikely. In order to prevent the Soviets and/or the UAR from pre-empting the situation and to give us the maximum degree of control over the outcome, we and the British decided to sponsor a reasonable, balanced, and constructive resolution.

The Secretary sent to the President on March 28 a memorandum outlining the projected U.S. position (Tab C). A proposed resolution was enclosed. On the basis of the von Horn report (Tab D), reports from our posts in the area, and consultations with the Israelis, friendly Council members and Dr. Bunche, USUN drafted the preliminary U.S. statement, which was cleared in the Department and delivered by Ambassador Stevenson on March 28 (Tab E). Mr. Cleveland was informed by you that we should proceed along the lines of the memorandum, and USUN was authorized to proceed accordingly (Tab F).

In keeping with the Council's previous stand on retaliatory raids, in our original draft resolution the Israeli attack of March 16/17 was explicitly condemned. However, adequate balance was provided by a paragraph which would have held "that the hostile actions from Syrian territory of March 8" were clearly violations of the cease-fire. Although the presumption is that Syrian provocation took place, UNTSO was unable conclusively to determine where the responsibility lay for initiating the several fire exchanges which occurred prior to the Israeli raid. In response to questions put by members of the Council General von Horn made further observations on April 4 (Tab G). A major reason for the fragmentary nature of UNTSO's information was the denial by both parties of sufficient observational facilities and freedom of movement to the UN observers.

The Israelis made energetic representations at all levels, including a call by their Ambassador on the Secretary on April 2 to persuade us to desist from supporting a condemnatory resolution (Tab H). Consultations with the Israelis in New York, Tel Aviv and Washington were frequent and frank throughout.

Despite the fact that we had urged the Israelis not to bring into the Council debate the contentious question of sovereignty over Lake Tiberias their representative explicitly reaffirmed their assertion of sovereignty in two statements before the Council. It was determined by USUN that it would be tactically undesirable for us publicly to take issue with Israel on this aspect of the problem in the Security Council debate.

In light of the consultations conducted with regard to the resolution, the Department reconsidered its original draft. Ambassador Stevenson was given discretion to negotiate within a range between a strong version and a milder one (Tab I). He decided to use the milder version as the basis for further negotiations and so informed you and Mr. Schlesinger.

The Israelis, who were obviously acquainted with our first draft, should have been pleased that we decided to pursue a milder resolution. Meanwhile, however, more background information became available, publicly and privately, from General von Horn, who had come to New York at our suggestion, and from sources in the field. Inter alia, this information strengthened doubts about who had really provoked whom in the fire exchanges prior to the Israeli raid. USUN came to the conclusion, with which the Department concurred, that a factual justification for charges that the Syrians bore exclusive responsibility for initiating the hostile exchanges simply could not be made. Consequently the resolution took on a less "balanced" if more objective cast, in order to reflect more accurately the ascertainable facts and accordingly to make it more viable in the Council. Naturally, the Israelis were disappointed about these last changes. You will note that in our major statement (Tab J) we took the Syrians seriously to task for raising the level of fire in the March 8 exchange.

Moreover, we were as responsive to Israeli suggestions about the resolution as the facts of the situation warranted. For example: (a) the resolution does not newly and directly condemn Israel, but rather reaffirms the Council's position on retaliatory raids; (b) in response to Israel's second complaint, an operative paragraph calling upon both Governments to refrain from the threat as well as the use of force was added to our original draft and later the phraseology of this paragraph was changed to make it even more satisfactory to the Israelis; (c) we eliminated a direct call upon the Governments to exclude their armed forces from the Demilitarized Zone and reduce their forces in the Defensive Area; and (d) we changed another paragraph so that the emphasis would not be solely on the reactivation of the Mixed Armistice Commission, but also on the Armistice machinery. Points (a) and (d) were major changes. At the last minute, we also made a "technical" change at Israeli request by deleting reference to the Demilitarized Zone as the "Syrian-Israeli" DZ. In retrospect it seems fair to say that despite its allegations of great unhappiness about the outcome, Israel got more of the changes it wanted in the resolution than it had good reason to expect. (Tab J(1))

The Council Action

The US-UK resolution as approved by a vote of 10 to 0 with France abstaining constitutes, in our view, an evenhanded approach to the March incident and a constructive directive for future action by UNTSO and the two parties. The vote was a convincing demonstration of the value of our taking the initiative in such cases. The completely one-sided Syrian draft resolution (Tab K) was not even pressed to a vote.

We regarded it as very important that the Council adopt a reasonable resolution. If the Council had failed to pass a resolution, which was the outcome the Israelis indicated they would have welcomed, the Council would have: 1) failed to exercise any restraining influence; 2) in effect condoned Israel's deliberate policy of retaliatory raids; and 3) failed to support and strengthen the United Nations machinery on the ground. The net result would have been to increase the risk of renewed hostilities.


Attached as Tab L is material which you may wish to draw upon in replying to inquiries about the United States position in the Lake Tiberias dispute.

A.E. Breisky/3/

/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, 683.84A/4-1862. Confidential. Drafted by Palmer and cleared by Cleveland, Talbot, Strong in draft, Buffum, and Ludlow. None of the tabs cited in this memorandum are attached to the source text. Copies of tabs A, K, and L are ibid., NEA/IAI Files: Lot 70 D 229, POL 32-1/3 Territories and Boundary April 1962.

/2/A paper entitled "United States Government Position Concerning Sovereignty Over Lake Tiberias and the Withdrawal of Water Therefrom," drafted by Hewitt on April 16, is ibid., Central Files, 683.84A/4-1662. It indicates: "The United States Government considers that while Israel presently possesses exclusive rights of jurisdiction and control over Lake Tiberias, sovereignty over the lake has not yet been finally established." A subsequent draft by Hewitt of April 23, entitled "Sovereignty Over Lake Tiberias," which reaches the same conclusion, is ibid., L/NEA Files: Lot 72 D 199, Palestine-Tiberias 1962.

/3/Breisky signed for Battle above Battle's typed signature.

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