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John F. Kennedy Administration: Israel Requests the U.S. to Withhold Its Positions Concerning the PCC

(November 30, 1961)

This memorandum relays Foreign Minister Meir's request for the U.S. to refrain from publicly aligning its vote with the proposed Arab resolutions concerning the refugee problem, and the U.N.'s desire for the two groups to partake in direct negotiations.

Washington, November 30, 1961.

/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, 325.84/11-3061. Confidential. Drafted by Palmer (IO/UNP) on December 14 and approved in S on December 24. A November 27 memorandum from Meyer to Rusk indicates that Meir requested this meeting with Rusk to discuss the forthcoming U.N. debate on UNRWA. (Ibid., 033.84A11/11-2761) A November 30 briefing memorandum from Cleveland and Talbot for Rusk is ibid., 325.84/11-3061. An additional briefing memorandum from Cleveland to Rusk of November 30 provided a proposed rejoinder for possible Israeli complaints about U.S. support for the inclusion of the United Arab Republic in the list of participants in the 20-Nation Disarmament Forum. (Ibid., 033.84A11/11-3061)

Palestine Refugee Item at the 16th United Nations General Assembly

Foreign Minister Meir of Israel
Ambassador Avraham Harman, Embassy of Israel
Minister Mordechai Gazit, Embassy of Israel
The Secretary
IO--Assistant Secretary Cleveland
NEA--Assistant Secretary Talbot
UNP--Stephen E. Palmer Jr.

The Foreign Minister apologized for taking time from the Secretary's busy schedule, but said that consultations seemed indicated on matters which Israel deemed vital. The Secretary replied that he was always happy to see the Foreign Minister.

Mrs. Meir stated that, in Israel's view, there were four major issues with respect to the General Assembly's current consideration of the Palestine refugee item. It was her understanding that the United States and Israel had identical positions on three of these issues; namely, those concerning "The Palestine Arab Delegation," the Arab property custodian proposal, and reconstitution of the Palestine Conciliation Commission. On the fourth issue, that of strategy and tactics in the Special Political Committee, there seemed to be differences of opinion.

The Foreign Minister described how the proposal calling for direct negotiations between Israel and its Arab neighbors was initiated. The idea stemmed from visits to Israel by several presidents of African countries. They had expressed concern about the lack of international understanding of Israel's position on the Palestine refugee question, and they had indicated a desire to do something about this situation. Recently Senator Humphrey had suggested that Israel put forward a positive proposal of its own, rather than merely to react negatively to Arab proposals. Even without any support from the United States, the "peace negotiations" draft resolution favored by Israel already had about 26 supporters./2/ Mrs. Meir asked the Secretary if he could not see a positive element, at least in the tactical sense, in there being on the table a "constructive" draft as a counter to "destructive" Arab proposals. She expressed understanding of the U.S. position which favored the continuation of the PCC-Johnson initiative, but maintained that the tabling of a resolution calling for negotiations would help rather than hinder the attainment of the United States objective in the General Assembly. It would be useful in demonstrating considerable Afro-Asian support for a moderate approach. For the Afro-Asian countries which were not ill-disposed towards Israel, it would be much easier to support a positive resolution than merely to oppose Arab demands.

/2/The possible draft resolution called for direct negotiations between Israel and the Arab states. A similar draft resolution, sponsored by 14 nations, most of them from Africa, was defeated by the Special Political Committee of the U.N. General Assembly on December 19. (U.N. doc. A/SPC/L.80/Rev. 1 and Corr. 1) Additional documentation is in Department of State, Central File 321.1.

The Secretary remarked that if it were possible, he would prefer there be no debate this year on the Palestine refugee problem. There had been too much talk on this issue in the public forum. However, as usual, a debate appeared inevitable. We would be happy if this Assembly's consideration resulted in no resolution, for none was needed. Our position was motivated by a desire to insure adequate resources for the refugees and to move forward on this problem as much as possible. We considered the Johnson approach to be the best one in the circumstances.

Noting that "The Palestine Arab Delegation" had bitterly attacked Dr. Johnson's report, Mrs. Meir stated that her Delegation would not speak against the Johnson effort. Given the Arab attitude, there was no hope whatsoever for a moderate debate. Would it not be better to have something on the table from both sides? The Secretary wondered if the negotiations proposal favored by Israel would have any practical result. Mrs. Meir said that even if it were not voted on, or if voted on and defeated, it probably would not have been a fruitless exercise. She recalled that the Arabs and other elements in the General Assembly had been pounding away on the theme of negotiations to solve various disputes; for example, those between the Netherlands and Indonesia and between Austria and Italy. Israel was not requesting active U.S. support for the proposed resolution. It was asking that the United States Delegation to the United Nations be instructed to inform other delegations that the U.S. did not oppose the floating of the negotiations proposal, and, moreover, considered it to be of tactical utility.

The Secretary observed that our problem was not so much with the content of the Israeli proposal. However, there were two or three Arab proposals which the U.S. must oppose. Our opposition to these would result in considerable oratorical blood-letting. This sort of situation created problems in our relations with other states; such was the case last spring. The Secretary reiterated that currently our major effort was directed towards the continuation of the Johnson Mission.

Mrs. Meir said that even if the United States did not particularly want a resolution, the Arabs certainly would press for custodianship and probably other unacceptable proposals, so why should there not be on the table something constructive from the other side? She expressed willingness, if the United States so advised, to ask Israel's friends to defer tabling their resolution until after the Arab resolution was tabled. Mr. Cleveland noted that while the proposed Israeli resolution might have some value as an element of tactical balance, its value to the United States would lie in our not being for it. The Foreign Minister said that she would be pleased if, when asked about the negotiations proposal by such delegations as the Norwegian or Swedish, USUN indicated understanding of its tactical advantage. However, if the United States were to indicate a negative position on the proposal, the extremist Arab demands might win Assembly approval, for other delegations would conclude that the U.S. was no longer concerned about Israel's basic interests in the United Nations context. She stated that if such Arab proposals as custodianship or a radical overhaul of the PCC were endorsed by the Assembly, this would bring to an end all of Israel's attempts to cooperate with the PCC.

The Secretary remarked that he would not wish other delegations to draw the inference, from comments USUN might make regarding the Israeli proposal, that the United States might vote in favor of it. He stressed that it was much more important to insure that custodianship was not approved, and the United States would appraise the various tactical alternatives with this in mind. In response to the Secretary's inquiry, Mrs. Meir speculated that the custodianship proposal might be approved again by the SPC, but that two-thirds approval in Plenary was probably not as likely.

The Foreign Minister noted that something which Ambassador Plimpton had suggested earlier in the day in New York had worried her considerably. She said the Ambassador had proposed that Israel try to prove that property abandoned by Arab refugees and taken over by the state had, in fact, been condemned by the Israeli Government for "public use" in accordance with the 1947 Partition Resolution./3/ The Foreign Minister described this as a very dangerous idea. Israel was, after all, a sovereign state. It stood ready to pay compensation for former Arab property and was willing to cooperate with the PCC efforts to effect compensation arrangements. This was quite enough; Israel was not prepared to go further and help to set the stage for Arab demands for a UN investigation regarding the "public use" of the properties in question. (Note: What Ambassador Plimpton actually suggested was that Israel be prepared to defend itself against possible contention that its condemnation of property abandoned by the Arabs was not in the "public use" category.)

/3/Reference is to the U.N. General Assembly resolution concerning the future Government of Palestine that provided for a plan of partition with economic union, adopted by the General Assembly on November 29, 1947. For text, see Official Records of the General Assembly, Second Session, Resolutions, 16 September-29 November 1947.

Mrs. Meir reported that "The Palestine Arab Delegation" had already asked for its nameplates in anticipation of being seated in the SPC. Although the Bulgarian Chairman of the SPC had informed Mr. Chai of the Secretariat that he was willing to have this problem handled more or less as it had been in the past, the Saudi Arabian Delegate, Shukairy, probably would ask for a vote. Thus it was important that other delegations knew well in advance where the United States stood. The Foreign Minister said that if the Committee were to recognize this "Delegation", the Grand Mufti would undoubtedly organize a provisional government of Palestine and the Arabs would be greatly encouraged in their efforts to destroy Israel. At the least, they would seriously attempt to revert the situation back to the 1947 Partition Plan.

Going back to the question of possible resolutions, the Secretary said there were two considerations. One was the matter of our attitude towards the introduction of resolutions on this item at this session, and the second was the matter of our position regarding such resolutions as might be introduced. Mrs. Meir held that the effect of a U.S. stance of disfavor vis-à-vis both the prospective Arab and Israeli proposals would be to weaken the tactical value of the Israeli proposal. Certainly U.S. opposition to custodianship was not going to deter the Arabs from introducing that proposition. The Secretary said that it appeared better to him for the United States to take the position that it did not like either the Arab or the Israeli proposals. Of course, we could not very well ask the Israelis to put in their resolution so that we could vote against something besides Arab proposals.

With further regard to the Johnson Mission, Mrs. Meir stated flatly that Israel believed nothing would come of this endeavor. The reason was simply that the Arabs would not cooperate in any constructive approach. The Arabs did not wish to have progress made on the refugee problem except in a manner that would harm Israel. Israel was continuing to go along with the Johnson approach only because the United States felt so strongly about it.

Ambassador Harman noted that in 1952 the United States supported a resolution calling for direct negotiations between the Arabs and Israel. The Secretary said that we must all try to keep our eye on the big problem; to keep trying to make tiny steps towards a solution. In this context we must try to keep as much fever as possible out of the UN consideration of the problem. If the United States were to oppose Arab proposals, and then vote in favor of an Israeli proposal, the fever would be augmented. On the face of it, he said, who could oppose a call for negotiations? Mrs. Meir asked how the U.S. could conceivably vote against such a proposal. The Secretary reiterated that inasmuch as we were opposing some things the Arabs want, it would needlessly add to the anger in this situation if we voted for an Israeli resolution. Mr. Talbot noted that the Israeli proposal might appear to be a logical challenge to the Arab position, but asked if it would serve to advance the problem. The Foreign Minister said that the Arabs had already secured too much support for the proposition that peace was a good thing except in the Near East. She speculated that even if Dr. Johnson were to secure from King Hussein, for instance, a promise to cooperate, the King would not dare publicly so to indicate. The Johnson approach and all of the other quiet efforts designed to achieve "underground understandings" would have no effect as long as the above ground realities of Arab politics remained as they were. The refugees were above ground, not underground, and the Arab leaders apparently feel they cannot politically afford to compromise on this issue.

Reverting again to Mrs. Meir's request, the Secretary emphasized that he was extremely reluctant to open the possibility of any misunderstanding by other delegations regarding our attitude towards any resolution that would render more difficult the job that had to be done after the debate. He noted that the very debate might torpedo the Johnson Mission. The Foreign Minister's request was not something to which an automatic answer should be given. The Secretary said that we would like to consider it overnight./4/

/4/On December 1, the Department transmitted to USUN a summary of the key points made during this conversation and advised that the Mission might, on Secretary Rusk's behalf, tell Meir that the United States: a) would continue to make clear its opposition to Arab proposals regarding custodianship, PCC reconstitution, and recognition of the Palestine Arab Delegation; b) having considered Meir's comments, now intended to submit a moderate draft resolution which would support practical moves for progress; and c) would tell other delegations in regard to the Israeli direct negotiations resolution that it did not encourage submission of proposals by either side that would tend to undercut the quiet diplomatic approach exemplified by the Johnson mission, but expected the Israelis to pursue their tactics as they saw fit. (Telegram 1413; Department of State, Central Files, 325.84/12-161)

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