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John F. Kennedy Administration: Israel’s Reply to U.S. Proposal on Refugees

(December 5, 1962)

This is a memorandum from Robert W. Komer of the National Security Council Staff to President Kennedy discussing the Israeli reply to the package proposal on Arab refugees and future U.N. courses of action.

Israel's reply to our package proposal on Arab refugees confronts us with a basic decision as to whether the US ought to battle uphill any farther on this issue. The Israelis say in effect they will talk as long as we want about refugees but will not accept any plan involving expression of refugee preferences (the heart of the Johnson approach).

If we now temporize further with Israel (when they know you personally signed off on the above proposal), the Israelis will conclude we've in effect given up on our refugee approach. The only way to forestall this conclusion is if in the UN and in your talk with Golda Meir you make our stand crystal clear.

Before doing so, however, you'll have to be convinced that pursuing a Johnson-type approach any further is worth the headaches involved. Here is an initiative which at best rates only a 50-50 chance of success. Even to get these odds the US would have to use forms of pressure on Israel which would entail a real domestic backlash here. And if we could deliver Israel, we have no assurance that the key Arabs will agree. Finally, even if we got a refugee program started it could easily get short-circuited by another Arab-Israeli flare-up.

If we decide to disengage from any such problematical exercise, we ought to do so now (though in such a way as to make Arabs and Israelis--not us--share the blame). Before we close the book, however, let me argue the larger case. This issue has been presented to you too much in terms of short run tactics instead of overall rationale.

In essence, the issue is whether the US should accept the costs involved in a major attempt to move toward settlement of the Arab-Israeli problem. Like Trieste, Kashmir, and so many others, here is one of those intractable problems which are rarely ever solved by the parties themselves. Nor do they fade away with time; instead they tend to keep eating so at the parties that, in the absence of an external catalyst, they often end up in war.

Arab-Israeli disputes have caused the US so many headaches over the past 15 years, and are liable to cause so many more if not moved toward settlement, that the difficulties of starting up the Johnson Plan seem pale by comparison. There are few issues on which the US has had to expend more capital, political and financial, over the years.

It is precisely because of our special interest in Israel that any move which offers reasonable prospect of starting a trend toward settlement seems worth a try. What is the alternative? It is continued bickering between Israel and Arabs with periodical flare-ups which put us squarely in the middle. We face another one next year over the Jordan waters. Meanwhile, the refugee problem grows worse; a million Arab refugees breed and agitate in their camps, kept in sullen order only by a largely US dole.

Hence an Arab-Israeli settlement is as much in Israel's interest as ours. How long does Israel want to live as a semi-garrison state, surrounded by a million discontented refugees, and forced to divert a high proportion of its assets (and our aid) to security needs?

The trouble is that the Israelis feel there is only one way to achieve such a settlement, i.e. to keep bloodying the Arabs every time they get mean. Israel has lived so long within a hostile Arab ring that it is afraid to show weakness. It relies on time. But time may be against it; its tough policy leads to repeated minor clashes which only serve to feed Arab hostility, not lessen it.

More important, the secular trend in the Near East is against Israel. In another decade Nasser and others may well acquire at long last the resources to risk a war. Our threatened intervention would still be a powerful deterrent, but such action might cost us a lot at that juncture. We will also find ourselves giving a lot more than Hawks to maintain a local deterrent balance.

If we want instead to move the Arab-Israeli dispute toward settlement, the refugee issue is the only one of its many aspects susceptible of movement toward solution at this point. And we have no better lever to this end than the Johnson Plan.

It is no panacea, but is at least a carefully reasoned scheme evolved from the long and painful history of past attempts to deal with the refugee issue. One need only look at this history to conclude that Johnson's indirect approach is about the only one with any chance of success.

Israel itself would be delighted if such an approach actually resulted in resettling nine-tenths of the refugees (with us footing the bill). The Israelis are unwilling, however, to risk the experiment. They fear that far more than one in ten refugees would opt (at least initially) for repatriation, and that Israel, when it refused them, would be arraigned before the UN. So they won't allow any expression of preference; they insist instead that the Arab states agree beforehand to a 10-1 ratio. But only a plan based on tacit Arab acquiescence, rather than formal agreement, has a prayer.

We have told the Israelis we will stand by them if the plan doesn't work. We have in effect offered to guarantee Israel's security. But even on these terms Israel is unwilling to take the short-term political risks involved in seeking even a major long-term gain. BG boggles at the domestic political risk to his shaky coalition if he tries to push such a plan through.

In their efforts to short circuit the Johnson Plan, the Israelis have mounted a pressure campaign with which it is almost impossible for State to cope. Since this is an issue where our foreign policy goals must necessarily be formulated with an eye to our domestic flank, they take full advantage of this fact. I can't blame them for doing so, but in this case I believe they do themselves and us a disservice.

Your Administration has done more to satisfy Israeli security preoccupations than any of its predecessors. We have promised the Israelis Hawks, reassured them on the Jordan waters, given a higher level of economic aid (to permit extensive arms), and given various security assurances.

In return, we have gotten nothing from our efforts--both in Israel's own interest--to improve the UN peace machinery and to move forward on refugees. The score is 4-0. In fact, the Israelis have visibly retreated from Ben Gurion's May 1961 statements to you and those to Mike last August. They are unwilling even to talk about the Johnson approach.

In my frank opinion, our tactical handling of the Plan has been poor. We should not have launched it in August, nor have given the Hawk assurances beforehand, nor have let Joe Johnson put out a detailed plan before we had nailed down the basic principles. Be this as it may, we may be making a mistake (and Israel an even bigger one) to let the Johnson Plan die at this point.

If our long term interests (and Israel's) justify attempting to move toward Arab-Israeli settlement, the refugee issue is where to begin, and the Johnson approach the only viable one. While no one is optimistic that this approach will work, no other plan has even its chance of success. Hence, as on Kashmir and similar issues, there may be fewer risks to us in pressing for solutions than in letting such dangerous issues fester on and on.

Another reason for moving ahead is that for the first time we may have leverage with the key Arab--Nasser. We also have a new regime in Saudi Arabia and the Jordanians are our prisoners. Our overall prestige in the Middle East is higher than it has been in years. Thus circumstances have never been more propitious for a refugee initiative, if only we could get the Israelis off the dime.

To do so, however, we have to do something we have never done before, except briefly at Suez. We have to pressure Israel to come around. According to State's Middle East experts, we have never been in a better position to do so. We have just promised Israel Hawks, it needs our support on the Jordan waters, and it might well be susceptible to a combination of pressures and further reassurances on our part. I would add, however, that Mike Feldman (who may know far better) flatly disagrees.

Whether we push hard now or wait until after the GA is irrelevant if we decide (and tell Israel so) that we are not giving up. But unless we make a firm decision, we are only prolonging the agony. A clear signal is needed one way or the other, and it is one only you can give.

R.W. Komer

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