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John F. Kennedy Administration: Johnson's Meeting in the United Arab Republic

(May 3, 1962)

Johnson discusses refugee issue with Egyptian leaders, Fawzi, Nasser, Moe and Helmi.

For Talbot and Cleveland. Verbatim Text. Johnson during his six days in Cairo saw Fawzi once (Moe and General Armin Helmi being present); had nearly two hours alone with Nasser; and with Moe had one long substantive talk with Helmi. Atmosphere uniformly friendly.

In all three conversations Johnson (1) stressed importance making start on refugee question, (2) expressed conviction that 1962 may be kind of "watershed year", in that there evidence many governments, notably US, wish to see progress on refugee question but there are signs of growing impatience with Arab-Israel disputes and with prospect of supporting refugees indefinitely in absence of any evidence of Arab or Israeli willingness to change status quo; (3) set forth his ideas along the line of his Working Paper Five; and (4) emphasized his willingness to consider any suggestions UAR might give him for moving forward, and his hope that he might receive such suggestions, expressing his willingness to return to area later for this purpose if UAR Government wished.

He received clear indications that first reaction to the idea of beginning with 20,000 was negative and strong impression that his idea would on consideration continue to be unacceptable, though it was not flatly rejected. He also doubts that his request for the UAR's own suggestions will be responded to although he believes from Nasser's attitude that this possibility cannot be completely dismissed.

Specific points of significance were:

1. Nasser believes that major source of tension in area remains Israel Government's emphasis on "a Jewish State", and continued apparent belief of B.G./2/and Dayan that they can impose "a settlement by force".

2. Nasser's evident concern over the arms race, together with his skepticism, in response to a query, about external guarantees (he made a bitter reference in this connection to the 1956 action of two signers of the Tripartite Declaration).

3. Several assertions that war with Israel would be folly and that it is "not on the agenda".

4. Evident appreciation of changed attitude of USA toward the Middle East and especially UAR.

5. Nasser reiterated emphasis on the return of most of the refugees (with a wry recognition that B.G. could not accept this), coupled with his mention (not fully spelled out) of a Palestine in which Jews and Arabs would have equal rights; all three men referred more than once to "second-class citizenship" of Arabs in Israel.

6. Fawzi's insistence that choice given the refugees should be so formulated as not to deliberately discourage their election of return.

7. The discussion, almost inadvertently begun, by Helmi of current activities of certain refugee spokesmen, in particular recent talks in Amman. Helmi made it clear that some of these individuals had told him beforehand of their ideas, saying they did not wish to go behind the UAR's back but adding that they wished to create a means for speaking for themselves and thus to attempt to remove themselves from the "cold war" (Helmi's words) among the Arab states. Helmi said he had told them he was not prepared to express UAR views, pending clarification of their program and intentions.

Helmi, who throughout emphasized that he was speaking personally and not officially, appeared to believe this might constitute a factor of new significance although he clearly had reservations about effectiveness of individuals involved. Johnson took opportunity not only to say that this movement might have an adverse impact on his activities but to argue that suggested parallel with Algeria was false and dangerous for Palestinians themselves.


/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, 325.84/5-362. Confidential. Repeated to Damascus, Amman, Tel Aviv, Beirut, Jerusalem, and USUN.

/2/David Ben Gurion, Israeli Prime Minister.

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