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John F. Kennedy Administration: Memorandum Expressing Israel Opposition Repatriation of Refugees

(November 14, 1961)

This memorandum highlights Israel's desire to reject Arab repatriation, their decision to push for the relocation within other Arab nations' borders, and America's position in relation to trying to settle the dispute.

Washington, November 14, 1961.

/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, 325.84/11-1461. Confidential. Drafted by Hamilton on November 16. The source text is labeled "Part II of IV." Three other memoranda of conversation cover the discussion on the Jerusalem question (ibid., 784A.00/11-1461); the Israeli nuclear reactor (ibid., 884A.1901/11-1461); and the location of U.S.-Israeli P.L. 480 negotiations (ibid., 411.84A41/11-1461). A briefing memorandum, prepared by the Office of Near Eastern Affairs, for Talbot's use during the meeting is ibid., 784A.00/11-1461.

Israel Position Re Arab Refugees

Ambassador Avraham Harman of Israel
Mr. Mordechai Gazit, Minister, Embassy of Israel
Mr. Shaul Bar-Haim, First Secretary, Embassy of Israel
NEA--Assistant Secretary Phillips Talbot
NEA/NE--William L. Hamilton

Mr. Talbot told the Ambassador that the Department is apprehensive about the effect on the Arab refugee problem which may result from Foreign Minister Meir's address to the Israel Knesset and the Knesset's resolution rejecting the principle of Arab repatriation./2/ In discussions with the Foreign Minister during his recent visit to the Near East,/3/ Mr. Talbot said, he had assumed her tacit agreement to his statement that U.S. preparations for U.N. consideration of the problem are still guided by the President's conversation with Prime Minister Ben-Gurion./4/ Mrs. Meir's speech and the resolution are a different tack. The resolution does not make Dr. Johnson's labors easier and may be a complicating factor in the U.N. Despite these developments, however, the Department still assumes that the United States can rely on the Prime Minister's remarks to the President as a foundation from which to plan further steps. He recalled that a number of conversations between Ambassador Harman and State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary Cleveland, had encouraged the Department to believe the Prime Minister's position as outlined to the President remains unchanged.

/2/On November 6, the Israeli Knesset adopted a resolution, introduced by the Mapai Party, that approved a position on the Palestinian refugee question, presented initially on October 11 by Prime Minister Ben Gurion and reiterated by Foreign Minister Meir on November 6. The position, which was to serve as guidance for the Israeli Delegation to the United Nations, stipulated that the Palestinian refugees should not be returned to Israeli territory and that the sole solution to the refugee problem was the resettlement of the refugees in Arab countries. The Embassy in Tel Aviv conveyed a summary of Ben Gurion's speech on October 13 in telegram 254 (ibid., 325.84/10-1261); a summary of Meir's speech in telegram 321, November 7 (ibid., 884.411/11-761); and the text of the Knesset resolution in telegram 323, November 8 (ibid., 325.84/11-861).

/3/Reported in telegram 307 from Tel Aviv, November 1. (Ibid., 325.84/11-161)

/4/See Document 57.

Ambassador Harman commented that the Knesset is a sovereign body whose actions he could only report, not presume to analyze. However, two years ago he had made clear that Israel could not be expected to hold its tongue, in the interests of avoiding controversy, if the Arabs insisted on making political capital of the issues. The President's message to Arab heads of state and its reference to the refugees had been a prelude to a series of hostile statements by Arab politicians. He mentioned, among others, a September pronouncement by President Nasser that if the Arab refugees returned Israel would cease to exist. He cited as particularly noxious statements by Jordan Prime Minister Talhouni, by King Saud addressing a group of pilgrims to Mecca, and by Emile Ghoury. In his view nothing in Mrs. Meir's address to the Knesset conflicts with the viewpoints she expressed to Dr. Johnson either in Jerusalem or New York. He drew attention to her reiteration of the GOI's willingness to discuss compensation outside the framework of a general settlement and her statement that the problem is not the question of the return of "not a single refugee" but of resettlement.

Ambassador Harman said his Government is deeply concerned with the apparent evolution in the status of the Palestine Arab delegation, which seems to be uniting diverse elements that the Arab states are prepared to sponsor as one group for the Political Committee debate. He emphasized that last year a somewhat smaller group had been presented as "a" Palestine refugee delegation; this year's version is described as "The" Palestine Arab delegation. He implied that Israel fears the United States is according the group more recognition than in previous years. If this trend is encouraged, he declared, he sees little chance for a quiet debate in a minor key, which he understands is a United States aspiration.

Mr. Talbot said he shares Israel's fears that prospects of a quiet discussion are diminishing, observing he is not certain he knows either Arab or Israel intentions. The Knesset resolution and the Ambassador's own remarks suggest a hardening of the Israel position. Moreover, both the PCC and its Special Representative see evidence that Israel is less flexible than earlier hoped. He recalled Ambassador Harman's often repeated desire for eschewing a "numbers game" approach to the question of Arab repatriation, commenting he thinks Israel's categorical rejection of the concept of return is a "numbers game" of a different variety.

Ambassador Harman said study of Mrs. Meir's speech convinces him that it was no more than a summation of her public position as expressed in the past. He cautioned against reading too much into the Prime Minister's remarks to the President. Mr. Talbot would recall the Prime Minister expressed a great deal of skepticism about the steps proposed by the United States, but had added if the United States felt obliged to go ahead Israel would be as receptive as possible.

Ambassador Harman said that Shukairy's/5/ inscription as first speaker in the debate is not a hopeful augury for moderate consideration of the problem. He reported that Mrs. Meir is arriving in New York on November 19, hoping that the debate will have been completed in its major aspects by the first week of December, inasmuch as she goes to Tanganyika for its Independence Day on December 9. He concluded by saying that he hopes to see Mr. Talbot again at an early time to discuss other elements of the problem, including the status of the Palestinian "delegates"; and Israel's belief that a positive resolution might be the best way to counter undesirable Arab proposals. He referred to the African suggestion of a resolution calling for direct confrontation of the principals.

/5/Ahmad Shukairy, Saudi Arabian Representative to the United Nations.

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