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John F. Kennedy Administration: Memorandum on Discussion of Johnson Refugee Plan

(February 6, 1963)

This is a memorandum of conversation from a meeting with President Kennedy and Dr. Joseph Johnson to discuss the Johnson Plan for Arab refugees.


The President
Dr. Joseph Johnson, Special Representative of the Palestine Conciliation Commission
Mr. Feldman, The White House
Mr. Komer, The White House
NEA--James P. Grant

The meeting took place at 10:30 a.m. pursuant to Presidential invitation. The President opened the meeting with an expression of thanks to Dr. Johnson for his untiring efforts in the past year and a half on the Arab refugee problem. He asked Dr. Johnson for his comments on the road ahead.

Dr. Johnson welcomed the USG intention to move ahead in the refugee field, saying that the USG in his opinion could do what he as an individual under the PCC umbrella could not do. He said that the Johnson Plan was dead, but certain principles incorporated in it were still most valid.

Dr. Johnson said that an Arab-Israel peace was a long way off. Attacking the refugee problem was one way, and, in his view, the best way of starting to erode the problem. He said that if the refugee problem could be solved he really felt that many of the other problems would fall into place, none of them, e.g., the corpus separatum issue, being as conducive to keeping alive the hostility between the two peoples.

He reported that he had submitted a draft report to the PCC and listed what he regarded as the essentials of any feasible refugee initiative. These were: (a) refugee expression of their will. By this he did not mean a plebiscite but more subtle devices. (b) Some repatriation. Paragraph 11 must be given some substance. He believes that less than one out of ten of the Arab refugees would end up by residing in Israel, particularly if Arabs who choose to repatriate to Israel could later leave. (c) Did not see any possibility of a formal agreement; acquiescence must be the key. (d) The right of disengagement must accompany the concept of acquiescence. (e) Any plan must move slowly; the Arabs cannot have their desire of mass and immediate movement of refugees. (f) There must be general simultaneity of action on both sides. (g) Clear understanding that sovereign states are involved.

The President noted that the principal problem was the need for the two parties to present the repatriation question to their respective publics in very different lights, e.g., the Arabs have to make it appear as if all refugees can return to Israel whereas the Israel Government needs to make it appear that only a very small fraction, less than ten per cent, will return. Dr. Johnson said this was a question of form, in his judgment, since there are means for the Israelis to control the extent of repatriation. He also noted that some Arab leaders now accept the one to ten concept. He then commented that there is a real problem of communication between Israel and the Arab states, saying that we had more communication with the Chinese Communists than the Arabs and the Israelis have between each other. Each hears only the extremist voices of the other. Dr. Johnson noted his own efforts to be a quiet voice. He said that he had passed on to the Israelis Nasser's comment that "War was not on the agenda", but he doubted that a dialogue through an individual was worth much on either side. If a third party dialogue had to be carried on he believed it could better be done by Governments.

The President then asked Dr. Johnson to look back on his experience with the Johnson Plan. What appeared to be acceptable to the parties; what proved unacceptable? Dr. Johnson replied that it was not clear on the Arab side since they were giving the appearance of acquiescence while awaiting Israeli action. With respect to Israel, Dr. Johnson noted its concern with the dangers of repatriation but he could not tell how controlling this was on their other actions. Israel also was concerned with the UN administering any scheme so directly related to its security, that the Israelis dislike and distrust the UN instrumentalities. The Israelis are convinced also that a majority of the refugees want to come back. Dr. Johnson noted, however, that he could not really give the viewpoint of the Israelis on the plan since they had refused to talk to him about it except for that one "cold" meeting which Mr. Feldman had arranged.

The President said that the open-ended nature of the Johnson Plan seemed to be the principal objection of the Israelis, the unpredictability of where it would come out. He asked why the sampling approach had not been acceptable to the Israelis as a way of meeting the open-end problem. Dr. Johnson commented that we might yet have to come back to sampling.

Mr. Feldman replied that the Israelis were convinced that this would mean nothing more than Israel receiving another five or six thousand refugees with the problem still being exactly as it had been before.

The President noted that there appeared to be no pressure on either party as long as we paid the bill for the refugees. Dr. Johnson expressed his belief that neither party believed our threats to withdraw support from the refugees.

Mr. Komer asked whether there was any indirect means of meeting the Israeli demands for a guarantee from the Arabs before starting on repatriation of refugees. He noted that formal guarantee was not possible from the Arabs.

Mr. Feldman said that from his talks he understood the Israelis would accept a procedure under which the US went to the Arab countries and secured an informal guarantee, to which would be added the US guarantee. He thought this might do the trick.

The President again thanked Dr. Johnson, and said that we've got to go ahead on the refugee issue. Dr. Johnson then asked the President for his approval on what he, Johnson, might say to the press on departure. The President read the briefing paper on this, and said that Dr. Johnson could say something along the lines of: he had come to see the President on finishing his assignment; the President had expressed his thanks and appreciation for Dr. Johnson's efforts, and his regret that it had not been possible to accomplish all we had hoped with respect to the settlement of the refugee problem; and that the USG continues its interest in the problem.

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