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John F. Kennedy Administration: Memorandum on Israeli Opposition to the Johnson Plan

(September 20, 1962)

This is a memorandum from the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, Talbot, to Secretary of State, Rusk, concerning Israeli Opposition to the Johnson Plan

For your information the following explains developments with Israel, which is strongly opposing the Johnson Plan. The Arabs are continuing to reserve their position and are avoiding publicity.

1. Arguments Used by Israel

On September 13 Israel reacted violently to the plan which Dr. Johnson presented to Ambassador Comay in New York on September 10 as his personal thinking only. The burden of Ambassador Harman's forceful remarks to Mr. Feldman and to me is that Israel has been betrayed, that the plan as presented in writing by Dr. Johnson bears no resemblance to the plan as described by Mr. Feldman in Jerusalem, that the written plan is stacked against Israel, that there is nothing in writing which protects Israel, that in pushing the plan we have worsened Israel's position in the Near East and have given the Arabs a club with which to beat Israel, and that Israel would like to be informed that the United States Government does not associate itself with the plan and will kill it in the PCC.

The ostensible basis for the Israeli attitude is the absence in the plan and the accompanying explanation of language unqualifiedly reserving to Israel ultimate decision how many refugees would be repatriated. They also object that they had not been informed of other language such as "impartial bodies to give advice on controversial matters", which is objectionable to them because they interpret it to limit their sovereignty and to remove their control over repatriation.

2. Language Change in the Plan

About two weeks before giving the plan to the parties Dr. Johnson decided he must also hand them a written explanation, reversing a previous decision. With a view to reducing to a minimum controversy over detail and to achieve as even a balance as possible in dealing with Arab and Israel concerns, he undertook a revision of the explanation. He presented most of these drafting changes to the PCC members with an attitude of finality. He did accept several counter changes made by the Department and USUN. The more controversial points he planned to make orally. From the plan itself he deleted the key sentence: "Governments would retain the ultimate right to decide on the acceptance of refugees." It was considered that there were sufficient explicit and implicit safeguards for Israel in both the plan and the explanation, and the clear intent of the plan would be stated orally to the parties. Dr. Johnson did inform the Arabs on September 10 that Israel had the last word on repatriation and the ensuing discussion made plain the Arab representatives understood this.

3. Efforts to Persuade Israel

I have urged on Ambassador Harman that Israel seek clarification and reassurance from Dr. Johnson, and I have affirmed the validity of the guarantees which Mr. Feldman gave Israel in Jerusalem. When it became apparent after several days that Israel had no intention of talking with Dr. Johnson (it seemed ominous at the time that when receiving the plan the Israeli representative wanted Dr. Johnson to know that no matter what transpired the Israelis respected him), at our suggestion Dr. Johnson saw Ambassador Comay September 19 to offer him a chance to discuss Israeli concerns. Ambassador Comay made no substantive comment, asked no significant questions, and remarked that Mrs. Meir would give us the definitive Israeli position next week (presumably to you). Ambassador Harman equally shows no interest in my affirmations of the guarantees given by Mr. Feldman.

4. Estimate of the Israeli Position

We consider that Israel, undesirous of repatriating any refugees and having finally been persuaded of a serious US intent to seek implementation of the Johnson Plan, is making an all-out effort to scuttle the plan while the US is still not fully committed to it and while there is a possibility that the scuttling can be accomplished without public onus for Israel. We believe that Israel is charging bad faith and is interpreting the language of the plan and the explanation in the blackest light as pretexts useful to achievement of its objective rather than as causes. If the Israelis were sincere they would be willing to engage in serious talk with Dr. Johnson. Perhaps having now received assurance of the Hawk missile the Israelis feel free to take a hard line in the hope of obtaining more benefits in the pre-election period. At least one leak on the Johnson Plan has appeared in the Israeli press with an expression of hostility to it.

Mention by Ambassador Harman of the absence of any guarantees for Israel in writing and his rejection as worthless of a suggestion that Dr. Johnson's letter of transmittal could include language explicitly safeguarding Israel's interests leads us to think there is a possibility that Israel has a fall-back position; i.e., a written guarantee by the US of the safeguards Israel wants plus a written statement of the upper limit of repatriation the US expects Israel to accept.

5. US Position

We consider the substance and intent of the plan to have been unaffected by the changes made in the language and we consider the Israeli reaction and charges of bad faith to be unjustified and contrived.

We plan to provide you a talking paper on the Johnson Plan for your meeting with Mrs. Meir on September 26. Tentatively we think it might be worthwhile for you to arrange to explore with her the possibility of an exchange of written undertakings. Also, since Mr. Feldman did not raise with the Israelis the possibility of a more explicit security assurance than that given by the President in an earlier letter to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, it might be worthwhile for you to explore this possibility with Mrs. Meir. If these two attractions should fail, we would not at present see other possibilities unless the Administration is willing to tell Israel that continued intransigeance will force us to reduce the priority we had planned to give Israel for training on and delivery of the Hawk and to be "tough" in other ways.

6. Our Internal Problem

As a result of Israeli pressure on him Mr. Feldman has told me he considers he has been "doublecrossed" by the fact that language was changed, without his clearance, so that Israel received from him an account not borne out by the documents. He says he thinks we have gone further and faster on the plan than the President authorized (untrue), and adds he understood us to tell the President our prestige was not engaged (untrue), whereas now he hears from us that US prestige is engaged. He had been informed that US and UN secretariat officials were working together on administrative plans for the projected field operations, and suggested that we cease to so involve ourselves. (Actually, no US official has been so engaged. Last week Dr. Johnson and his immediate staff commenced some contingency planning in order to be prepared in the event of a decision to commence field operations soon. At our insistence, this contingency planning was to be severely restricted within the UN secretariat, and with regard to scope.) Mr. Feldman has proposed another meeting with the President next Tuesday to assess where we are. On September 19 he apparently spoke with the President on the trouble we are having. The President telephoned me to explore means of reassuring Israel, to request that we not press forward urgently, and to explain that he does not want to have trouble with American Jewry at this time. We have instructed USUN not to participate in further planning and preparatory efforts for the time being.

At our suggestion Dr. Johnson arranged to meet Mr. Feldman at 4:30 p.m. September 20 in New York. For his dinner with Mrs. Meir that evening we have given Mr. Feldman the talking paper prepared for the use of those of us talking with the Israelis here.

7. Conclusions

a. In light of the Israeli reaction we have carefully examined the plan and the explanation and have determined to our satisfaction that neither the substance nor the intent of the plan has been altered. Likewise, the guarantees given Israel by Mr. Feldman remain valid: i) governments would determine the admissibility and numbers of refugees to be admitted; ii) the US would not permit the process to evolve in a manner dangerous to Israel and would bring the implementing process to a halt if danger signals developed; and iii) Israel would not have to bear an intolerable financial burden. Both we and Dr. Johnson are stressing in our talks with the Arabs, as requested by Israel, that the refugees must not be subjected to pressures and propaganda. Therefore we cannot accept the validity of Israeli arguments.

b. Obviously contrary to our earlier optimism we are now at an impasse with Israel and time will be required to test out the depth of Israeli resolve and whether, and at what price, Israel can be induced to fall back from its principal objective. It seems unlikely that the issue with Israel can be resolved before the election on November 6. If it is to be kept out of the GA debate early decision thereafter will be necessary. Meantime we must endeavor to find means to keep the issue open with the Arabs.

c. Somehow it must be gotten across to Israel that it is essential that Israel not be the one to cause the plan to fail. For Israel to do so would allow the Arabs to say they had acquiesced and would probably lead to Arab introduction of contentious resolutions in the GA, such as expansion of the membership of the PCC, which would be more difficult to defeat. It would render far harder our plan to begin to throw responsibility for the refugees increasingly on the host governments and thus to commence liquidation of the problems by other means if Paragraph 11 of Resolution 194 cannot be implemented. At the time the Jordan waters issue becomes heated Israel would be in a much less favorable position and our defense of Israel's water withdrawals would be more difficult. As a result of failure of the plan caused by Israel new life might well be breathed into proposals for a "Palestine entity" or competing Palestine entities, and pressure would probably increase for "Algerianization" of the Palestine problem. Finally, Dr. Johnson would be obliged to resign as Special Representative and would be under compulsion to state the reasons for his failure

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