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John F. Kennedy Administration: Memorandum on Palestinian Refugee Item in UN, Relations with Arabs

(November 21, 1963)

This is a memorandum for the record covering R.W. Komer's meeting with Gazit on the Palestinian refugee item in the United Nations, the relationship between the U.S. and Israel and UAR military capabilities.

At luncheon with Israeli Minister Gazit we had a rather brisk exchange. He began by complaining bitterly about the way we had "lied" to them about the Arab refugee matter in the UN. Cleveland and Sisco had misled Harman and him by not revealing we had changed our strategy to include para. 11. We had never told them the real facts of our position. He also accused us of "active lobbying" to get some of the co-sponsors to withdraw. Israel took the direct negotiations resolution very seriously. There had been a full Cabinet meeting on it the week before which decided to go ahead, and our role in the debacle was going to create real complications in US-Israeli relations. All in all, he was most unhappy about the future course of these relations.

While I was not familiar with all the ins and outs of the refugee debate this year, I simply couldn't accept this accusation. We had clued the Israelis on our new position as soon as it became apparent we could no longer get away with blurring para. 11. We had told them that otherwise both of us would end up with the worst of all possible outcomes--an Arab resolution passed by 2/3 majority--if we didn't shift. We'd sought to exchange information on vote counts, but they'd refused. I even recalled some difference in view as to whether they had in fact promised us they would not even bring the DN matter to a vote this year.

Turning to a larger frame, I felt this was another occasion on which Israel tried to press us for all the traffic would bear. Its consistent policy seemed to be to force us into an openly pro-Israeli stand despite our protests that this would undermine us with the Arabs and give the Soviets a field day. Israel's whole effort since 1948--in the UN, in the maneuvers for a public security guarantee, in demands for more arms, joint planning, etc.--seemed aimed at forcing us off of an ostensibly middle position which permitted us to maintain reasonable relations with the Arabs and thereby combat Soviet penetration of the Middle East. Israel might think that a net outcome in which the US backed Israel all-out, while the Arabs turned to Moscow, was in its overall security interest, but we most emphatically did not. We saw our ME policy as being in Israel's interest as much as ours. We had consistently tried to explain this to them, with little success.

I then mentioned (since the President had emphasized this the day before) how the Gruening amendment had so limited our freedom of action with the Arabs as to make it very difficult for us to be as forthcoming with Israel in the refugee or other issues as we would otherwise like. Gazit, of course, insisted that Israel had had nothing to do with the standard pro-Zionist reactions of Farbstein, Gruening, Keating, and Javits. He recounted how Javits had come to the area and wanted to write a report on the Arab refugees. Israel had tried to convince him not to issue such a report but he had gone ahead anyway. I told Gazit that even if Israel had done nothing positive to encourage the Gruening amendment, it would have been in Israel's interest to discourage such limits on the President's flexibility in foreign policy. How could one define "aggression", much less "preparing for" aggression? It was even possible that Israel could be called to account under this amendment as a result of a reprisal raid.

Gazit deplored the "arms length" relationship between the US and Israel which made it so difficult to achieve our joint purposes. For example, they had laid out all of their intelligence in the Rabin exchange, but we had kept "mum". I retorted that we had given the Israelis more of our intelligence estimates on the UAR than at any previous time. We certainly didn't give the Arabs any such intelligence on Israel. The Rabin exercise had been a good one, and we hoped the Israelis appreciated this. Moreover, if one were going to talk about lack of candor, it was strange to me that Israel was so consistently coy about describing its own defense plans and programs to its guarantor, banker, and strongest friend in the world. If trouble developed in the Near East it was not the French or Germans but the US which had to come to Israel's defense. We were expected to subsidize Israel, both privately and publicly, to support her to the hilt on every issue, to meet all of her security requirements, and to defend her if attacked. In return, we did not even know what she intended to do in such critical fields as missiles and nuclear weapons. I referred to the way in which Israel had handled the Dimona question as creating real suspicion on our part that such evasiveness must mask an intent to acquire nuclear capability. Now in response to direct questions on two occasions, Rabin had refused to say whether Israel was acquiring missiles from France. What kind of a relationship was this?

Gazit said he regretted the way his Government had chosen to handle Dimona, but returned to the theme that the US/Israeli relationship was entering a state of crisis. As reasons he cited not only the new UN resolution but indications that the US was raising objections to Israel security relations with third parties. When I asked what he meant, he said that they had heard we were objecting to certain things they were getting from European sources. I told him I did not propose to discuss this matter in specifics, but that I believed I knew what he was talking about. It was by no means the situation he described. On those occasions when Israel and another country made arrangements with respect to items on which we had a lien, we jolly well expected that both parties--as friends of ours--would as least consult us in advance. Second, as Israel's chief guarantors and financial backers, weren't we in general entitled to have a better idea than they seemed to think about what they were doing? After all, if Israel acquired weapons which set off a new round of arms escalation in the Middle East and otherwise seriously disturbed the existing deterrent balance, or if Israel took action (e.g. vis-a-vis Jordan or reprisal raids) which could lead to a war into which we would inevitably be drawn, we emphatically felt entitled to have our say in advance.

Gazit then described the special security problems of Israel and the importance of its having adequate deterrent power. He indicated, without saying it in so many words, that his Government had decided to acquire a missile capability; this was dictated by its security interests. I told him that I personally felt this was not a decision which Israel should take without consulting us. Given our role vis-a-vis Israel, why were we not entitled to be consulted on as major a new departure in the Israeli military program as buying several hundred dollars worth of SSMs? It looked to me as though Israel was planning to use its own substantial foreign exchange reserves to buy from France a very expensive missile capability, while coming to us for several hundred tanks. As those who provided far more financial aid to Israel than anyone else over the years, why couldn't we legitimately suggest that Israel take the money we thought it would waste on a missile capability and purchase tanks in Europe instead? We argued extensively with our other allies about such misuse of their resources. Why was Israel a special case?

I stressed our great concern over the possible repercussions of Israeli acquisition of SSMs. I thought we had convinced them that the primitive UAR missile force, even if built up to the 1000 they alleged by 1968, would not represent a threat to military targets, probably would not even give the UAR much disruptive capability against Israel's mobilization, and was only of psychological value. If Nasser wanted to waste his money this way (and we doubted that he would go for any 1000 missiles), why should Israel follow suit? Gazit said that even if we could convince the most knowledgeable people in Israel, such arguments could not override the deep concern of the Israeli people over UAR missiles, which the political level must heed. I responded that one way of meeting this problem was to conduct an educational campaign to explain to the Israeli population how little a threat the primitive UAR missiles actually were.

Moreover, was the psychological deterrent gained through Israel's acquiring superior missiles worth either the cost or the risks? I wanted to stress these risks again. First was the risk that the UAR would be stimulated to get good SSMs from the USSR, which would give them a better capability even with conventional warheads. But even more important, such missiles were not militarily effective without nuclear warheads. Therefore, Israel's acquisition of SSMs inevitably raised questions in our mind as to whether it was not indeed going for a nuclear capability as well. Even if Israel did not intend to do so at this point its possession of an operating reactor plus a missile delivery system would bring it much closer to a nuclear deterrent if it chose to go this route. The US was fundamentally opposed to such nuclear proliferation. This was not a policy directed at Israel. It was a cause of great strain in our relations with France. Yet we were determined to undergo this strain. Why should we put Israel in a different category from France?

As we left, I suggested to Gazit that since he had frequently suggested how the President should answer their letters, I would presume to suggest how Eshkol or BG might answer ours. Couldn't the Israeli Government acknowledge just once that the US had a defensible position in attempting to maintain good relations with the Arab states. Instead take Eshkol's latest letter; he simply dusted off the President's statesmanlike exposition of our reasoning on a security guarantee by saying that he would come back at us again, and then proceeded to make a whole series of new requests. It was not always a question of the US failing to take Israel's security interests into account but of at least comparable failure on their part to give any recognition to the possible validity of our policy. We were ships passing each other in the night.

R. W. Komer



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