John F. Kennedy Administration: Memorandum on Recommendation for Handling Syria's Call for Sanctions on Israel
(March 28, 1962)
Memorandum From Secretary of State Rusk to President Kennedy/1/
Security Council Consideration of Syrian and Israeli Complaints
On March 28 the United Nations Security Council will commence consideration of Syrian and Israeli complaints regarding military incidents taking place around the northeastern area of Lake Tiberias. Exchanges of fire going back to late February culminated the night of March 16 in a retaliatory raid of Israeli forces numbering perhaps 300 or 400. They assaulted Syrian positions from which the Israelis alleged the Syrians had been firing upon their patrol boats and fishermen. The raid was probably intended also to intimidate the Syrian government and deter it from molestation of Israel's territory.
From information available thus far, it seems likely the Syrians were guilty of initiating fire against Israeli police boats from Syrian posts on the hillsides overlooking the lake. It is also possible that the boats came close to the Syrian shore. Also the Syrians have been very much concerned recently with Israel's plans to withdraw water from Lake Tiberias through pumping installations now being constructed on the northwestern shore although, as far as we can determine, these will not be ready to operate until late 1963.
We believe the Israelis have not taken advantage of the UNTSO machinery to the extent that they might have. While they are in contact with General Von Horn and his staff and agreed to the cease fire suggested by UNTSO officers, they have refused to return to the forum of the Israel-Syrian Mixed Armistice Commission for settlement of border outbreaks.
The Security Council has on past occasions, with U.S. support, condemned Israel's use of retaliatory raids as a means of settling border disturbances. However, there are differences between these recent incidents and the events of the Gaza raid of 1954/2/ and the Tiberias raid of 1956/3/ for both of which the Israelis were condemned by Security Council resolutions. In both of the earlier incidents the Israeli raiders clearly crossed into neighboring countries, and the reports of the Commander of the Truce Supervision Organization established this. In the present instance it appears the Israelis destroyed a Syrian military installation which was on the border of the demilitarized zone and probably partly in Syrian territory. The UNTSO Commander's report does not specify how far the Israelis penetrated. The Israelis are now asserting they did not go beyond the boundary of the DZ, and they may well attempt to differentiate their recent actions from their earlier ones in 1954 and 1955 on this basis.
The U.S. has constantly opposed any Israeli use of retaliatory raids, and we believe Israel must continue to understand it cannot continue to take the law into its own hands. Israel will argue, no doubt, its subjection to considerable provocation from Syria, but for the U.S. to adopt any posture other than strong opposition to these Israeli tactics might well be taken by the Israelis to indicate we were prepared to tolerate similar future incidents and would, in addition, create strong feelings in the Arab world against the U.S. for its abandonment of a well established principle important to maintenance of order in the area.
During the first session of the Security Council, on March 28, we plan to speak briefly. The U.S. Representative would make two major points. First, he would suggest the UNTSO Chief of Staff be recalled to New York for consultation and recommend the Security Council recess for about five days until he returns. This would buy time until the implications of the latest Syrian coup are known, permit tempers to cool, and establish the facts of the case more clearly. Secondly, we would try to pre-empt the inevitable Soviet efforts to curry favor with the Arabs by making a brief general statement which would indicate that we condone neither the Syrian provocations nor the Israeli retaliation, putting heavier stress on the latter than the former.
Our ultimate objective in the Security Council will be to get the Council to express itself strongly in favor of maintenance of the cease fire, to uphold the general armistice agreement, and to support and strengthen the United Nations peacekeeping machinery in the area.
Israel prefers no resolution whatsoever. We consider, however, that this is unrealistic. Since an extreme resolution is likely to be introduced by the USSR or UAR, we have informed our Mission to the United Nations that in order to exercise some control over the outcome, they should embark on consultations with friendly Council members with a view to developing a reasonably balanced resolution which would contribute the maximum to stabilizing the situation in the Near East while doing the minimum damage to our relations with the Israelis and the Arabs. We would plan after consultation with other friendly members of the Council to support, and possibly co-sponsor, a resolution which would contain the following elements: expression of our concern over developments in the area and note of the fact that a cease fire is now in effect; in its operative sections the resolution would remind the government of Israel that the Council has already condemned military action "whether or not undertaken by way of retaliation." Our resolution would then condemn the Israeli attack of March 16 and 17 as a "flagrant violation" of the cease-fire provision of the Council's resolution of July 15, 1948,/4/ and of Israeli obligation under the Charter. The resolution would also hold that hostile actions from Syrian territory on certain specified dates were clear violations of the cease fire and of Articles 1 and 3 of the Armistice. Finally, the resolution would endorse proposals made by General Von Horn for strengthening his hand in keeping the peace. The Chief of Staff would be instructed to report on compliance with the resolution. A copy of our suggested draft resolution is enclosed./5/
We considered whether operative paragraphs 2 should "deplore" or "condemn" the Israeli attack of March 16 and 17. It is expected that the minimum Syrian demand will be for a resolution which condemns the attack and that they could obtain a Soviet veto for a resolution which did not do this. We also assume that there will be public and congressional sentiment in the United States against condemning the attack and that the Israelis will make a strong effort to distinguish this incident from earlier ones on grounds of clearly greater Syrian provocations. While initiating consultations on a draft using the word "deplore" would be more acceptable to Jewish opinion in the United States, it would be difficult because of the anticipated pressure from such groups to change our position from "deplore" to "condemn" during the negotiations. Therefore, we feel that we must in the last analysis "condemn" the Israeli attack and have a strong resolution for the following reasons: (1) Condemnation of retaliatory raids is a principle we have hitherto firmly upheld. As noted above, relaxation of our view would be deeply resented by the Arabs and regarded as a positive gain for Israel, and the latter could take our change of position to mean we now tolerate retaliatory raids. (2) If we can secure a resolution from the Council, we can reasonably hope, judging from past experience, that it will have a pacifying effect on the area. The Soviets will almost certainly veto a resolution which does not condemn the Israeli attack and would then be able to pose as the champion of the Arabs. (3) We wish to strengthen UNTSO by action of the Council. (4) The resolution also must make clear our firm disapproval of Syrian action. (5) While we do not propose to overlook Syria's guilt, we recognize that in the present unstable political situation in Syria, a shift in the U.S. position away from condemnation of retaliatory raids might create a difficult situation for our relations with the new Syrian government. (6) The mission of Dr. Joseph Johnson with regard to the Palestine refugees is scheduled to commence within a week or two. We would like to restore as much stability and calm in the area in preparing for his efforts as we can.
The voting picture in the Council will be roughly as follows: An extreme resolution is likely to be supported by the UAR, Ghana, USSR, and Rumania. At the other end of the spectrum, the French will probably support the Israeli position to the maximum, including a preference for no resolution. The UK will find itself in a dilemma like our own. The Latin Americans, China and Ireland will probably tend to follow our lead.
/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, 683.84A/3-2862. Confidential. Drafted by Thacher and Buffum on March 27. A handwritten note from Komer to Bundy, undated, attached to a copy of this memorandum in the Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Country Series, Syria, 1/62-3/62, reads: "State clearly wants to flash this long and painful exegesis past the President because it fears domestic U.S. reaction to its proposed resolution 'condemning' Israel. I must agree State's case is a strong one, however. While Stevenson speech today orally 'condemned' Israelis, hope is that resolution can be delayed several days til Von Horn can come back and report. Israelis told State they could live with condemnation if resol. also condemned Syrian provocation. It doesn't go this far, merely says Syrians violated cease fire. Looming large in State's thinking is to avoid letting Soviets get all credit as friends of Arabs with an extreme resolution. No politician I, but recommend President back State."
/2/Reference is presumably to Israel's raid into Gaza and attack on Egyptian military personnel of February 28, 1955; see Foreign Relations, 1955-1957, vol. XIV, pp. 73-78.
/3/Reference is presumably to Israel's attack on Syrian positions in the Lake Tiberias area during the night of December 11/12, 1955; see ibid., pp. 854-856.
/4/Security Council Resolution 54 (1948). For text, see Official Records of the United Nations Security Council, 3rd Year, Resolutions, p. 22.
/5/Attached but not printed. The White House approved the draft resolution that was transmitted to the U.S. Delegation in New York, but later revised. An undated chronology entitled "Evolution of the United States Position in the Security Council's Consideration of the Lake Tiberias Incident" is in Department of State, NEA/IAI Files: Lot 70 D 229, Israel-Syria Lake Tiberias Incident, March 1962.
/6/Printed from a copy that indicates Ball signed the original for Rusk.
Sources: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963: Near East, 1962-1963, V. XVIII. DC: GPO, 2000.