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John F. Kennedy Administration: Memorandum on U.S. Policy in Light of Leak of Johnson Plan

(October 2, 1962)

This memorandum is written after the leak of the Johnson Plan to the public, and addresses the two points of view the U.S. administration could publicly stand by: their support of the plan or their non-commitment to the plan.

With the leak of the Johnson Plan, there is now bound to be discussion in the public prints. This is probably an adverse development so far as the Plan's prospects are concerned, because all parties will be more reluctant to accept publicly what they might have acquiesced in privately (an essential element in the Plan).

By the same token the leak may make it easier to let the Plan die in a welter of conflicting criticism.

In any event, the US will now be under public pressure to indicate its attitude toward the Plan. What we say, coming after the Hawk offer (and Yemen), could greatly affect our relations with Arabs and Israel. We have essentially two options:

(1) Say boldly that we consider the Plan a fair and equitable basis for discussion. If we didn't, we wouldn't (as a PCC member) have authorized its submission to the parties. Of course we can add that the Plan is still a working draft, that it has been definitively approved by nobody (not even the PCC), and that it should be further explored by the parties. Saying any less than this might create trouble with the Arabs. After all, we have written Hussein (and our Ambassadors have told the UAR, Syria, Lebanon) that we regard the Plan as a fair and equitable approach.

However, Israelis have passed word three ways that if we say anything favorable about the Johnson Plan, Israel will feel compelled to come out and oppose it. Indeed, Golda Meir threatens that if asked Israel's attitude she'll say flatly it's no good. This would inevitably lead to a public hassle we'd hate to get into just before our elections. Moreover, the Arabs would be smart enough to sit back and let us argue. On the other hand, would the Israelis risk this if they knew we'd stand firm? Would they want to see us publicly linked with the Arabs against Israel? Would the Hawk deal effectively blanket any contention the US was pursuing an anti-Israeli policy? Even so, once the Israelis publicly opposed the Johnson Plan all chance of selling it would be gone.

(2) Try and damp down public discussion of the Plan by adopting a non-committal attitude toward it, arguing that it is improper for the US to comment on proposals just submitted to the various parties, and to which Johnson is even now soliciting their reactions. We don't think it appropriate to comment on the Plan until all parties have had a chance to explore its meaning. The risk here is that such equivocation might be taken by the Arabs as a sign of capitulation to Israel; after all, we've told the Arabs we like the Plan. Therefore, to sustain a publicly non-committal attitude we ought to tell the Arabs privately that we haven't changed our views, but want to avoid forcing them or the Israelis to react publicly. We must tell the Israelis the same thing, so they won't leak that we've abandoned the Plan.

The first alternative tends to kill the Plan by enhancing the likelihood of public debate; it also creates a US/Israeli issue just before elections, though it will gain caste with the Arabs. The non-committal approach buys us more time to work on Israel, and to let Arab reactions generate (which may be hostile in any case, thus spreading the blame). It may at any rate get us through the elections. But it will require, in my view, some sort of assurances to Arabs (and warnings to Israelis) that we're not giving up on Johnson Plan. We'll have to stand firm if we're going to ride this one through.

To give a clear signal to the town on Johnson Plan, I urge that you approve the following plan of action:

1. We privately stick with the Johnson Plan, while showing willingness to discuss modifications which might be mutually acceptable or assurances needed to meet Israeli concerns.

2. We adopt publicly a non-committal attitude along lines discussed above.

3. We press Israelis not to surface their objections but to sit back and let Arab reactions mature. We warn Israelis that if they publicly denounce Plan we'll let them take the full onus.

4. If Israelis lobby against Plan in UN corridors, Congress, or Jewish Community, State counters with appropriate explanations.

I do not believe that the above course will save the Johnson Plan. It is in effect dead unless we put great pressure on the Israelis to buy it. By this time I'm convinced State misreads the Israeli attitude.

But I do believe that the above course is best suited to US interests--it preserves our good faith and integrity with both sides; it neither shows weakness by caving to the Israelis nor permits the Arabs to accuse us of reneging on our own creation. It buys time to let the naturally contradictory attitudes of Arabs and Israelis, plus inter-Arab bickering, generate a petering out of the exercise under circumstances where we can say we tried.

True, US prestige turns out to be semi-committed to a non-viable proposition. But our prestige is already committed, and the loss to us is less if others make the exercise a non-starter than if we abandon it ourselves./2/

/2/An October 5 report from Kaysen to Bundy contains the following regarding the situation in the UAR: "This is mainly the Johnson Plan. If you look at Komer's memoranda you will get a fair feeling for the state of the play. It is fairly clear that the whole thing has blown up and that we have been taken for a ride by the Israelis. At the moment Mike Feldman has been withdrawn from the discussion by the President. Talks are going to continue between Harman and Talbot on what can be done on the refugee issue, but it is understood that the Johnson Plan as such is dead. The only open question is what we say about it. State is to produce a memo today. The President this morning approved the line laid down on page 2 of Komer's last memo, October 2, transmitted October 4 [option 2 in the memorandum printed here], however, we have heard that the Syrians have rejected the plan. If this is so, the issue may become moot." (Ibid., Meetings and Memoranda Series, Staff Memoranda, Carl Kaysen)

R.W. Komer

/1/Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, Palestine, Refugees, Vol. II, 10/62-11/62. Secret. Kaysen forwarded this memorandum to the President under cover of a note that reads: "You may be getting a memorandum from the Secretary of State requesting guidance on what probable position we should take on the Johnson Plan. The attached from Bob Komer summarizes the situation, which hasn't changed in the last few days."


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