John F. Kennedy Administration: Rusk, Meir Meeting on Israeli Objections to the Johnson Plan
(September 26, 1962)
Secto 22. Johnson Mission. Following based on uncleared memcon of Secretary's talk with Israeli FonMin Meir today (other aspects of talk inconsequential):
1. Mrs. Meir said from first she and other Israeli officials had made no secret of their belief it impossible make any real progress on refugee question at this time. Last year when Ben Gurion had discussed matter with President, former had said Israel willing to go along with attempt repatriation and resettlement but did not expect any results. Johnson had undertaken impossible mission. Arabs and Israelis agreed on one thing, i.e., question of refugees could not be separated from overall question of Arab-Israel relations. She had told Hadassah Convention in Pittsburgh recently that until Arabs agreed to negotiate with Israel, there is only one problem, i.e., how Arabs can be brought to acquiesce in Israel's existence. Once negotiations start, then question of Arab refugees, Jordan water and others can perhaps be settled.
2. Mrs. Meir said that when Johnson first came to ME, he had first visited Arabs then had gone to Israel. She had asked him what reaction he had found. Johnson had replied that none of top Arab leaders prepared to accept existence of Israel. Second time Johnson came to area he had come with proposal for test poll of 20,000 refugees. (First time he had come he had mentioned possibility of repatriating 10,000 refugee families per year for 10 years--proposal which Johnson had removed from record when Mrs. Meir told him how shocking Israelis found it.) At time of second visit Johnson had been told basis for any refugee settlement would have to be (A) complete recognition of Israel's sovereignty, (B) careful regard for Israel's security, matter on which Israel itself would have to be final judge and (C) principle that there could be some repatriation but there would have to be much greater amount of resettlement. If matter could be handled in way in which Arabs could indicate lack of aggressive intent against Israel, then some progress might be made. Johnson had been told Israel would expect Arabs to agree to say nothing hostile against Israel for six months in either Arab newspapers or on Arab radio. This was very little to expect from Arabs in return for repatriation. Johnson had put this proposal to Arabs and had found they unwilling agree to moratorium on propaganda. Nor had they been willing make statement that they would implement resettlement aspects of plan. Johnson had indicated he would, nevertheless, go ahead with plan because Israel had not said that they would not allow repatriation of single refugee. At that time, Ben Gurion had repeated basis on which Israel would consider any refugee repatriation plan.
3. Mrs. Meir said Johnson had agreed consult further before launching plan. In fact, however, nothing more heard from him until he presented Comay with "Plan" and "Explanation" recently. Secretary interrupted to recall visit of Feldman to Israel. Mrs. Meir said she had forgotten this. Changing subject slightly, she said she had previously asked Johnson not to put forward plan for poll of refugees unless he first got assurances from Arabs re radio and press propaganda. Again digressing, she said Israelis convinced as long as Arab leaders continue hold present hostile attitude toward Israel it would be impossible speak of free choice among Arab refugees. Therefore, Israelis had not believed rumors they had heard that Johnson had decided that all refugees would be polled. However, when she had discussed plan with Feldman she had found latter to be true. She told Feldman Israel considered plan "fantastic". Feldman had assured her that US anxious preserve Israel's security and, given its commitments, would not be foolish enough to allow any plan to go into effect which would really endanger Israel security. Government had assured her US would not allow plan to go through if large numbers of Arabs chose repatriation as result final interview. Plan would begin with seeking of preference from no more that 1,000 refugees. Ben Gurion had asked what would happen if, of this thousand, 300 requested repatriation. Feldman had said plan would stop. Ben Gurion had indicated that if more than 1 in 10 refugees chose repatriation, danger point would be reached.
4. Feldman had been more patient, Mrs. Meir said, in listening to Israel's case but he in turn had not convinced Israelis. They had told him that if plan were to be implemented it would amount to a rallying of Arab refugees under UN auspices and UN would have succeeded in consolidating refugees where all other means had failed. She said she always [has] nightmares that Arabs might wake up some day and abandon attacks on Israel for simple expedient of pushing refugees across border into Israel. Israel soldiers would be there to insure they did not pass but what would world think of Israelis having to shoot thousands of innocent women and children. In case of Johnson Plan, how could UN guarantee that thousands who might have asked for repatriation would not merely be pushed across borders by Arab leaders whose first objective is to destroy Israel?
5. Mrs. Meir said to her horror she found late in Feldman's visit there was an operative plan under which, beginning September 17, Acting Administrator would start to put plan into effect, working from Government House Jerusalem. Mrs. Meir had told Feldman if this done, Israel would not recognize existence of Acting Administrator. She had urged Feldman to postpone all further action until she could talk to Secretary and to Johnson. However, this had not been way situation had developed and Israel now had to take stand on matter. She had discussed response to be given to PCC members and Johnson with Ben Gurion recently at their meeting in Zurich. Principal Israeli objection was that plan did not pay proper attention to Israel's sovereignty. Johnson seems to be saying that although all countries were sovereign, Israel was somewhat less so. This so since he seemed to put refugees in group apart which should have special handling. Furthermore, Israel's sovereignty compromised by setting up of advisory comites to which refugees could appeal if not admitted. If Israel did not heed comites' decisions, Johnson had indicated UN would have to deal with problem. This could constantly put Israel before bar of international justice.
6. Another gross derogation of Israeli sovereignty was fact that, under Johnson Plan, crossing over of refugees into Israel would not be final act. UN would follow up by seeing that refugees properly treated. This Israel could not allow. Resources in country were scarce and if refugees came back they, like thousands of Jewish immigrants, would be sent into the Negev and other development areas. Why should Arabs want to help develop Israel? What would happen if they refused to go to development areas? Present problem of significant Arab minority would be increased out of all proportions. Only recently Israel had had real troubles with Arabs when some Arab properties confiscated allow building of Negev Canal. [sic] Arab women and children had been pushed by their leaders into path of bulldozers.
7. Secretary asked whether there was group solidarity among Arabs of Israel. Mrs. Meir said there was quite a bit. Many Israeli Arabs didn't want refugees to come back, however, since their own economic and social conditions were excellent and they didn't want any trouble. Troublesome groups are Arab Communist Party members. Israeli Arabs not really Communist but they hate Israel and Communist Party expresses most closely their hatreds.
8. Returning to question of who exactly could return, Mrs. Meir said Israel was best judge since she had everything to lose. Idea of international body giving opinion does away at one stroke with Israel sovereignty. Furthermore, Arabs had given no indication they willing acquiesce in Israel's existence, nor have they given any sign of peaceful intentions towards Israel. No Arab leader would dare acquiesce in resettlement and if this not done, whole plan is dead.
9. Mrs. Meir asked rhetorical question, what should be done next? Should Johnson be instructed to try again? No, she said, this not possible for refugee problem cannot be solved alone. Perhaps she too pessimistic and there would be peace one day, but real problem was not refugees but US willingness maintain arms balance between Arabs and Israel and US willingness give Israel full support on Jordan Water diversion. This more important than 10 humanitarian missions. Sooner Arabs learn there no chance destroy Israel because of strength her friends, sooner there would be peace in area.
10. Secretary said he appreciated frankness with which Mrs. Meir had spoken. He, however, genuinely believed there were many misunderstandings which could and should be cleared up. For example, US for its part had no doubts about sovereignty of Israel (Mrs. Meir made disclaimer of any doubts here). If Israel felt keenly about its sovereignty, maybe it was because she had too much sovereignty. US didn't have much sovereignty in this day and age. Secretary said he would also like to set aside problem of security. US would not act in way which might diminish Israel's security in view of US commitments. However, tension and troubles ahead and water situation likely to add to tensions. If there are any misunderstandings between US and Israel, they should be settled now.
11. Secretary said there are other aspects of refugee problem which he would like to explain. US bearing great burden for refugees, and this not only a financial burden. Israel says there no chance for settlement of refugee question. For US, this impossible to accept for this discloses prospect of endless treadmill of appropriations to keep refugees alive. Congress not likely to accept this. Whether Israel agrees or not, it will have to understand that US must make real attempt achieve progress re refugees. US cannot accept unresolved refugee situation as natural part of Middle East scenery for this much too dangerous. Mere presence of refugees in area provides inflammatory focus for troubles between US and countries of ME. If refugees could be resettled and broken up, this would be to great advantage of US and Israel. Furthermore, Arab acquiescence to resettlement would be first step in acquiescence towards Israel as whole. If Arab governments were to mount campaign of revenge while repatriation going on, then plan would have to be reevaluated.
12. Secretary said key point was to determine what individual Arabs believed. Arab leaders were negative but he not so certain individual refugees would take same stand. They would be told they would not be going "home" but would be going to Israel. Mere presentation of facts about modern Israel would be important. US feels it essential that somehow chance be given to ask refugees real questions rather than phony questions about their future. Disincentives built into plan would, he thought, be effective in discouraging repatriation. US would be surprised if large numbers opted for repatriation. If they did so in significant numbers, plan would have to be readjusted. However, at best plan would be long-term operation. Beginnings would be small, indeed, and would be focused on finding out if there is any interest in repatriation. Secretary said he hoped there could be further talks about possibility of finding out in limited number of cases what a small group of Arab refugees had in mind.
13. Secretary indicated that meanwhile he thought it essential nothing be done by Israel which would bring upon themselves full burden for rejecting Johnson Plan. In interests of both US and Israel, it essential any burden for rejection be shared, for Israel in near future would need strong US backing re diversion Jordan water. Also there was question of Hawk missile. If this issue came up when public openly critical of Israel for rejection Johnson Plan, then US would have problems. Secretary emphasized not equating questions but developments would come in same period. Secretary said US had agreed to look at plan not out of any sense it would be accepted fully, but rather out of feeling something might come out of it which could lead to progress. Johnson Plan was a very reasonable approach and it essential to keep trying to find out what individual refugees would elect to do in light of all facts on situation. Secretary asked Mrs. Meir to think over his remarks and in any event to keep matter in play until Arabs can react, at same time avoiding publicity.
14. Mrs. Meir said she found it necessary to say that as far as Israel is concerned, not only Johnson Plan but entire concept of repatriation is unacceptable. As long as Arab attitudes toward Israel remain same there can be no free choice by refugees. She said she surprised that there had been no leak re Johnson Plan from Israel side. This had been accomplished by taking editors of Israeli papers into confidence. She also did same with Israeli correspondents in New York. However, other side had leaked news in form of release of Kennedy-Nasser letters. As far as she was concerned this was UAR answer to Johnson Plan. Same day these documents released, Radio Cairo had indicated there was no question of refugees coming back to Israel but only question of whole nation returning. Mrs. Meir repeated that Israel had no interest publishing documents, but it miracle there had been no leak so far.
15. Mrs. Meir said she had not lost sight of US burden re refugees. She had not meant that nothing could be done about refugees but only that nothing positive could come from approaching refugee problem in context of Johnson Plan. She agreed something constructive should be tried. Israel had not changed her policy of not saying no refugee would be readmitted to Israel.
16. Secretary said he sorry Israel seemed to feel it could not accept Johnson Plan. It important that two parties should be quite clear about certain points. He thought it would be useful if Ambassador could discuss matter with . . . . At this point Mrs. Meir broke in to say she realized conversations had gone on much too long and it would be useful if she could meet again with Secretary.
Note: Later in day, new appointment was set up for Friday evening.
Sources: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963: Near East, 1962-1963, V. XVIII. DC: GPO, 2000.