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John F. Kennedy Administration: Talbot's Views on Johnson Plan

(September 30, 1962)

This memorandum relays the opinions of Talbot, in which he addresses the reasons he feels Israel has now chosen to withdraw their support of the Johnson Plan, in addition to stating the course of action the U.S. should now take in trying to gain the support of the two parties, despite the nation's partial sentiments towards the success of the plan.

/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, 325.84/9-3062. Secret; Eyes Only. Drafted by Crawford and Grant. Handwritten notes on the source text indicate that Secretary Rusk was given the original and that a copy was sent to Ambassador Stevenson.

The Johnson Plan

This is a personal comment, uncleared with anyone.

We stand at the crossroads not only of the Johnson Plan but also of the Palestine refugee issue and of our relations with the Arabs and Israel.

So far as I can assess your talks with Mrs. Meir, Israel is preparing to go into the promised Washington discussions with the objective of getting the Johnson Plan decently buried, free of the primary responsibility for killing it.

In analyzing where we go from here, it is important to remember that it is the Israelis, and not Johnson or we, as the Israelis would like us to believe, who have changed their posture on the Johnson Plan. When the President talked with Ben Gurion last year, Ben Gurion said Israel was willing to go along with an attempt at repatriation and resettlement though it did not expect any results. Then the Israelis gave Johnson to believe they were not rigidly opposed, despite their scepticism as to the Plan's feasibility. Even so we did not make our decision until after sending Feldman to feel out the Israelis.

In my opinion, Israel has taken the hard line in the past month for at least three reasons. Some of the wording in the Plan and Explanation evokes old symbols of a fourteen-year-old fear of inundation by returning refugees. (Our interpretation of these sentences differs sharply, but the Israelis have not yet stood still long enough to examine our appraisal.) Israel, which has always felt that the Arabs would reject a reasonable refugee rehabilitation plan, has now been frightened out of its complacency by the thought that the Arabs might just possibly go along with this one. Finally, Israel has recently obtained from us all that it now wants, e.g., water assurances, Hawks, etc., and now feels it can safely be adamant on the one issue on which we seek its reciprocal cooperation.

I do not discount the political discomfort that Ben Gurion's government could experience if this plan should proceed on the basis of Arab acquiescence, rather than with prior explicit commitments by the Arab governments. My colleagues and I firmly believe, however, that the Israeli Government could, if it wished, give a clear lead to the Knesset and the Israeli public, especially in view of the current Israeli jubilation over the Hawk decision and the implications they draw from it.

When Mike Feldman went to Israel we were persuaded that the Johnson Plan offers Israel a fair shake and a chance to unfreeze at least one major aspect of the Arab-Israeli impasse. We are still so persuaded, particularly since the Arabs have not rejected the Plan out of hand. We are also persuaded that the destruction of the substance and the skillfully devised balance of the Johnson Plan, mainly at Israeli initiative, would rob us of the contingency advantages that the United States could have obtained out of Arab rejection of the Plan (i.e., getting off the hook of Paragraph 11 of Resolution 194). To go along with the present Israeli ploy would, therefore, in my view, put our over-all Near Eastern policies in jeopardy.

The alternative is to bargain the Israelis into acceptance of the basic, two-page "Plan" intact. The procedure would be to develop "amplifications" or "clarifications" of the Explanation thereof, to meet both Israeli and Arab objections to the final sanitized version of the Explanation which Johnson handed to the parties. As a fall back objective (but not one of your oft-quoted fall backs that promptly become negotiating positions) we would wish to have it appear that the Plan has been rejected by both the Israelis and the Arabs. This cannot be induced, however, by teasing, say, Syria into a quick, snarling rejection of the Plan. If in the end some of the Arabs should reject the Plan for their own reasons, our position would remain untarnished only if we had made a record of serious efforts to convey to the parties our understanding of the constructive and practical features of the Plan.

In line with the President's desire not to commit U.S. prestige at this stage to this particular Plan, our Ambassadors and Departmental officers in all contacts with the parties have held to the approved formula that we regard the Plan as "good for the parties." The Israelis have caught the distinction and in a major campaign through White House and other channels are pressing hard to get us to reject the Plan so they won't have to do so. The time has come, therefore, for us to understand clearly what the Plan means to the United States.

I submit that our interests call for the following judgments:

1. The Plan obviously cannot succeed if any party rejects it out of hand, but

2. There is no practical present alternative to the Johnson Plan, because

a. Johnson himself explored every alternative that had previously been suggested during the fourteen-year-old impasse and for cogent reasons--with which we agree--rejected each one;

b. Mrs. Meir's specific suggestions--e.g., that limited repatriation be conducted under such a rubric as "completing family groups" and that repatriation begin only after the Arab governments have explicitly agreed to the resettlement of the bulk of the refugees--reassert long standing Israeli positions which both the Israelis and we know will make impossible any advance on the Palestine refugee question. They cannot be regarded as a basis for progress consistent with the UN resolution we are pledged to support;

c. If the Plan and Explanation are tampered with, beyond the point of amplification, to meet Israeli objections, we can be quite sure the Arabs would have nothing to do with it.

3. During the upcoming Washington discussions we should actively press the Israelis to accept the Johnson Plan (with amplifications and assurances), because

a. There remains a substantial possibility that if they are convinced we seriously support this Plan as the best available device to make progress on the refugee problem, the Israelis will acquiesce in the Plan, on the basis of adequate assurances on points of concern. We have received repeated signals, mainly through Minister Gazit of the Israeli Embassy, that written assurances on such matters as a fixed ceiling on the number of repatriates and Israel's sole determination of its sovereign rights would make a difference in the Israeli reaction to the plan. Such commitments in writing could be tricky, if Israel should ever leak the assurances to the Arabs. As a price for a reciprocal commitment by Israel to acquiesce with the Plan in good faith, however, the idea is well worth examining. As it happens, we can explore this idea effectively only if the Israelis understand that the U.S. is determined to give the Johnson Plan a reasonable trial;

b. After the Hawk deal, even if the rest of our careful Near Eastern policies be ignored, neither Israel nor its supporters in this country can seriously impugn U.S. motives or charge us with undermining Israeli security. Furthermore, given freedom to talk about the advantages of the Plan as we see them, we can do much to answer the questions that have been put into the minds of Congressmen and of Israel's American supporters by distorted descriptions of the Plan, and thus blunt and possibly erase what otherwise would be a wave of domestic criticism embarrassing to the Administration.

c. The adverse consequences of failing to achieve our primary objective would be very serious even assuming that the failure of the Johnson Plan were in the context of rejection or difficulties by both the Arabs and the Israelis. No other acceptable formula for solving the Arab refugee problem is in sight. There is a serious danger that Congress would exacerbate the problem in FY '64 by taking action into its own hands and cutting drastically the funds for UNRWA.

d. On the positive side, we have made more progress with the Arabs in terms of accepting realities than at any time in the past fourteen years. Frankly, the Arabs have so far been more rational and forthcoming by far than most of us have really dared hope. They have been brought a very long way on the road to acquiescence in a proposal which recognizes Israel's existence, and the implementation of which will, as they well know, eliminate the largest single obstacle to peace between themselves and Israel. If this present opportunity is allowed to pass, a similar one is unlikely in this decade.

In considering what direction to take next, we must keep in mind that the heart of the Israeli position has no relation to any late changes in the Explanation accompanying the text of the Johnson Plan. Rather, Israel is still seeking, as it has done for fourteen years, to avoid repatriating any significant numbers of Palestine refugees. By intensive effort we got Ben Gurion to agree in the spring of 1961 to go along with some plan for refugee repatriation and resettlement, and, in the late summer of 1962, to go along with the main outlines of the Johnson Plan as described to him by Mike Feldman. Only a similarly intensive effort now stands a chance of persuading Ben Gurion to honor his earlier commitments to the President. Israel's deliberately hard line, which is being pursued through political as well as diplomatic initiatives, looks very much like a last effort to avoid implementing these promises. Unless we are free to be similarly firm, however, we cannot hope to test the route to Israel's fall-back position, which I believe to be acquiescence to the starting of the Johnson Plan in return for a written U.S. commitment to the assurances given by Mike Feldman.

The Johnson Plan is a good plan for Israel, as it is for the Arabs and therefore for us. It is an honest effort, despite Israel imputations, to dissolve this intractable dispute. It is the only Plan that has any chance of progress now or, probably, in the next several years. To cave in at this stage, through less than full-scale effort in our negotiations, would be a tragedy straining our relations with both the Israelis and the Arabs for some years to come.

Recommended Next Steps:

1. It is important that we have authority to make it very clear with the Israelis from the outset that our objective is still the Johnson Plan, and that what we are prepared to talk about are explanations and interpretations and assurances that will (to use the words of one Israeli diplomat) give Israel sufficient confidence so that it can be guided by our words rather than those to which it takes exception in the Johnson Plan.

2. It is also necessary that we have authority to begin talks with selected Congressional and Jewish leaders to build up understanding and support for the Johnson Plan, lest the Israelis get to these people to persuade them to fight us rather than support us. With news of the Hawk now public, we can be persuasive in our protestations of interest in Israel's security and well-being, and we need to capitalize on this quickly.

3. Finally, our Turkish and French colleagues on the PCC, who have been importuned by the Israelis, need to be stiffened to hold with us in avoiding giving any indication that the Plan is dead or dying during the talking process and until after elections.

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