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John F. Kennedy Administration: Telegram Outlining Israel's Position On Arab Refugees

(July 12, 1961)

This telegram outlines the conversation with the Israeli Foreign Minister concerning how to proceed with the management of the Arab refugees.

25. I had three hours of conversation with Mrs. Meir the Foreign Minister yesterday in addition to a social lunch. While I had intended to seek her thinking generally on a number of subjects discussion in fact became confined essentially to sole topic of refugee problem.

Referring at the outset to the current tenor of Arab public comment on refugees, excerpts from some of the most vitriolic and unyielding of which she had listed on a piece of paper and handed me, Mrs. Meir took the line that in the circumstances the Israelis did not anticipate that any gesture or initiative they might be prepared to take at this time would elicit any useful Arab response. Mrs. Meir went on to say that she had hoped that the President's letters to the Arab leaders and the latters' response might reveal some reason to anticipate Arab cooperation on this problem and that in that event or if we were in a position on the basis of other information to tell the Israelis that we had reason to divine some movement in the Arab position then Israel would be disposed to be helpful. In its absence the Israelis are reluctant at the moment to envisage any step which would only be rebuffed in this matter which is of such vital security concern to Israel.

There followed a long exposition of the steps Israel feels it has already taken in the past to solve the refugee problem notably that she originally permitted some 40,000 Arabs to return to Israel in 1949, that she has subsequently made an offer to accept another large number in the context of a peace settlement and finally that despite the absence of such a settlement and the fact that the Arabs still consider themselves at war the Israelis have released to the refugees a number of blocked financial accounts. Emphasizing Israel's critical defense position and the security aspects of the admission of any appreciable number of refugees, Mrs. Meir noted that the Arab population here now amounts to some 12 per cent of the total. She also professed to be apprehensive that the return flow of refugees could not effectively be stopped at any given figure and that pressures would arise to increase any number agreed upon. She made a major point of the uncertainties involved in the phrase "free choice" which she said Israel is being urged to offer the refugees. She was unable to accept the theory that any choice could really be free in the absence of a change in the Arab point of view which in her opinion meant in the absence of a peace settlement. She appreciated that the President in his conversation with Ben-Gurion had been fully cognizant of the necessity to safeguard Israel's security but could not see how that could be accomplished.

I argued along line of the Department's thinking emphasizing the psychological contribution of some initiative at an appropriate time to demonstrate again Israel's reasonableness on this issue with a view to the coming General Assembly and more generally to improve Israel's image in this respect world-wide. I similarly confirmed our concern for Israel's security problem and the fact that we are fully conscious that any steps taken should not prejudice Israel's justifiable security apprehensions.

The essence of Mrs. Meir's thought and that of her colleagues did not emerge from the matter of argumentation with complete clarity. However, she seemed to me to place major store by the necessity for Israel of having a complete scenario as to where an initiative would lead in the end before Israel would consider embarking on such a course. She was deaf to suggestions that a small step might lead in a desirable direction and could be safe-guarded against damaging Israel's position in the absence of Arab responsiveness. She reverted as a basic concept to the theory that the correct procedure is still to endeavor to negotiate a peace settlement as a whole after which or as a part of which the refugee problem would solve itself. She repeatedly reiterated Israel's willingness to sit down at the conference table with Arabs which she felt is sufficiently demonstrative of Israel's good will.

I appreciate that this conversation probably served little to advance us in the desirable direction of this problem and I do not believe that the attitude expressed can be described as encouraging, perhaps [garble] because it is my understanding that the cabinet had considered the problem at length the day before and the Foreign Minister's thinking no doubt reflects the government's current view. However, as indicated previously I think it unrealistic to anticipate any important progress until after the elections and I am consequently not particularly surprised at the views expressed on this occasion./2/

/2/Israeli Ambassador Harman also held a lengthy discussion on the refugee question with Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Cleveland on July 14. (Ibid., 325.84/7-1461)


Source: Department of State, Central Files, 886.411/7-1261. Secret. Received at 3:33 a.m. on July 13.

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