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John F. Kennedy Administration: U.S. Considers Strategy for Pursuing Johnson Plan

(September 22, 1962)

This memorandum reassess the U.S.'s interest in going forward with the Johnson Plan, summarizes the perceived costs to the nation if they were to withdraw their support of the plan, in addition to outlining what the next move should be.

Let me register my strong conviction that (1) we should not give up too soon on the Johnson Plan; and (2) even if we do disengage, it will cost us heavily unless we do so slowly and cautiously, letting the onus fall on the Arabs and Israelis, rather than appearing to cave ourselves.

As I see it, Israel (having gotten its Hawks) is making an all-out effort to sink the Johnson Plan. It is scared of the Plan and worried about the political repercussions in Israel, where BG heads an unstable coalition. In their concern over appearing to show weakness, however, the Israelis are ignoring the fact that this is the best chance in years for at least a start toward an overall Arab/Israeli settlement (which is emphatically in their interest).

Mike Feldman buys the flat Israeli contention that the Plan is "unacceptable"; I am not so sure. At a minimum the Israelis are properly quite anxious that the onus for sinking it not fall squarely on them. In fact, there is at least a chance they might buy a version of the Plan, if we gave them specific (probably written) assurances that carrying out the Plan would not be permitted to imperil their security (e.g. upper limit on refugees, protection of Israel against any UN contentions of non-compliance, etc.)

I further doubt that US determination to continue low-key exploration of Johnson Plan possibilities (though without pressing the Plan any further) will seriously complicate our relations with Israel or adversely affect US Jewish opinion just before elections. The reason is that Hawk offer will leak shortly; it is so pro-Israeli a move (and will be so blasted by Arabs) that it will largely blanket Johnson Plan.

In any case, I see no reason why we should deprive ourselves of any leverage with the Israelis by telling them now that we're withdrawing US support of the Johnson Plan. If we do so, they will want to tell the French and Turks, and then the word can easily get out to the Arabs.

Let's have clearly in mind what this might cost us:

(1) US prestige is already committed to at least a fair try at selling Johnson Plan. After all, JFK himself sent Mike to tell BG and wrote Nasser and Hussein that we think Plan fair and practicable. Our Ambassadors in key Arab states have put in initial plugs for Plan. For it to get out now that we reneged so soon under Israeli pressure will make us look a little sick.

(2) If we cave too precipitously under Israeli pressure this time (especially after just offering Hawks), they'll think they can lead us around by the nose.

(3) If Arabs find out (as they well might), they'll simply say it proves again the US is exclusively pro-Israel (especially coming right after Hawk deal).

(4) Hawks will cause enough Arab/Israeli furor; if it gets out Israel and/or US also sank Johnson Plan, Arabs can have a field day in UN. Having the Plan now, they could even introduce it as their own. Or they could shift back to custodial resolution in UN debate, forcing Israel to counter with Brazzaville "direct negotiation" gambit. In any case, there'd be a donnybrook in UNGA.

(5) This fight will inevitably leave bitter taste affecting far more serious battle next year when Israelis get ready to divert Jordan waters.

(6) Joe Johnson, having been beat over head by Israelis, might just throw up his hands and resign right now (after reporting to PCC that Plan a non-starter because one of parties won't buy). Then fat would be in fire. Rusk is lunching with Joe Sunday to dissuade him.

The hell of it is that initial Arab reactions suggest they may buy the Plan; even the Syrians are divided in their counsel. This makes it even more important we not cave now.

So we must get across to Israel that it too will lose heavily if it incurs onus for sinking Plan. There are indications Israelis are well aware of this, and we should drive it home to them.

Only sound strategy at this point is:

(1) to keep probing Israeli position to see if indeed they might buy Plan with appropriate US assurances. We must do precisely what Mac tells me President said last Wednesday;/3/ i.e. "We should stick with the position which Mike explained in Israel and Israelis should also stay where they were when Ben Gurion talked to Mike." We simply cannot afford to accept their contention that Plan has been changed since then; this means in effect that we are guilty of a breach of faith!

(2) We must get across to Israelis that, whatever happens to Plan, neither we nor Israel should let ourselves be maneuvered into being chiefly responsible for failure. This means we must keep negotiating, consulting, talking (Plan isn't even approved by PCC as yet, much less Arabs or Israel), counting on Arab hotheads to begin reacting and thus sharing the blame. By this means Plan can just be allowed to peter out in welter of conflicting views, interpretations, etc., thus fuzzing up the blame.

(3) Meanwhile neither US nor UN should move ahead on any steps toward implementation. This stop order is already in.

Plan of Action. We've got to speak with one voice to the Israelis, and that voice must be Rusk, speaking with authority from President! We can't let them keep whipsawing us.

(1) Rusk should tell Harman Israel is being much too precipitous in rejecting Johnson Plan, and should do nothing till Rusk talks with Golda Meir Wednesday.

(2) He should tell Golda: (a) US not prepared see best hope in years for movement toward Palestine settlement go down drain so quickly; (b) on other hand, we stand by version of Plan Mike gave BG regardless of later verbal changes; (c) we prepared talk out any problems and to consider giving Israel any assurance to this effect it needs; (d) in any event, neither Israel nor US can afford take onus for sinking Plan, so imperative all parties keep talking. Longer we talk, bigger the chance Arabs will blow thing up, especially once Hawk offer leaks.

(3) If Rusk needs help to keep Johnson from resigning, President should call Joe.

(4) Everybody should keep lip buttoned about Johnson Plan. Let's not give Arabs a free ride.

Carl, I've reviewed the bidding at length because I feel you should acquaint JFK with full flavor of problem. I've urged that Rusk get in touch with President, but JFK is entitled to our two cents worth too. This Johnson gambit has been very poorly handled tactically (Joe should never have put so much on paper, or changed wording after Mike talked to BG). But I'm convinced that if we cave now it will cost US and Israel even more than if we play out hand further, and disengage gradually if we must at all.

Bob Komer

/1/Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series, Palestine Refugees, Vol. II, 8/62-9/62. Secret. This memorandum was apparently forwarded to President Kennedy by Kaysen on September 23 under cover of a note that reads: "Attached is Bob Komer's review of the present state of our discussions with the Israelis on the Johnson Plan. Phil Talbot takes the same view of the situation, and he has asked Rusk to call you on it. Rusk will probably call today (Sept 23). Since Komer finished the note, the Israeli Ambassador called on Talbot to tell him that Israel cannot accept the Plan. This need not be final, but we must act now if we are to avoid the blame for scuttling the Plan and double-dealing with Nasser. Part of the problem is Mike Feldman's tendency to take only the Israeli side of the problem into account; hence the need for turning dealings with the Israelis over to the Secretary of State for the time being." (Ibid., President's Office Files, Countries Series, Israel)

/2/September 19. See Document 47.


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