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John F. Kennedy Administration: U.S. Discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian Refugee Conflict

(August 3, 1961)

This letter highlights the reluctance or U.S. government officials to get involved in the Palestinian refugee issue.

Nicosia, August 3, 1961.

Dear Armin: At our NEA Ambassadors' sessions we have spent a good deal of time yesterday and today on the Palestine refugee question. As you can imagine, several of the participants have fairly strong views of the desirability and practicality of different courses of action. Jack Jernegan, for example, feels so skeptical that any concrete result can be achieved from an approach on the refugee question this year and so sure of unfortunate efforts of an unsuccessful effort that he would only very reluctantly support any initiative whatsoever. Several of the others, while recognizing the over-all advantages of some initiative, fear that a U.S. effort will have smaller prospect of success and be potentially more damaging to our interests than an effort under U.N. or other auspices. Nevertheless, the consensus was that we should make a specific effort in the very near future to achieve some advance on the UNRWA and other refugee issues.

Bob Strong and I explained to the group the efforts that you and others have made to date and told of Ambassador Lindt's bowing out after protracted consideration of the invitation to become PCC Special Representative. We also explained Mr. Hammarskjold's evident reluctance to involve U.N. prestige in refugee matters at this time. Against these factors I pointed out the October 15th deadline for a PCC report, and necessity of a debate on UNRWA at the 16th General Assembly, and current Congressional interest in this whole topic.

After lengthy discussion yesterday afternoon had produced the consensus that the U.S. should take some action despite the unfavorable prognosis, I asked a sub-committee consisting of Ambassadors Barbour, Hart and McClintock to draft a proposal for discussion by our full group and reference to the Department. That proposal, presented this afternoon, is attached hereto,/2/ along with supplementary explanatory comments by Ambassador Hart./3/ You will be interested to know that in the discussion of the draft several points emerged which will be pertinent to our further consideration of the refugee question. Ambassador Barbour believes that Israel would prefer no refugee plan this year but expects that the U.S. will offer one and is now prepared to consider this issue apart from other Arab-Israeli questions. Ambassador Macomber believes that Jordan would be very disappointed if no refugee plan is offered this year but that this proposal (like any other plan he can think of) will not be liked in Jordan because it concedes the permanent existence of Israel and King Hussein could accept this or any plan, Bill believes, only if it had previously been endorsed by Nasser. Ambassador Badeau is uncertain whether Nasser really wants a refugee settlement; he thinks the UAR President's reactions may depend on his mood and feelings at the moment the question arises. Even so, he feels that a proper approach to Nasser is the obvious starting point.

Indeed, it is the unanimous view of the group that nothing less than a face-to-face meeting of President Kennedy and President Nasser could adequately test Nasser's willingness to negotiate a process of repatriation, compensation and resettlement which the Israelis could also accept. As you will see from the attached proposal, this is the heart of the Ambassadors' thinking. If Presidents Kennedy and Nasser, perhaps meeting at the time of the opening of the General Assembly, could agree to proceed on some such plan as that here suggested, the Ambassadors feel that Ben Gurion might be persuaded to act with some flexibility as well, confirming the undertaking he gave President Kennedy during their meeting in New York. The rest would flow therefrom.

You will recognize in the proposal several elements that Ambassador McClintock has suggested more than once. As a rough calculation he put forward UNRWA Director Davis' view that resettlement could be achieved for a gross outlay averaging five thousand dollars per family. This would presumably mean a billion dollars for the total effort, a sum which he says he has mentioned to several visiting Senators (including Gore and McGee) and Representatives without their blanching. Personally, judging from the resettlement costs of refugees in India and Pakistan and from the recollection of one of the Ambassadors that Israel has calculated resettlement costs of 2500 dollars per family, I would suspect the five thousand dollar estimate to be unrealistically high. There is, however, no denying that money--McClintock calls it baksheesh--would be the essential sweetener.

A good many other points came up in the discussion. You will see them noted in the summary being prepared by Bob Strong./4/ Here it is enough for me to repeat that even though all of the Ambassadors are rather doubtful that the proposed effort will in fact set in motion a solution of the refugee question, all of them (Jernegan reluctantly) believe it is better to make this effort than to face the General Assembly without a record of having tried. You should also note their feeling that the initial approaches have no prospect of success if undertaken below the Presidential level. Quite apart from other reasons, the time factor rules out any contacts by a special representative of the PCC with Arab leaders between now and the opening of the General Assembly, they believe.

This proposal and these comments will at least give you and Harlan food for some thought. When Bob Strong's notes arrive you will have some of the more particular suggestions. Beyond that, everyone here agrees the plan would have to be considerably fleshed out before being tried. Here on the island of Cyprus, where Ambassadors away from their posts can let their minds roam, few things seem impossible, and it is in this spirit that we submit this to you.

With best wishes,

Yours sincerely,

Phillips Talbot/5/

P.S. I should have emphasized that the Ambassadors who drafted the proposal pointed out that they had worked under extreme time pressure, and hoped that this factor would be taken into account in the analysis of their drafting.

/1/Source: Department of State, NEA/IAI Files: Lot 70 D 229, Refugees REF 1 General Policy and Plans Jan-Aug 1961. Secret. The source text is the copy sent to Thacher. Talbot was in Nicosia, Cyprus, attending a Regional Operations Conference July 31-August 5. The Conference was one of several regional meetings of U.S. Chiefs of Mission held by Under Secretary of State Bowles. A briefing book prepared for Talbot's use at the conference is ibid., NEA/NE Files: Lot 66 D 5, Briefing Materials for Meetings with Near East Ambassadors, Nicosia Ambassadorial Conference. For an "Outline of NE Regional Problems for Presentation at Under Secretary's Conference," see Supplement, the regional compilation.

/2/Not attached to the source text, nor found elsewhere in Department of State files.

/3/Attached but not printed.

/4/Document 92.

/5/Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.

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