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John F. Kennedy Administration: U.S. Prepares for UN Debate on Palestinian Refugees

(November 26, 1961)

This memorandum addresses the U.S. belief that the upcoming UN meeting concerning the Palestinian refugee problem will be one that incorporates hostile sentiments.

Washington, November 26, 1961.

/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, 886.411/11-2661. Confidential. Drafted by Crawford and Palmer on November 24 and cleared by Talbot, Cleveland, Strong, and Sisco.


United Nations Debate on the Arab Refugee Problem/2/

/2/The decision to send a memorandum to the President on this subject resulted from a discussion held on November 21 among Talbot, Cleveland, Plimpton, and other Department officials on U.S. tactics during the forthcoming U.N. debate on the Palestinian refugee question. (Memorandum of conversation; ibid., NEA/NE Files: Lot 64 D 73, Palestine Refugees) See Supplement, the compilation on the Arab-Israeli dispute.

The United Nations Special Political Committee debate on the Palestine Arab refugees is scheduled to begin shortly after November 27. We have done considerable spadework to persuade both Arabs and Israelis of the wisdom of avoiding an acrimonious debate like that of last spring. Nevertheless, the debate promises to be a rough affair, with the United States getting at least as many brickbats as thanks for our efforts. The Arabs will probably press for several proposals designed to embarrass and hurt Israel, including appointment of a United Nations custodian of former Arab properties in Israel, reconstitution of the Palestine Conciliation Commission (PCC), appointment of a Commission to inquire into the status of the Arab minority in Israel, and official recognition of a delegation of Palestinian Arabs who have come to New York for the coming debate. On its side, Israel is preparing itself for vigorous counterattack. Armed with a Ben-Gurion statement and Government-sponsored Knesset motion openly contradictory to United Nations resolutions which would permit some refugee repatriation,/3/ Israel will probably attempt to float for tactical purposes a resolution calling for direct Arab-Israel peace negotiations. We do not regard any of these possible proposals as helpful in terms of a practical advance on the refugee problem.

/3/See footnote 2, Document 139.

You will recall our sponsorship earlier this fall of the PCC's appointment of Dr. Joseph E. Johnson (Carnegie Endowment) as Special Representative to undertake an exploratory mission to the Middle East on the refugee problem. Dr. Johnson reports three basic conclusions: (1) there is a very guarded willingness on the part of both Arab and Israeli leaders to consider some gradual step-by-step process towards solution of the refugee problem, (2) the Special Representative function should be continued for about one more year to permit more thorough examination of the possibilities of a step-by-step solution, and (3) it will be necessary even under the most optimistic assumptions to continue international assistance to the refugees for at least a decade./4/

/4/Johnson submitted his report on November 24; see Document 140.

Our objectives at the General Assembly are clear-cut. In terms of a resolution, we will seek support for two main elements of Dr. Johnson's findings: (1) the continuation for one year of the unobtrusive diplomatic effort already initiated by the PCC (i.e., the Special Representative), and (2) assent to a limited extension of the mandate of the United Nations refugee relief agency (UNRWA) now scheduled to expire on June 30, 1963. We believe this path offers the best hope for progress in an admittedly unpromising situation. We intend to press resolutely for our two proposals. Our general posture will be to examine other proposals from any quarter with an eye to their probable effect on the advancement of the PCC effort. This may entail opposition to Israeli as well as Arab initiatives, but we are anxious to avoid a role that would identify us as the special pleader for the partisan considerations of either side. Only thus can we hope to fortify our position as an objective party seeking constructive action in the interests of the refugees and area stability.

Our proposed positions on the proposals which may be introduced by the Arabs and Israelis, respectively, are as follows:

U.N. Custodian of Former Refugee Properties in Israel: We are opposed to this proposal, which is impractical, has dangerous implications for the future of Israel, and is based upon erroneous legal assumptions. We will vote against the proposal if necessary. We do not believe the complicated legal issues involved can properly be resolved by a body such as the SPC or UNGA. Privately, we regard the ICJ as an appropriate institution to which such legally contentious issues can be referred, and would not oppose such referral if it is urged by others.

Israel-Sponsored Motion for Direct Arab-Israel Negotiations: Since there is not the slightest prospect of the Arabs agreeing to sit down with the Israelis, we think this proposal could offer no practical result in advancing the interests of the refugees or a solution of the problem. (We recognize, however, that its introduction later as a counter to equally unhelpful Arab proposals might serve our interests. This would be the case if, by opposing it as well as Arab proposals, we could enhance our posture as a non-partisan supporter of progress along realistic lines.) For the foregoing reasons, we propose to vote against the Israeli proposal if necessary.

PCC Reconstitution: The PCC is now made up of France, Turkey, and the United States, a composition with which the Israelis are satisfied and the Arabs suspicious. While ultimately some benefit might derive from the addition of a few responsible neutrals less open to accusations of pro-Israel bias, efforts at this session to reconstitute the PCC would not be helpful to that body's current initiative, and might raise the specter of application of the Soviet "troika" principle in a Near Eastern context. We have made this clear to all concerned but are prepared to re-examine our position should broad support for the proposal develop. However, we consider it unlikely to be pressed seriously by the Arabs.

Inquiry into Status of Arabs in Israel: Israel representatives have tentatively indicated Israel might welcome a United Nations inquiry into the situation of Israel's Arab population. A greater probability, in our view, is that Israel would counter such an Arab proposal, if made, by demanding a parallel investigation into the status of Jews in the Arab countries. Should this issue arise, we would decide our position in the light of the tactical situation then prevailing.

"Palestine Arab Delegation": As in previous years, our position remains that membership of any Palestinian group should be heard by the SPC as individuals only and not officially recognized as "The" delegation representing all Palestine Arabs. This helps preclude an "Algerianization" of the Palestine problem. Should a proposal that the SPC hear "The Palestine Arab Delegation", as such, be pressed to a vote, we would vote negatively./5/

/5/On December 6 in circular telegram 1072, the Department sent additional guidance relating to the U.S. positions described in this memorandum to certain Near Eastern, North African, and European posts. (Department of State, Central Files, 325.84/12-661) See Supplement, the compilation on the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Dean Rusk/6/

/6/Printed from a copy that indicates Rusk signed the original.

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