22. Memorandum From the Under Secretary of State’s Special Assistant (Villard) to the Under Secretary of State (Herter)1


  • Palestine Refugee Problem

Some nine months ago you asked me to explore the Palestine refugee problem, along the lines proposed in a basic memorandum (Tab A) drafted by IO and NEA.2 Although this period of gestation has, regrettably, not produced a solution, the intensive study devoted to the subject has at least focused the Department’s attention on the problem and carried out the expressed desire of Congress that we try to do something about it.

Before taking up my new assignment, I feel I should give you an accounting and submit a few observations which may be of use in the future.

It was evident from the very start that, contrary to the assumption in the IONEA paper, the moment was not opportune for an initiative by the United States to settle the refugee question. The crisis in Syria and its repercussions in the Middle East made it politically inadvisable to press for a solution, particularly because of the risk that injection of such a controversial issue would divert attention from the imminent threat of communist penetration of the whole area. The best that could be done under the circumstances was to suspend action on the IO-NEA proposal and to continue the study of all plans and suggestions so as to be able to move ahead promptly whenever conditions [Page 52] might warrant. Unfortunately, the propitious moment never did arrive, and with the recent opposing alignments in the Arab world the time seems less propitious than ever.
A second assumption, that the problem could be isolated from the main body of unresolved Palestine issues and attacked as a thing in itself, has in my opinion also been disproved by developments. While the refugee situation might be the starting point in any negotiated settlement of the over-all Palestine problem, it is part and parcel of the Palestine problem and cannot be dealt with successfully without coming to grips with the larger political issues involved in the Arab-Israeli controversy. At every turn I have been confronted with this fundamental fact. It is my belief that as long as those larger issues remain unresolved, the chances of liquidating the refugee problem as a thing in itself, of itself or by itself will be slim indeed.
Despite these handicaps, much time and effort have been expended over the last nine months in exploring the possibilities of a solution. Two urgent considerations have prompted this continuing activity: (a) the approaching expiration date of UNRWA in 1960, and (b) the interest of Congress, when appropriating funds for UNRWA, in whether progress was being made toward a settlement. In addition to constant consultation with my colleagues in the Department, I have made a number of trips to New York to confer with Secretary-General Hammarskjold, with the Director of UNRWA, Harry Labouisse, with our Mission to the United Nations and with the Permanent Representative of Norway, Hans Engen, who undertook to explore the possibilities for a diplomatic or political initiative when developments in the Middle East made it inadvisable for the United States to do so.3 I have also had interviews with area specialists from the CIA, members of the Budget Bureau, representatives of Friends of the Middle East, and various private individuals interested in the problem, such as Eric Johnston. On the basis of these conversations and the relevant material which I have studied, several memoranda analyzing the situation have been prepared and submitted to you, and a file has been built up which I hope may be useful for future reference. As far as I am aware, we have succeeded in keeping my activities secret from any of the parties to the Palestine dispute.
During this period my fundamental conviction has remained unchanged: that since it did not appear politically feasible to negotiate a settlement of the refugee problem, the most suitable approach would be along economic lines. Development of economic opportunities for the refugees and gradually resettling them in gainful occupations might be a slow process but would in the course of time eliminate the [Page 53] problem. It is interesting to note that Ambassador Engen soon came to exactly the same conclusion; and that Mr. Hammarskjold favors the indirect or “backdoor” method of dealing with the refugees by establishing an Arab development bank. While the Secretary-General’s plan has met with considerable skepticism in the Department, this does not alter the fact that he and Engen believe no political solution is presently feasible and that they see eye-to-eye on the economic approach. Harry Labouisse, it should be added, agrees in general with these views, and NATO planners have favored a similar solution through public works.
The views of Hammarskjold and Engen coincide on another point, which in my belief also formed the most important segment of the IONEA proposals: that Israel should be persuaded to accept in principle the right of all refugees to repatriation. Such a move was regarded by the Secretary-General as a card to be held in reserve and played after a program of economic development was further along, by Ambassador Engen as a major and perhaps decisive step in the direction of a lasting solution. In accordance with this line of thought, and in view of the need to take some constructive action in spite of the unfavorable circumstances, I recommended that consideration be given to having a letter sent from the President to Prime Minister Ben Gurion calling upon Israel publicly to acknowledge the right of repatriation as embodied in the General Assembly Resolution of 1948. This suggestion was opposed on the grounds that the Israeli response would not be satisfactory either to the Arabs or to us, and that we should reserve our heaviest ammunition for a general approach at an appropriate moment to the over-all Palestine issue which would include agreement by Israel to take back some of the refugees.
While it may be true that Ambassador Eban was more forthcoming in his attitude toward the refugee problem when he discussed his Government’s policy with you in connection with Israel’s Export-Import Bank loan application, it did not seem to me that his statements differed materially from what has been said before or that they advanced the solution of the problem in any way. It is my firm belief that unless we are willing to exert pressure in some way on Israel to recognize openly the refugees’ right to repatriation, we shall be seeking in vain for a means to break the deadlock.
My conclusions and recommendations are, in summary, as follows:
That the refugee problem is inextricably linked to the political background of the Palestine problem and should henceforth be considered as part of a general approach to the over-all issue of Palestine. This I believe is the present view of NEA.
That we should continue to watch carefully and keep in close touch with all developments in the situation, so as to be on the alert for the first opportunity to make progress toward a settlement—whether in whole or in part.
That whenever we decide to grasp the nettle of a Palestine settlement, we should bring the strongest pressure to bear for a public declaration by Israel in which Israel would accept in principle the right of repatriation for the refugees, subject to equitable arrangements which the Israeli Government could develop as qualifications for repatriation. With Israel’s acquiescence in the matter of repatriation, the payment of compensation to those refugees who decided not to return to Israel could be financed by an international loan as suggested in the Secretary’s speech of August 26, 1955. (Tab B)4 This constitutes the heart of the IONEA proposals, which should retain their validity in connection with any ultimate settlement.
That as long as political conditions prevent a direct attack on the refugee problem, and pending consideration of the problem in the context of an over-all Palestine settlement, every effort should be made to whittle down the refugee rolls as rapidly as possible by the development of economic opportunities which would enable the refugees—particularly in Jordan—to become self-supporting. The changing attitude of the refugees, as reported by Mr. Labouisse, toward such projects as vocational training, individual aid programs, permanent housing, and the taking of a census, is encouraging and should be seized upon as a practical, even though long term, approach to solution of the problem.
That we should support any development projects or assistance programs which are politically and economically feasible and which will contribute to the economic well-being of the area, thus benefiting the refugees indirectly—again, especially in Jordan. This in essence represents the position of Secretary-General Hammarskjold and Ambassador Engen.
That in the absence of tangible progress toward a settlement, and to show our continued interest, we should at an appropriate time reiterate the Secretary’s proposals of 1955 in regard to resettlement, repatriation and compensation.
That we should take steps informally to acquaint key Members of Congress with the Department’s special efforts to deal with the problem, outlining in confidence the reasons why so little progress can be made at present.
That we now concentrate, in consultation with our Mission to the UN and probably with Mr. Hammarskjold, on the matter of a replacement or substitute for UNRWA when its mandate expires on June 3, 1960. The problem of what is to take the place of the UNRWA operation will undoubtedly be raised in the General Assembly this fall and will certainly bring the question of the refugees’ future to a head in 1959.
  1. Source: Department of State, NEA Files: Lot 70 D 229. Secret. Copies were also sent to IO, NEA, and USUN.
  2. Foreign Relations, 1955–1957, vol. XVII, p. 661. Neither of the tabs is attached to the source text.
  3. Villard elaborated on his discussions with Hammarskjöld and Engen in a memorandum for the record, April 25. (Department of State, NEA Files: Lot 70 D 229)
  4. For text of this speech, see American Foreign Policy, 1950–1955: Basic Documents, vol. II, pp. 2176–2180.