59. Memorandum of Conversation0


  • Discussion with Arab Ambassadors: President Kennedy’s May 30 Meeting with Prime Minister David Ben Gurion of Israel


  • The Diplomatic Representatives of the Near Eastern and North African Arab Countries (see attached list)1
  • NEA—Assistant Secretary Phillips Talbot
  • NEA—Deputy Assistant Secretary Armin H. Meyer
  • NEA/NE—Mr. Robert Strong, Director
  • AF/AFN—Mr. John Root, Deputy Director
  • IO/UNP—Mr. Stephen Palmer
  • NEA/NE—Mr. William Crawford

Mr. Talbot thanked the several Ambassadors for being willing to come to the Department together.

Mr. Talbot said he believed the assembled Arab representatives might be interested in his recollections of the May 30 meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York between President Kennedy and Prime Minister Ben Gurion, at which he had been privileged to be present.2 The meeting had been at Prime Minister Ben Gurion’s request. The President had acceded, as he undoubtedly would to the request of any friendly Prime Minister visiting this country unofficially. The President had indicated that he would not be able to see Prime Minister Ben Gurion in Washington but could see him in New York on his way to Europe. The President’s meeting with the Prime Minister had no agenda; it provided an occasion to review informally questions of interest to either or to both.

Mr. Talbot recalled that, as the meeting got underway, the subject of Israel’s atomic energy research program came up. The President expressed an interest in the purposes of this program. Prime Minister Ben Gurion gave assurances that it was for peaceful purposes only. He said Israel is concerned about sources of energy, particularly in the light of its serious problem in creating cheap power for the desalinization of water in which it is so interested. After consulting with international authorities, Israel had concluded that by starting intensive research in atomic energy now, it might hope eventually to apply atomic power relatively cheaply to the desalinization of water. The President expressed deep concern that there be no proliferation of atomic weapons since this would constitute a danger to peace; the United States would have to use its weight against such a proliferation. The Prime Minister renewed his assurance, and the President expressed satisfaction.

Mr. Talbot said Prime Minister Ben Gurion then expressed concern regarding the added tension in the Middle East which could result from the build-up of arms in the area. The Prime Minister remarked that some countries in the Middle East are receiving arms from “the other side”. In reply, the President said very forcefully that disputes within the area should be resolved by peaceful means. He remarked that the United States does not wish to become involved in an arms build-up in the area.

[Page 147]

Mr. Talbot stated that the President next told Prime Minister Ben Gurion that the United States is committed to the United Nations resolutions on the Palestine refugees, and that the United States will support efforts of the Palestine Conciliation Commission in preparation for the latter’s required report to the 16th General Assembly session.

Mr. Talbot remarked that some of those present might have seen an article in the New York Times3 reporting Prime Minister Ben Gurion’s interpretation of his conversation with President Kennedy on the question of refugees. Or perhaps those present might have learned of the Department’s reply later in the day in response to a newsman’s question. The text of the Department’s reply had been as follows:

“On May 9 the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine issued a communiqué reporting that it had met that day to consider steps which could usefully be taken in the fulfillment of its responsibilities pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 1604 (XV) of April 21, 1961, and relevant previous resolutions. These resolutions envisage the resolution of the Palestine refugee problem through repatriation or compensation. The United States Government has consistently supported these resolutions and will fully support moves made by the Commission in accordance with them.

“In their brief, informal meeting in New York, the President raised with Prime Minister Ben Gurion the subject of the tragic plight of the Arab refugees and stressed the importance of Israel’s cooperating with such efforts as may be initiated by the U.N. Palestine Conciliation Commission. Since the Commission’s endeavors have not as yet taken precise form and since in any case the responsibility lies with the parties directly concerned as they may be assisted by the United Nations Commission, the question of an understanding between the President and the Prime Minister as to a specific solution did not arise.”4

Mr. Talbot said that this statement by the Department accorded with his recollection of what transpired during the meeting. (At the request of the assembled representatives, copies of the Department’s statement were given to them.)

Mr. Talbot said that, concluding his conversation with Prime Minister Ben Gurion, President Kennedy had reiterated that the United States is very much concerned with the welfare of all the Middle Eastern states; [Page 148] that this concern is the firm basis of United States policy. Mr. Talbot said that at the end of the conversation there had been some talk of a book presented to the President by the Prime Minister. The President had said he was very glad to have this gift, that in London he was going to the christening of a descendant of the author of the book, and hoped Prime Minister Ben Gurion would agree to its being given to the child. The Prime Minister had assented.

The conversation between the President and the Prime Minister had begun at 4:45 p.m., immediately after the President’s arrival in New York, and had ended about 6:10, when the President left to dress for a speech at a cancer fund dinner.

The Saudi Arabian Ambassador said the press had reported that Prime Minister Ben Gurion had raised with the President Israel’s hope of obtaining from the United States and the Soviet Union a guarantee of its borders. Mr. Talbot replied that he did not know the origins of this report. Except for Mr. Salinger, whose remarks following the President’s meeting had been reported in the press, no one on the United States side had talked to the press about the meeting. Therefore, these comments must either have been manufactured or come from other sources. It was true that in referring to his fears of an arms build-up in the Middle East Prime Minister Ben Gurion might have implied a suggestion of what the Saudi Arabian Ambassador had in mind. However, the President had not taken this up or suggested in any way that this could be a basis for action by the United States.

The Ambassador of Iraq inquired as to Ben Gurion’s statement to the New York Times implying that he had agreed with President Kennedy on a possible solution of the refugee problem. Mr. Talbot replied that, as indicated by the Department’s statement, the President had referred to U.N. resolutions regarding the refugees and had expressed the hope that Israel would cooperate in any effort undertaken by the PCC in response to these resolutions. The Ambassador of Iraq asked whether Prime Minister Ben Gurion had agreed with the President. Mr. Talbot replied that, from what he remembered, and with reference to the PCC, the Prime Minister had said, “It’s worth a try.” Mr. Talbot said he could inform those present in great confidence that the Department hopes that in activating the PCC, United Nations Secretary-General Hammarskjold will find someone from a neutral country to make a survey of the refugee situation as a basis for a PCC report to the UNGA.

The Iraqi Ambassador asked if President Kennedy had been satisfied with Ben Gurion’s assurances regarding Israel’s atomic reactor. Mr. Talbot said the President had expressed his satisfaction with these assurances.

The Lebanese Ambassador asked if the United States intends to make clear publicly its support of U.N. resolutions regarding the Arab [Page 149] refugees. Mr. Talbot replied that, as Ambassador Dimechkie is aware, the Department uses the vehicle of a statement to the press, such as that by Mr. White earlier in the day, to make its policies known to the public.

The Iraqi Ambassador asked whether, in connection with his expressed apprehension over an arms build-up in the Middle East, Prime Minister Ben Gurion had sought arms assistance from the United States. Mr. Talbot commented that he had recalled earlier in the meeting as accurately as he could exactly what had been said during the President’s meeting. While Prime Minister Ben Gurion’s actual statements had dealt with Israel’s fears, he had perhaps implied something more. Perhaps the Prime Minister might have pursued these inferences at the meeting which had been scheduled with Secretary Rusk for May 31. However, other unrelated developments had obliged the Secretary to cancel this meeting.

The Iraqi Ambassador asked whether this particular question of arms assistance had been pursued by Prime Minister Ben Gurion with Ambassador Stevenson. Mr. Talbot replied that the Department had not yet received a report of that conversation.5

The Ambassador of Lebanon asked whether it could be understood that neither arms nor a border guarantee had been discussed seriously between the President and Ben Gurion. Mr. Talbot replied that he thought it very clear from his earlier comments that the President had made no response to several things hinted at by Ben Gurion. Certainly, it was fully clear that Ben Gurion had left without any U.S. involvement in these matters.

The Sudanese Ambassador asked whether Prime Minister Ben Gurion had discussed the reasons for secrecy regarding Israel’s second reactor. Mr. Talbot replied that he had not. It was the President who had raised the question of Israel’s atomic research programs, and he had done so not in terms of history but in terms of the present and of future intentions. Prime Minister Ben Gurion’s assurance on peaceful uses was firm.

The UAR Chargé asked whether so-called restrictions on Suez Canal transit had been discussed. Mr. Talbot replied that they had not.

The Ambassador of Lebanon said the press had implied that Ben Gurion wanted the President to take up Middle East questions with the USSR, seeking some sort of agreement to keep the Middle East out of the cold war. Was there such discussion? Mr. Talbot replied that, as he had suggested before, the Prime Minister had tended to imply something of this sort. The President did not encourage him in this line.

[Page 150]

The Ambassador of Lebanon said that in both the present instance and in the case of the meeting with President Eisenhower last year the Israel Prime Minister had seen the American President just before the latter was to meet with Khrushchev. Mr. Talbot replied that he could not speculate on Prime Minister Ben Gurion’s motives in timing his visit as he had. He had asked to come. While President Kennedy already knew he was going to Europe, to the best of his (Mr. Talbot’s) knowledge the President did not know that he would be seeing Khrushchev at the time Ben Gurion’s visit had first been discussed.

The UAR Chargé asked if the question of Algeria had been discussed. Mr. Talbot said it had not.

The UAR Chargé asked whether Prime Minister Ben Gurion had spoken to Mr. Kennedy of the results of his visit to Canada. Mr. Talbot replied that if Prime Minister Ben Gurion had made any reference to his Canada visit, it had only been to preface certain of his remarks to the President with, “As I said in Canada”.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 784A.13/6–261. Confidential. Drafted by Crawford on June 7.
  2. The attached List of Participants includes the following representatives from Arab countries: Ambassador Abdullah Al-Khayyal of Saudi Arabia; Ambassador Ali Haider Sulaiman of Iraq; Ambassador Yusuf Haikal of Jordan; Ambassador Nadim Dimechkié of Lebanon; Ambassador Osman El Hadari of the Sudan, Ambassador Habib Bourguiba, Jr., of Tunisia, Ambassador El-Mehdi Ben Aboud of Morocco, Minister Omar M. Muntasser of Libya, Minister Salah El Abd of the United Arab Republic, and First Secretary Abdelhadi Al-Hamdani of Yemen.
  3. See Document 57.
  4. The article appeared on June 2. Circular telegram 1927, June 2, described the relevant portions of the article as follows: “Ben Gurion is quoted as having ‘large measure of agreement’ with President Kennedy on Arab refugee problem. At departure interview, Ben Gurion said he had found ‘understanding’ on nettling issue of refugees adding that ‘in no way was I disappointed.’ Ben Gurion was quoted as saying President had offered ‘a suggestion that might be a solution.’ Ben Gurion added he did not know whether ‘this’ would be acceptable to Arabs but if it was acceptable ‘it would be a solution.’ Article describes President’s ‘suggestion’ as’simultaneous repatriation and resettlement of the refugees.’” The telegram also sent the text of the U.S. response. (Department of State, Central Files, 784A.13/6–261)
  5. Text of New York Times article is attached. [Footnote in the source text.]
  6. See Document 60.