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355. Memorandum From Harold H. Saunders and William B. Quandt of the National Security Council Staff to Secretary of State Kissinger1


  • The Palestinian Issue at the Peace Conference

Palestinian developments could take rapid turns in the next few days, and it will obviously be some time before we have a clear view of how the Palestinian question might be dealt with at a peace conference. Nonetheless, we thought it would be useful for you to have this now.

The attached study2 analyzes in some detail elements of the Palestinian issue as they are likely to arise in coming months. This memorandum highlights some of the near-term developments involving the Palestinians that you will want to be aware of and puts forward for consideration a strategy through the first phase of negotiations.

The Present Situation

Pressures are obviously building in several quarters for the formation of a provisional Palestinian government. The Soviets appear to be prepared to recognize the PLO as a government-in-exile, although it is less clear that they will insist on PLO participation in peace negotiations. At the Arab Summit in Algiers on November 26, it is possible that most Arab states will recognize the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinians and the formation of a provisional government may be announced. At the same time, King Hussein is trying to build support for his idea of a referendum for the Palestinians under international auspices after Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.3

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The Principal Issues

Our problem at this point is to try to get negotiations started without settling the issues involving the Palestinians and their representation. Consequently, we should be mindful of the following:

—If a provisional Palestinian government is formed in the near future, this could complicate the prospects for negotiations, especially if the Arabs and Soviets insist on PLO participation at the outset. Over the longer term it may not necessarily be harmful to have a provisional Palestinian government waiting in the wings at some point, but for the moment it would leave greater maneuverability if this did not move too fast. We can argue that in the first phase of negotiations the issue of Palestinian participation can be deferred because of the topics being addressed, e.g., military disengagement. In brief, while we should let the Palestinians know that our position on their representation in the first stages of negotiations will not determine our view on a subsequent Palestinian role, we may want to take the line that no irrevocable steps should be taken before the peace conference is in a position to discuss the issue of how the Palestinians will be represented.

—King Hussein’s idea of a referendum is in some ways attractive, but it contains several possible pitfalls and uncertainties. On the one hand, it could gain widespread support and provide a useful approach for dealing with the future status of the West Bank and Gaza. On the other hand, the practical difficulties of administering a referendum, and the chances of political turmoil in advance of voting, could be destabilizing and might risk Israeli intervention precisely at a time when we would hope for a general calming of the Arab-Israeli situation. While expressing a general sympathy with the idea of allowing the Palestinians to determine their own political future, we will not want to wed ourselves now to any specific approach such as a plebiscite under UN auspices.

—Along these same lines, we should avoid committing ourselves now to any preconception of how the West Bank may be governed. It is tempting to share Hussein’s view that Jordan will have to play a role if Israel is to release the West Bank and if turmoil is to be avoided. However, the inter-Arab political process is still too fluid to rule out any outcome.

—When the peace conference convenes next month, we will not want to have any rigid timetable established for Palestinian participation. A general understanding that the issue of Palestinian representation will be dealt with when issues directly involving the Palestinians arise should be sufficient. At the same time, we will want to avoid saying that we view King Hussein as the sole representative of the Palestinians.

A Possible Short-term Scenario

On the basis of present intelligence reporting, it seems as if something like the following scenario may evolve over the next few weeks:

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—The PLO will seek recognition as the representative of the Palestinians and may form a provisional government. It will not, however, insist on a place at the conference table in the first stage. The PLO, along with Egypt and Syria, may acknowledge that Jordan should negotiate for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Jerusalem (and perhaps Gaza).

—During the first stage of negotiations, the PLO will not resort to violence to disrupt the peace-making process, but will instead seek to be in a position to join negotiations at the point where issues involving refugees and self-determination for the Palestinians are dealt with. King Hussein has acknowledged that the PLO might have a voice on these issues, so the prospects for accommodation are reasonably good.

—At the urging of the major Arab countries, contacts between the PLO and the Jordanian government will take place, possibly leading to a limited reconciliation. An understanding could be reached that Jordan will negotiate for the return of Palestinian-inhabited territory to Arab sovereignty, and that subsequently the political arrangements in these areas will be worked out between Jordanians and Palestinian leaders, resulting in some form of loose association between the West Bank and Jordan. Whether this would be accompanied by a referendum could be settled at a later date.

If the intelligence reports suggesting this scenario turn out to be generally accurate, the Palestinian issue could fall into place for the moment. The risk of the PLO trying to join the negotiations too soon, thereby scaring off the Israelis, would be avoided. The problem of leaving the PLO out entirely, and thereby losing the historic opportunity of gaining Palestinian acceptance of Israel, also would be manageable, at least for now.

However, we cannot rule out that pressures will increase to speed up consideration of this issue and that Egypt and Syria might call for immediate Palestinian participation in peace talks. In addition, the Arab states may take a stand calling for the creation of an independent Palestine. King Hussein, who will not attend the conference in Algiers, has let it be known that if Egypt and Syria support the PLO as a provisional government of an independent Palestine then Jordan will refuse to participate in peace talks and will concentrate on building up the strength of the East Bank. The King fears that an independent West Bank might be a prelude to a Palestinian takeover of Jordan itself, and this he is determined to resist. With this possibility in mind, it may be worth conveying to the Soviets and the Egyptians that we see some dangers of delaying the peace settlement process if the Palestinian issue is pressed too rapidly. Israel might well use this as an excuse not to begin negotiations and delays would run the risk that the fragile ceasefire could break down and the chances for peace might be lost.

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For the moment, the United States should take firm positions that the Palestinian issue should be left for the peace conference. We should stick to general statements on the need to address legitimate Palestinian interests in the negotiations, while keeping open all options. We will, of course, want to consult closely with Jordan, Israel and Egypt, and may from time to time find it desirable to deal directly with the Palestinians as well.4

The attached analysis spells out in more detail possible elements of a Palestinian settlement and alternative ways of getting there.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 664, Country Files, Middle East, Middle East War, Memos and Misc., Oct. 18, 1973, Vol. II. Secret; Nodis. Sent for information. Kissinger initialed the memorandum.
  2. Attached, but not printed.
  3. In telegram 6234 from Amman, November 23, Brown reported that King Hussein seemed to have come to grips with the problem of asserting Jordan’s claim to the West Bank and its right to represent the Palestinians, and had apparently decided that a plebiscite was the best way to defeat PLO efforts to become the sole Palestinian spokesman. The Ambassador noted that the Jordanian Government apparently had reached the conclusion that the odds of winning a clear-cut representational role at an early date through inter-Arab bargaining were increasingly slim, but that the King still hoped to be able to initiate a dialogue with PLO moderates that could lead to a compromise. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 618, Country Files, Middle East, Jordan, X, November–December 1973)
  4. In a meeting with Nixon and Kissinger at the White House on December 4, Romanian President Ceausescu urged that a provision be made for Palestinian representation at the peace conference. Kissinger replied that such participation at the beginning, in the opinion of all participants, raised too many problems, but acknowledged that the question could be discussed during the first phase. ( Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume E–15, Part 1, Documents on Eastern Europe, 1973–1976, Document 29) The following day, in a meeting with Kissinger, Ford, and Senator Hugh Scott at the Romanian Embassy, Ceausescu again raised the issue of Palestinian representation. According to a memorandum of conversation, Ceausescu informed Kissinger that Arafat would be visiting Bucharest in December and had asked Ceausescu to convey a message to the U.S. Government regarding his (Arafat’s) interest in contacts with the United States. Kissinger replied that the United States did not exclude such contacts. He stressed, however, that “the Palestinians would have to avoid any terrorist actions whatsoever against Americans. Otherwise it would be impossible for us to consider anything connected with them.” Kissinger added that since Ceausescu would be seeing Arafat he might share with him his impressions of his visit to Washington and then let the United States know what comes out of the discussions. (Memorandum of conversation, December 5; National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 24–1 ARAB–ISR)