75. Telegram From the Consulate General in Jerusalem to the Department of State and the Embassy in Israel1

2707. Subject: Atherton Meets West Bank/Gazan Palestinians.

Summary: Ambassador Atherton initiated high-level U.S. dialogue with West Bank/Gaza Palestinians evening September 29. Palestinians expressed their concerns over perceived shortcomings and ambiguities of Camp David Framework and received detailed US explanations and clarifications. Atherton made clear US recognizes centrality of Palestinian issue and quoted from Secretary’s UNGA speech2 to good effect. Palestinians stressed, among other things, necessity: settlement freeze throughout transitional period; either Hussein or PLO entering negotiations; Jerusalem must be discussed and Arab residents of East Jerusalem must be able to vote for transitional authority. Atherton indicated that while Palestinians might find their particular framework wanting in some respects, it did offer genuine opportunities and they should consider carefully their alternatives. At end, Nuseibeh said West Bankers/Gazans would draw up document setting forth their views on Camp David Framework’s shortcomings. Meeting was boycotted by pro-PLO mayors but we are certain they will receive [Page 273]full briefing. Palestinians expressed genuine appreciation for opportunity to meet high-level US official for first time. End summary.

1. Atherton met with six West Bankers (Bethlehem mayor Freij, Nablus notables Hikmat and Zafar al-Masri, Jerusalem notable Nuseibeh, Ramallah lawyer Shehadeh, and Bir Zeit professor Nazzal), and three Gazans (Mansour Shawwa, son of Gaza mayor, Gaza notable Abu Ghazzalleh and Gaza lawyer Abu Rahmi) at DPO3 residence in East Jerusalem evening September 29. Invited pro-PLO mayors of Nablus, Tulkarm, Ramallah, El Bireh, and Halhul had agreed to boycott meeting; three of the invited Gazans did not show up. In addition to Consul General and DPO, Twinam, Blackwell, and ICA Officer Smith were present.

2. Introducing his remarks by noting that Secretary Vance had personally wanted him to meet with West Bank/Gazans while in Jerusalem, Atherton expressed his own pleasure for this opportunity. He then gave an account of Camp David summit concluding by noting that meeting was “a cliff hanger” with agreement achieved on last day. One of the main new elements coming out of the meeting which should be recognized by all is the personal engagement of President Carter and fact that U.S. will continue to be fully involved as active partner in all negotiations flowing from Camp David. Atherton stressed centrality of Palestinian issue.

3. Leading off for Palestinians, Jerusalem notable Nuseibeh (brother of Jordanian UN Ambassador) stated frankly that he was not happy with Agreements and found there were many gaps. He thought that Sadat had put Palestinians in difficult position. For example, Sadat had insisted on Israeli recognition of Arab sovereignty in Sinai and subsequent dismantling of Israeli settlements there, but had not required same Israeli recognition for equally Arab sovereign land in West Bank, including East Jerusalem. According to Nuseibeh, there was an “uneven” quality in the two documents which encouraged Palestinians suspicions that basically Camp David was a bilateral Egyptian-Israeli deal at the expense of Palestinians.

4. Next up was Nablus notable Hikmat al-Masri who also struck note of difference in treatment of Sinai and West Bank. In the former, a total immediate withdrawal was sought and obtained, while for the West Bank, it was left as negotiable.

5. Atherton responded by recounting history of Carter administration’s efforts at reaching comprehensive Middle East peace settlement and Sadat initiative.4 He reminded Palestinians that Sadat could have [Page 274]had a bilateral deal as early as last November, but wanted to negotiate a framework for all parties. Sadat, however, could only act for Egypt at Camp David; he could not negotiate further for Palestinians. In fact, Atherton noted, there was no other party who could negotiate for Palestinians at Camp David. Acknowledging that Camp David Agreements did not have everything Palestinians desired, he said that choice became either what was attainable or nothing at all. The U.S. is convinced that Accords do move the process forward and represent significant changes in Israeli positions. Clearly Accords go beyond SC Resolution 242 and Palestinian problem is now recognized by Israel for first time as having political and territorial dimensions; not just a refugee problem. Although all issues were not resolved at Camp David, Sadat gave up no Arab positions there, Atherton concluded.

6. Ramallah lawyer Shehadeh was concerned about use of term “West Bank” rather than “occupied territories” in Camp David Agreements as this might make it difficult to bring East Jerusalem into negotiations. Israelis will want to consider East Jerusalem as outside purview of negotiations while Shehadeh noted it is essential for Arabs that it be included. At this point, son of Gaza mayor Shawwa defended Sadat by asking if anyone could have gotten more. For him, the most important thing was ending the settlements. Hikmat al-Masri agreed that ending settlements was 70 percent of Palestinian position. Expressing apologies on behalf of mayors who did not attend, Nazzal said he had just seen several of them who wanted to relay two questions—(1) why was U.S. meeting with Palestinians now and not before? (did GOI approve?), and (2) why not deal with PLO who are the real representatives of Palestinians?

7. After dinner, group discussion resumed with Atherton responding to Nuseibeh’s request for briefing on what other Arabs were saying. After describing reactions he had gotten in other places, Atherton described his Amman stop where he found the King undecided. There was a debate going on in Jordan. He said that Jordanians took his explanations at face value. However, when he asked Jordanians what it would take to get them in process, Atherton reported that they were unable to answer. Jordanians have asked questions of U.S. and wish to continue dialogue with us, Atherton said.

8. Atherton then explained in detail Camp David Accords and urged that Palestinians should focus on positive rather than negative aspects. He counselled them to focus on wording of Agreements rather than subsequent statements by either Israelis or other parties.

9. During following wide-open discussion period with all Palestinians participating, following were themes and concerns raised:

(a) Israeli settlements—this was primary preoccupation. Freij, Hikmat al-Masri and others stressed need for Israeli commitment to [Page 275]settlement freeze during interim period. Nazzal said “we don’t mind Jews buying land” but settlements are different. He thought it vital that self-governing authority be responsible for all public land from Jordanian times as this was land which Israelis had primarily taken for settlements. Atherton reiterated U.S. understanding of settlement freeze issue.

(b) Arabs in East Jerusalem—Shehadeh and Freij were concerned about 100,000 Arabs in East Jerusalem and especially their right to participate in West Bank elections. They thought Israelis would veto this. Atherton said that he was not sure this was the Israeli position and suggested that Dayan be queried. Freij said he would do so next time he saw Dayan.

(c) Return of 1967 displaces—several Palestinians asked when 1967 displaced persons would be allowed to return and Atherton said the Framework agreement provides for return during transition period.

(d) End of military government and administration—Shehadeh said that General Orly had told him recently that Israelis were committed by Camp David Agreements to end military government in West Bank/Gaza within three months and that this would be done come what may. Atherton noted comprehensive Framework provided for negotiations to set up modalities for elections to self-governing authority and that there was no time limit involved. Shehadeh said if Israelis were going to get out within three months, this would force West Bankers to adopt a position. Other Palestinians present considered Orly’s remarks to be a hollow threat since Israel would never permit the state of civil anarchy to develop on the West Bank similar to that in Lebanon.

(3) Restriction on individuals—in response to inquiries about who can participate in self-governing authority, Atherton said that there was no restrictions on inhabitants of West Bank/Gaza but that those from outside would have to be acceptable to all parties.

10. Throughout discussion, there were frequent references by West Bankers to their inability to represent all Palestinians and a call for U.S. to talk to PLO as the “national liberation movement” of Palestine. As Nazzal put it, “we are in a tough situation; we don’t want to dig our own graves.” Also there were statements suggesting that US guarantee outcome of negotiations. Atherton responded that US could not guarantee the results, but does guarantee the process and continued US involvement in the process. Reiterating deep American interest in Palestinian issue, Atherton quoted from Secretary’s UNGA speech earlier that day.5

[Page 276]11. In a final statement, highly respected Hikmat al-Masri said that all present appreciated this first opportunity to speak to high-level US official and asked that Atherton carry back to Washington all of the points raised. He reminded Atherton that despite willingness of those present to convey personal views, they could not speak on behalf of all Palestinians; “only Arafat or the King can now represent us.”

12. Nuseibeh said that West Bank/Gaza would attempt to prepare paper which would point out shortcoming in Camp David Agreements as seen by Palestinians.

13. Comment: This was a meeting “whose time had come.” Palestinians who attend wanted to hear high-level expression of US policy and were prepared to ask serious and thoughtful questions. Recriminations and polemics were noticeably minimal. Granted that group was composed of relatively moderate leaders. Nevertheless, all West Bank/Gaza participants were genuine Palestinian nationalists. It was unfortunate that mayors could not hear Atherton’s authoritative explanations and clarifications. Nevertheless, I am sure the word will soon spread and I think (via al-Masri, Freij, Shehadeh and Nazzal) our dialogue with West Bankers/Gazans has had a significant boost. End comment.

14. (Ambassador Atherton made no comment to the press either before or after this meeting.)

15. Foregoing was reconstructed from memory by ConGen and Embassy participants after Ambassador Atherton had departed.6 He may wish to comment.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780399–1152. Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Sent Niact Immediate to Tel Aviv. Sent for information Immediate to Cairo. Sent for information to Amman, Beirut, Damascus, Jidda, Kuwait, and USUN. On September 22, the Consulate General in Jerusalem reported that while “we have not thought it appropriate” for Vance or Atherton to meet with West Bankers in previous visits, “[i]n the fundamentally changed circumstances after Camp David, we believe a quiet unpublicized meeting by Ambassador Atherton with leading West Bankers could help build support for the Camp David Agreements.” (Telegram 2631 from Jerusalem, September 22; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780387–0095) After discussing the proposal with Lewis on September 27, Newlin confirmed the plan to hold a meeting between Atherton and West Bank/Gaza notables on September 29, in order to “allay some of their underlying fears and misgivings.” (Telegram 2673 from Jerusalem, September 27; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780394–1196)
  2. In his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 29, Vance devoted the bulk of his discussion of the Middle East to the subject of the Palestinians. He emphasized the Carter administration’s commitment to seeking a negotiated solution to the “problem of the Palestinians in the broadest sense” and the importance of the Camp David Accords as the means whereby this solution would be found. “We believe that the Palestinian people must be assured that they and their descendents can live with dignity and freedom and have the opportunity for economic fulfillment and for political expression, Vance asserted. “The Camp David accords make a solid start toward achieving these goals,” Vance stated, by making provision for the end of Israeli occupation, the negotiated institution of a self-governing authority, and the definition of the relationship of the institutions of self-government to Palestinians outside of the area, including “the question of admission of Palestinian refugees to the West Bank and Gaza.” (Department of State Bulletin, November 1978, p. 49)
  3. Donald A. Kruse was DPO at the Consulate General in Jerusalem.
  4. See footnote 3, Document 4.
  5. See footnote 2 above.
  6. Atherton departed for Cairo where he briefed Sadat on September 30 on his meeting with the Palestinians. At the outset, Atherton explained that the meeting “had been at our own initiative” and that Vance had told him in Damascus that such a meeting would be “useful.” (Telegram 21929 from Cairo, September 30; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P850067–2176)