Washington, May 26, 1967, 7:15–8:40 p.m.
Eban opened the discussion by saying the Cabinet meeting on Sunday2May 28. was very important; there has never been a moment like this in Israeli history; and the country is on the footing of expectancy. If Israel is denied access to the Gulf of Aqaba, its primary line to East Africa and Asia—half of the world—would be cut off. From a legal point of view, the Law of the Sea Conference in 1958 clearly supported the principle of freedom of the seas as applied to Gulf of Aqaba and Strait of Tiran. Nasser has committed an act of aggression and his objective is the strangulation of Israel. Israel is confronted with two alternatives: either to surrender or to stand, and we are confident if we stand we will win.
We had raised the possibility of a third alternative: an international solution.
He had come to explore that possibility. Eban referred to possible action by 17 maritime powers in the Suez crisis who came out strongly for freedom of passage and freedom of the seas.
He reviewed for the President his conversation with DeGaulle, characterizing DeGaulle's attitude as “everything having to be talked out between France and the Soviet Union”. Eban did not have great expectations regarding French support, although he said that the French in the last few days, have been helping them with assistance for the Israeli armed forces. France has “opened its armories” to Israel. Regarding his conversation with Wilson, he was pleased that the UK is willing to play an active role in this matter on an international basis, but only if the US was part of the whole effort.
First question raised by Eban was what can and will the US do to carry out its commitments to keep the Straits and the Gulf open? Eban, referring to the President's statement of a few days ago, said the policy is there but the question is what are you willing to do to enforce it. He characterized the Straits and Gulf issue as the crux of the matter, since the Israeli position in Africa and Asia is dependent on this link.
Second question related to UAR intentions. Eban said he has been receiving numerous cables from home that UAR preparing overall attack on Israel. He said the US is skeptical, but his Prime Minister has told him the Israeli assessment is based on facts. What if this Israeli assessment is true? Should there not be a US warning? He stressed that Israel has to take this matter seriously since Nasser, in his speeches and otherwise, has made it clear that the UAR objective is destruction of Israel. He then suggested that it was desirable for Israeli and American military to get together and to plan what should be done if the Israeli assessment proves true.
President Johnson said he had made the US view absolutely clear in his public statement a few days ago. He thought it was wise for him to make that statement when he did, and he continued to believe this today. It may not have had the effect it should have, (he said he saw tonight on television a parade in Cairo against the US) but we feel strongly on this matter and therefore I decided to make this statement to the American people and to the world.
What to do and when to do it in order to assure free access to the Straits and the Gulf is another question. President Johnson said he is of no value to Israel if he does not have the support of his Congress, the Cabinet and the people. Going ahead without this support would not be helpful to Israel. We have a vital interest in maintaining free access to the Gulf and Strait, and we have made it clear that the closing of the Straits by Nasser would be illegal. As to the Israeli Cabinet meeting on Sunday, this is a decision for the Israeli Government to take without direction from us. However, the Cabinet should know that our best efforts and our best influence will be used to keep the Strait and the Gulf open to Israeli ships. We must now await the Secretary General's report. If we move precipitously, it would only result in strengthening Nasser. Moreover, we must do everything we can through the UN, we must see where it leads, even though we do not have great hopes.
The President continued that when we have the Secretary General's report, we intend to pursue the UN track vigorously. How satisfactory the result would be he did not know. He said he was not confident, and he cited the inability of the UN to do something about Viet-Nam. He said nevertheless the UN course must be pursued in the first instance. The President then went on to say that when it becomes apparent that UN is ineffective, Israel and its friends, including the United States, who are willing to stand up and be counted can give specific indication of what they can do. He referred to a public declaration by the maritime powers and an international naval force in the Straits area. We are making our best effort, the President said, and Israel ought promptly to get some judgment as to what other maritime powers are willing to do, what the French and British are willing to do. We would like to try to formulate an effective plan. Maybe other countries such as Italy, Canada, Argentina, Japan and the Netherlands might join with us. Eban interjected perhaps the Scandinavians would join.
The President then stressed that he did not want any of this information to get out of this room, but he said to Eban very confidentially that he thought Canada would be willing to provide a couple of ships if necessary. The President thought that it ought to be possible with Israeli, US and UK leadership to evolve an effective plan. How effective a plan could be would depend on many factors that we cannot now see. We do not know what the Secretary General will report. We do not know what the Security Council will do or not do. We did not know what our Congress would do. We are fully aware of what three past Presidents have said but this is not worth five cents if the people and the Congress did not support the President. After the Secretary General's report and the Security Council has considered the matter, we can see where we go from here. He said it would be well for the Israeli Cabinet to focus promptly on how to get the seventeen maritime countries to take steps to keep the Straits open. We want to keep the waterway open for Israeli ships as well as for the vessels of other countries. We will have to face up to this at some point.
The President said candidly that he did not find appealing Prime Minister Eshkol's ideas which were conveyed to him yesterday. We are not retreating, we are not backing off or forgetting what we have said publicly, but if he were to respond affirmatively to Prime Minister Eshkol's request of yesterday, this wouldn't be worth ten cents and Israel could get no help from the US. The US assessment does not agree with that of the Israelis: our best judgment is that no military attack on Israel is imminent, and, moreover, if Israel is attacked, our judgment is that the Israelis would lick them. Time would not work against Israel, it would not lose by waiting for the Secretary General's report and Security Council consideration. During this period there would not be any deterioration in the Israeli military position. We know it is costly economically, but it is less costly than it would be if Israel acted precipitously and if the onus for initiation of hostilities rested on Israel rather than on Nasser.
The President continued that the US, its people, its friends hold similar views to those of the Israelis regarding the waterway, and we are determined to find a resolution of this problem. The President expressed doubt that a number of other maritime powers would be willing to take steps unless UN processes had been exhausted. We must mobilize international support for our effort. He realized that the world had been brought to a new and grave situation, that the Gulf is an international waterway, and that the blockade is illegal and dangerous. But Eban should also tell his Cabinet about our problems.
The President, drawing from the notes drafted earlier in the day in his meeting with high-level advisers,3. said the following with great deliberation. We have Constitutional processes which are basic to any action the US takes in this matter. The Secretary General has not yet reported to the Security Council and the Council has not shown what it can or cannot do. You can assure the Cabinet, the President said, we will pursue vigorously any and all possible measures to keep the Strait open. If the Israelis had a better plan than that suggested by the UK, he was willing to consider it. He had stated our views publicly last week on the Strait of Tiran.
At the same time, Israel must not make itself responsible for initiating hostilities. With emphasis and solemnity, the President repeated twice, Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone. The President added he did not know much about the Israeli Cabinet but he could not imagine that they could make such a decision. The President stressed that he had been spending most of his time on this problem and he intends to continue to do so in order to bring about a satisfactory resolution. At the same time he stressed that this must be done on a step-by-step basis, and that he would do everything that he is permitted to do. When we make a decision on what we will do, we will and must have reasonable expectation of support at home and internationally for the action that we intend to take. We are Israel's friend. The Straits must be kept open. We cannot bring about a solution the day before yesterday. If he were to take a precipitous decision tonight he could not be effective in helping Israel. Eban knew his Cabinet, the President knew his Congress after 30 years of experience. He said that he would try to get Congressional support; that is what he has been doing over the past days, having called a number of Congressmen. It is going reasonably well. He had also asked Bohlen and Bruce for suggestions that they might have or the Governments to which they are accredited might have to bring about a satisfactory solution.
At this point the President put a paper he was holding in his hands in front of Harman and told him he could take whatever notes he wished from it (attached).4The paper is not attached, but is quoted in . The slightly different text quoted by Eban in Personal Witness, p. 390, is presumably based on Harman's notes. The President said again the Constitutional processes are basic to actions on matters involving war and peace. We are trying to bring Congress along. He said: “What I can do, I do”. He stressed also that he would pursue every conceivable road he could find and take measures in concert with other maritime nations to assure that the Gulf and the Straits remain free and open to the vessels of all nations. His views are in his May 23 statement. He stressed again that while this process was going on, Israel should not make itself the guilty party by starting a war, and that it was inconceivable the Cabinet would take such a fateful decision.
Eban said the President had said many impressive and sympathetic things. If the United States puts together a maritime group, Eban said Israel should be part of that group. Going to the UN is not enough, since the Soviet veto would prevent any action. Eban added with emotion that Israel was full of indignation at the Secretary General, whose precipitous decision to pull out UNEF had done greater harm to Israel than any other single act that he could recall. The Secretary General took this step without consulting Israel as his predecessor, Hammarskjold, had indicated would be done. Eban said Thant owes Israel a great deal for his blunder. The UN was a useful diplomatic conference, but it is not today an organ of security upon which Israel or any other state can rely. Referring to the possible restoration of the Armistice Agreement, Eban said this had two holes in it: the Egyptian blockade of the Gulf and of the Suez Canal. Eban hoped the UN exercise could be gone through quickly and as innocuously as possible. In response to the President's query, Eban said he was hopeful the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan and a number of others would respond favorably to join in a naval escort plan. These had responded favorably in support of the principle, but there would have to be US encouragement in order to get them to take concrete steps.
The discussion turned briefly as to when action is taken to transit the Straits and Gulf, and Eban said the test did not have to be with an Israeli ship. The President interjected we are not going to say it's all right if the rest go through, but Israel's ships cannot.
Then Eban spoke slowly and precisely, and said the question he posed was is there a disposition on the part of the US to take action? Time is important. I intend to respond to the Cabinet that there is such a disposition on the part of the US to act. He was confident that when Nasser saw a US–UK flag on an escort ship, he would think twice about violating the rights of nations in international waters, especially if the vessels are escorted. Eban inquired whether he could show the Cabinet a systematic plan to act, this would help him a great deal.
In response to Secretary McNamara's query, Eban ticked off Uganda, Malaysia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Japan, Netherlands as other possibilities if a naval escort team is formed. But he stressed that each one of these countries has asked or will ask, is the US with us? He thought they would join in international effort, but these countries would not want to take the first leap, and that the US role was key. He also thought the Scandinavians might participate, particularly in view of the fact that Sweden, on behalf of the Nordics, had made a statement in support of freedom of shipping in international waterways. The President, at this point, urged Eban to step up their efforts in the capitals in this regard.
Once again, choosing his words carefully, Eban said “I would not be wrong if I told the Prime Minister that your disposition is to make every possible effort to assure that the Strait and the Gulf will remain open to free and innocent passage?” The President responded, “yes”.
Eban then returned to the question of the possible imminent attack of the UAR on Israel, stressing that they had information which led them to this conclusion. He didn't understand why the US didn't believe this, and stressed the need to put our intelligence people together to evaluate the situation. Under Secretary Rostow raised the question of improved military and other liaison with the Israelis, suggesting that our intelligence people should get together and compare evaluations.
Secretary McNamara, in some detail, explained to Eban that three separate intelligence groups had looked into the matter in the last twenty-four hours and that our judgment was that Egyptian deployments made were defensive. Secretary McNamara said that, if attacked, Israel would deal the UAR a set-back. Under Secretary Rostow reminded Eban we had conveyed to the Egyptians this concern of the Israelis. Eban stressed Israel wants contact at the military level, the military people want some link. The President stressed that all of our intelligence people are unanimous regarding the assessment; that an attack is not imminent; and that if the UAR attacks “you will whip hell out of them”. Eban referred to the apocalyptic atmosphere which existed in Israel. Harman said he hoped they were wrong and their assessment was incorrect, but nevertheless if Israel was attacked it would not have any telephone number to call, no military group to plan with, and he, too, stressed the need for planning. Under Secretary Rostow recalled that we had given the UAR an additional warning on the hypothesis that our intelligence estimate might be incorrect.
President Johnson, while saying we do not want to establish any joint staff which would become known all over the Middle East and the world, told Secretary McNamara to get together with the Israelis and to look into this problem. Secretary McNamara said we feel we are not getting the information we should from the Israelis and that an exchange of information would be useful. It was agreed some liaison arrangements would be made.