Memorandum of Conversation, by the Secretary of State 1


Subject: British Arms Shipments to the Arab States and Israel’s Defense Needs.

Participants: S—The Secretary
The Honorable Eliahu Elath, Ambassador of Israel
NEA—Mr. Hare
ANE—Mr. Rockwell

I received Ambassador Elath at his request. He stated that he had been instructed by his Government to take up with me the matter of British arms shipments to the Arab states.

The Ambassador said that he had long been a student of the Arabs and felt that he knew them very well. He believed that the defeat of the combined Arab states by the tiny new state of Israel was an event which the Arab leaders would never forget and which they would do everything possible to avenge themselves for. Almost every day there were statements by responsible Arab personalities advocating the resumption of hostilities. People in Israel had made the same “stupid” kind of remarks, but the responsible leaders of the Israeli Government had never done so. The Israeli Government sincerely desired peace, and certainly wished to avoid the necessity of making large expenditures for military equipment. However, the shipment by the United Kingdom of arms to the Arab states when conditions in the Near East were still so delicate could have no effect but to encourage the Arab statesmen in their plans to recommence hostilities. The Ambassador added that the British shipment of arms, and my letter to Representative Javits2 on this subject, would also give people in the Arab states the impression that the United Kingdom and the United States approved the resumption of hostilities.

Never since the establishment of the State of Israel had the leaders of his country been so apprehensive for the security of the nation, the Ambassador continued. Information which the Israeli government had obtained showed that the Arab states now had ten times as much military equipment as they had had on May 14, 1948. Egypt, for example, had received 200 tanks from England, and 100 more were on order. Moreover, Egypt had acquired large naval vessels in the United Kingdom. In defensive military equipment Israel was now weaker than the Arab states, although Israel also had received new arms. No sensible person could believe that Egypt or any other of the Arab [Page 713]states could use this heavy equipment effectively to repel an attack by the Soviet Union. The only purpose to which the equipment could be put would be to attack Israel, and to place such arms in the hands of the irresponsible Arab leaders was only encouraging them to undertake such a venture. Israel was a small country, and especially vulnerable, at least in the coastal area, to tank attack. This latter point made the Israeli Government particularly apprehensive.

The Ambassador wished to assure me that Israel did not have the slightest doubt that the United Kingdom was supplying arms to the Arabs with the best of intentions. England was not encouraging the Arabs to attack Israel, but unfortunately there was no way of fully controlling arms provided for domestic security purposes. The recent coup d’état in Syria3 revealed this. The Israeli Government also knew that the United States Government sincerely desired not to see the present tranquility in the Near East disturbed. Israel was grateful, said the Ambassador, for my statement to Mr. Javits that the United States Government, should it learn of serious preparations by any party to resume the conflict, would be quick to use all of its influence in an attempt to prevent this. The trouble was that a lot could be done in a military way before the international community could effectively intervene. The Palestine war had revealed to the Near Eastern nations that the cynical policy of fait accompli was a very profitable one, and that resolutions of the United Nations could be safely violated. Mr. Elath said that Israel itself was at present violating a resolution of the United Nations concerning Jerusalem, with the intent of reaching a speedy agreement with Jordan and the Vatican concerning the Holy City. The Israeli Government was now very much concerned that the Arabs would try the policy of fait accompli themselves, and Israel desired to be in a position to defend itself against any surprise attack. Arming of the Arabs was particularly unfortunate at a time when peace talks with Jordan were going well, and there were prospects for similar talks with Egypt.

Ambassador Elath wished to assure me that the Israeli Government in instructing him to make this approach, was motivated solely by a genuine concern for its security. There was absolutely no other purpose. In this background, the Ambassador continued, he had been instructed to ask me to do what I could to persuade the British not to ship any more arms to the Arab states, and to enable the Israeli Government to purchase in this country the military equipment it needed to defend itself. He did not know exactly what this equipment was, but was aware that his Government had a list of materiel it would [Page 714]like to acquire. The Ambassador said that Israel could not purchase arms in the United Kingdom and that the United States was the only source open.

I inquired whether the Ambassador’s second request referred to applications which had already been made. The Ambassador replied that the request referred as well to these applications. He mentioned a request for anti-tank guns, a purely defensive weapon, which he said his people had been unable to obtain because Department representatives had informed them that a policy decision was necessary on military equipment of this nature.

I then said that this whole subject was a very delicate one which had to be studied in a very calm atmosphere. I added that I regretted that this atmosphere did not seem to be present now, and I referred to the statements which were being made by Israeli officials on the armament situation. We thought it particularly unfortunate, I said, that the Israeli Embassy should have seen fit to circulate in an official press release in this country comments of the Israeli Government criticizing my letter to Representative Javits. I would not do such a thing in Israel, and I preferred not to see it done in this country, although the Israeli Embassy, of course, had a perfect right to circulate the comments if it so desired.

I then said that I was not aware of the exact status of the applications made by the Israeli Government for export licenses for military equipment, but that I would ask the people in the Department concerned with this to let me know about it. As the Ambassador knew, our arms export policy as regards the Near East was to grant export licenses only for military equipment which we thought necessary for legitimate self-defense needs and for maintaining internal order. In general we thought that it was undesirable to have the standard established that any one country in the Near East would have to receive a piece of military equipment to match every piece of military equipment acquired by any other country. I said that we had no information which led to the conclusion that any party in the Near East was making active preparations to attack any other party. I personally did not believe that the Arab states were planning to begin the hostilities again. I did not think that they would be so foolhardy as deliberately to unleash upon themselves the disaster which such a move would surely bring. It seemed to me that the best insurance against the resumption of warfare would be the conclusion of peace settlements by the Israel and the Arab states, and I was glad to hear from Mr. Elath that progress was being made in this direction.

With regard to the United Kingdom, I said that I had discussed the shipment of arms to the Near East many times with Mr. Bevin. The [Page 715]Ambassador was aware of the treaty commitments binding Great Britain to some of the Arab states, and the United States Government had persuaded the British not to furnish arms under these commitments until the Palestine arms embargo was lifted. I completely agreed with the Ambassador that the arms being supplied to the Arab states would not enable them to stand off an attack by the Soviet Union. For that matter, the arms we were furnishing the Western European states would not enable them to do this either. But I thought that I could understand the desire on the part of the Arab states to restore their self-confidence by strengthening their armies, and the necessity from the British point of view of having this self-confidence restored to strategic nations in the Near East. I reiterated that we had no evidence that the Arab states were planning to use these arms for aggressive purposes. In conclusion on this point, I said that the Ambassador must realize that our influence upon what the United Kingdom did or did not do was not unlimited.

I added that of course I was anxious to do anything I appropriately could to help out the Israeli Government. The two requests made by the Ambassador would be given full consideration, and I would ask the appropriate people in the Department to give careful study to the question of the export licenses for military equipment desired by Israel. I then inquired whether Mr. Hare or Mr. Rockwell had anything to add to what I had said.

Mr. Rockwell stated that since the Department desired to be as fully informed as possible on the military situation in the Near East, it would be interested to receive any information available to the Israeli Government indicating that the Arab states are making serious preparations to resume the war. Ambassador Elath said he believed such information was on its way from Tel Aviv, and that he would be happy to furnish it to the Department.

The Ambassador then apologized for the Israeli Embassy’s press release on my letter to Representative Javits. He said that although he had not known of this release, he naturally accepted full responsibility for it. However, the Israeli Embassy was still a “young” one and had much to learn.

I said that it was really not a very important matter and that there was no question of an official protest. However, I was sure Mr. Sharett would be surprised if I were to issue in Israel an official release criticizing an exchange of correspondence between himself and a member of the Israeli Parliament.

After apologizing again for this incident and thanking me for receiving him, the Israeli Ambassador took his departure.

Dean Acheson
  1. Drafted by Mr. Rockwell.
  2. Dated January 12, p. 684.
  3. For documentation on this subject, see Foreign Relations, 1949, vol. vi, pp. 1630 ff.