234. Telegram From the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State1

181. Met with Prime Minister 4 p.m. today at his office Jerusalem (Embassy telegram 1762). Following few exchange of remarks on Gaza developments, Secretary’s speech, and Syrian removal Israel soldiers from POW status,3 I delivered substance of message contained in paragraph 2 Department telegram 155.4 Prime Minister listened carefully, made a few notes and when I finished entered at once into a measured reply, the gist of which follows:

1. Reviewed Gaza border developments of past few months which he characterized as complete quiet until recently when (a) Egypt suddenly opened fire on IDF patrol in Israel territory; (b) Egypt broke off Gaza talks under UN; (c) Egypt started series of “dastardly actions on border.”

He referred specifically to Egyptian military action of Thursday night5 when GOE military forces crossed into Israel territory four times and GOE publicly admitted actions, and Saturday night6 Egyptians launched “regular offensive” with some military units penetrating rather deeply as illustrated by the action near Askelon (Embassy telegram 1727) some 12 kilometers inside Israel. In reply to my inquiry as to whether there was any doubt as to [garble] Egyptian action, he stated that Israel now held uniform Egyptian who was wounded in the action and who admitted that he was member of one of several groups which had been sent into Israel to ambush and sabotage.Sharett laid considerable stress on the depth of penetration angle and the startling effect this had on the public security-wise, just as he did when he defended the Gaza incident of February 28.

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He then said, as in effect he has twice said during the past two weeks (Embassy telegrams 117 [171]8 and 172) “surely Nasser realizes that two can play the same game.”

He then launched into his theme that Egypt has no right to remain in Gaza—she is there only under terms of the armistice and she has so abused her position that she should no longer be permitted to remain; the Egyptians are “invaders.” The question arises as to whether this can be tolerated any longer. He then said, “Please inform the United States Government that Egypt should be made to clear out of Gaza—she had used it as a springboard for violent action against Israel—she has violated the armistice and cannot claim its protection, she cannot have it both ways.”

“Why is Nasser doing this?” He said, “I am no mind reader and I cannot be certain why he has adopted this policy. It must be because of one or two of the following reasons: (a) his desire to cement the Arab front around Israel; (b) he may wish to provoke Israel into a major action; (c) he may wish to bolster up his tottering regime.”

Sharett was convinced that Nasser broke off the Gaza talks to clear the decks for this current action and every conceivable effort had been made to convince Nasser that “he should behave.” In considering why Nasser acted as he has,Sharett reiterated his former statement to me, that is, “Nasser has the idea that he can carry on these aggressions (implying that they would be kept below level of major military action) without fear of drastic reactions on the part of Israel, because the United States will continue to bring pressure on Israel not to retaliate.”

I remarked, that I doubted that Nasser really believed that, but if Nasser had thought so I certainly hoped that by now, due to our representations to him, his mind has been completely disabused of the idea.Sharett said he hoped so, “but it (sic) will depend on what will happen during the next two or three nights.”

I immediately picked up this remark, hoping it indicated the GOI was holding up action on the Gaza border to await indicative actions by Egypt. I repeated his remark and asked if it might not be logical to see in the next two or three nights a direct reflection of our counseling to Nasser to abandon any aggressive program he might have in mind. He thought that might well be the case, implying that continued Egyptian military action would show clearly that US Counsel was having no effect. I could not, however, elicit from him any statement or indication that the IDF was holding up action until there is proof that our pressures on Nasser were effective. The great danger of a continuation of these incidents was, he [Page 414] said, that the people living on the border would leave the area or they would become “war-minded.” He did not say so, but I assumed that the latter development applied to some sizeable segments of the general public as well.

He remarked that he considered it a tragedy that the Gaza talks, which had been proceeding for some time and which held for him so much hope, should have been renounced by Egypt—first Egypt opens fire on an Israel patrol in Israel territory; then Egypt breaks off the talks; then Egypt embarks on a regular offensive.

He again referred to Israel intelligence reports to the effect that Nasser had inferred [informed] other Arab States of his aggressive active program in Gaza (Embtel 172) as indicating that the current incidents are part and parcel of a determined program by Egypt. He thought Nasser should be told firmly by the US to stop. I reminded him that we had already approached GOE on that score and that we hoped for effective results. But I fear that he feels our representations are not strong enough, although he did not say so. I make no reference to our specific efforts and results thereof (Deptel 155, Cairo 3169 and Embtel 14610) in view of counter-productiveness due to subsequent Egyptian actions.

With regard to possibility that retaliatory action by IDF might be construed by world opinion as GOI reply to Secretary’s statement (Deptel 155) he expressed some doubt. He said the speech was a very important document and had been considered by the Cabinet meeting earlier in the day; the Cabinet would give it further study; and that he might wish to discuss it with me in a few days, possibly asking for “USG to elucidate certain points.” In response to my question as to whether the Cabinet exhibited any definite reaction to the speech, Herzof replied that there were some strong reactions on some points but did not identify them.

Comment: The Prime Minister seemed to be in much better spirits than one might expect in view of the rather long and important Cabinet meeting a short time prior to our meeting; the critical situation on the Gaza border with news of new incidents reaching him frequently; he had not heard of the latest one (Embtel 18011) (in which two Israel soldiers killed when I saw him), the Syrian [Page 415] decision re the Israel soldiers (Embtel 17012) and the very difficult and personally distasteful experiences suffered by him at the hands of Ben Gurion during recent weeks. He did not display as much excitement or explosiveness in his comments as I had anticipated. Whether this reflected relief and resignation to important and critical Cabinet decisions today I could not assess, but I felt confident that it did not reflect any great personal victory or success for moderation over activism in the same meeting. He was firm and decisive in his manner but not aggressive.

It seemed to me that the outstanding indices to the current GOI attitude toward retaliation in terms somewhat stronger than usual, lie in the emphasis with which he treated certain points. For example, he returned several times to the thesis that Egypt had no right to remain in Gaza, and pondered whether it could long be tolerated; he requested that the USG oust Egypt from Gaza; he stressed Egypt’s loss of rights to be in Gaza.

I gathered that the discussions in the Cabinet meeting today followed something of the same pattern followed before final decision in February to launch the Gaza incident. Therefore, this coincidence of approach to the present situation seems to support the theory of retaliation on something larger than the usual talk of retaliation of the past.

The possible loss of benefits deriving from Secretary’s speech proposals seemed to be of far less concern to him than presence of Egypt in Gaza with the immediate security problem it posed, the deep penetration, the loss of life and associated current problems.

With regard to possible immediate action or timing of any phase on a retaliatory action program I sensed, although I had no tangible evidence, that the present plan—probably confirmed at the Cabinet meeting today—is a flexible one which can be activated without delay and whenever the Egyptian aggressions become too frequent, too penetrating, or too intolerable from Israel’s viewpoint and there is no firm policy of awaiting the events of “the next two or three nights.”

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 679.84A/8–2855. Secret;Niact. Received at 5:25 a.m., August 29. Repeated priority to Cairo, Paris, and London.
  2. Lawson reported in telegram 176 from Tel Aviv, August 28, that he was trying to arrange an appointment with Sharett and that he would emphasize the points in paragraph 2 of Document 220. (Department of State, Central Files, 674.84A/8–2855)
  3. Documentation regarding the issue of Israeli soldiers held captive in Syria isibid., 683.84A and 784A.551.
  4. Document 229.
  5. August 25.
  6. August 27.
  7. Dated August 27, it reported that the Foreign Ministry had informed the Embassy of three Egyptian incursions that evening: an attack on an Israeli military vehicle, the ambush of a taxi cab, and the destruction of a well. (Department of State, Central Files, 674.84A/8–2755)
  8. See footnote 3, Document 229.
  9. See footnote 4, Document 229.
  10. Reference is evidently in error. Telegram 146 from Tel Aviv, August 25, pertained to a consular matter. Presumably reference is to telegram 176 from Tel Aviv, August 28; not printed. For a summary, see footnote 5, Document 229.
  11. Earlier that day the Embassy in Tel Aviv reported that two Israeli soldiers were killed and that three were wounded when their vehicles struck mines on the highway near Bern. (Department of State, Central Files, 674.84A/8–2655)
  12. Lawson reported in telegram 170 from Tel Aviv, August 26, that Radio Damascus had announced the decision of the Syrian Government to cancel the prisoner-of-war status that it had previously accorded to four captured Israeli soldiers. (Ibid., 683.84A/8–2655)