421. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, November 21, 1955, 11 a.m.1

SUBJECT

  • Israel-Arab Settlement

PARTICIPANTS

  • Department
    • The Secretary
    • The Under Secretary
    • Mr. Allen
    • Mr. Russell
  • Israel Government
    • Foreign Minister Sharett
    • Ambassador Eban

The Secretary opened the discussion by saying that although he realized Mr.Sharett had requested an appointment in order to make a courtesy call, he wished to take advantage of the occasion to speak of a matter of the greatest importance. The Secretary said he believes there is a possibility of moving toward a settlement along the lines of his August 26th speech. Two things are necessary, however, if further progress is to be made. First, there must be self-control and restraint on both sides so that there will not be a build up to an explosive border situation. There must not be any effort to compel a settlement of specific issues by force, in the Gulf of Aqaba for instance. Secondly, the Israel Government must be prepared to make some concession in the Negev which would make possible an area of contact between Egypt and the other Arab states. Such an area would not necessarily be large nor of great value. And the compensation to Israel from effecting a settlement would outweigh any loss of territory. The position of rigidly standing on the present armistice lines is not tenable. If there is to be a settlement, a lot of people will have to make contributions. The United States has indicated the contributions that it is prepared to make. The Arabs will have to retreat some from their position. So will the Israel Government. The Secretary said that he can understand that the Israel Government would not want the Arabs to know what concessions it would be prepared to make for a settlement until negotiations were well underway. But we must know that there is flexibility if we are going to be in a position to push things along. The Secretary said he could assure Mr.Sharett that we are presenting our views on the other side as well although Mr.Sharett, of course, only sees one side of it.[Page 794]There are indications, the Secretary said, that Egypt is worried about the long-term consequences of its action in making a deal with the Soviet Bloc and that it is beginning to have second thoughts.

The Secretary handed an aide-mémoire to Mr.Sharett.2 Mr.Sharett said that with respect to the first point, the necessity of maintaining calm along the borders, there had recently been a series of provocations along the Jordan border. Israel had made no reaction up to the present time and Mr.Sharett said he hoped it could continue to refrain from taking action, but he had to say there was a possibility that things would burst out of bounds.

Of graver concern was the Secretary’s second point, Mr.Sharett said. The Secretary had mentioned several times the need for concessions from both sides. But the Arabs are only asked to give up things they talk about, not anything they possess. Israel, however, is expected to give up territory it already possesses. If Egypt is to be given contiguity with Jordan, it can be done only in one of two ways: (1) by giving up the port of Elat and shrinking northwards; or, (2) by cutting a belt of land out of the Negev, in other words by cutting Israel in two. This is not fair and the Israel Government should not be asked to do it. The contiguity which Egypt now seeks never existed before. The present situation existed under the British Mandate. There is nothing vital in that contiguity. There are no roads that go through that part of the country, no railroads, and no traffic. There is nothing that would start moving through it. It is only a national slogan and for that Israel is expected to cut itself in two.

The Secretary said he wished to emphasize that we are talking about something of the greatest seriousness, namely, the threat to Israel and the grave threat of the relation of the Middle East to the free world as a whole. The West has great stakes in the Middle East. Israel is one of them. The United States does not intend to allow any of its other extremely important stakes in the area to threaten the existence of Israel. By the same token, we do not think that in the present international situation the Israel Government should allow the contribution which it can make to a settlement and which would not violate Israel’s vital interests, to stand in the way of a settlement. The extent and nature of the contribution should and must be a matter for discussion and development. But the Israel Government should not take the position of saying that it will not consider a solution that might be worked out.

Mr.Sharett said that Israel, by its geographic position, is the hub of the area and this imposes an obligation on it to be a good neighbor which it intends to be if the Arab states would only be [Page 795]good neighbors. Israel has offered to provide communication facilities for the Arabs across Israel territory, following a settlement, but giving up its sovereignty over present Israel territory to meet a whim of Nasir’s is another matter. Who can tell what Nasir would then go on to request? It would be the beginning of a slippery slope.

The Secretary said we are not talking about a whim. We are talking about the continued existence of Israel. All we are asking is for the Israel Government to tell us what it would be prepared to do. That would not be the beginning of a slippery slope. The Secretary said that he had a rule in dealing with the Soviet group not to agree to a change in his position in reliance upon Soviet promises. That is a rather good rule to follow in most international negotiations. He does not expect to give up something of value in advance of getting an adequate return. He is not naive and recognizes that there are many risks in this situation and that there could be some duplicity. But we do believe that, as a result of a combination of pressures and inducement, there is a chance for a settlement, whether 50–50 or 1 in 10, no one could say. It cannot, however, be explored without knowing what Israel’s position is going to be. If Israel says no then the possibility of a settlement is off and we shall all have to face the consequences. We believe that there is an appreciable chance for a settlement. It would give Israel peace. It would reverse the process of Soviet penetration in the Middle East. The Secretary said that he did not make this statement lightly. He was not engaging in mere wishful thinking. But any further attempt towards a settlement has to be based upon our knowledge that Israel will cooperate. We have not advanced far enough so that we are asking Israel to state its willingness to make concessions publicly but we must know whether Israel would be willing to make concessions or not. If “no” is the last word, then Israel is putting us all in great peril. If we have to make a choice of sticking to Israel in the face of all that the Middle East is to the safety and continued existence of the free world, Israel will be forcing us to make a very grave choice. If the present opportunities for a settlement are to be seized, it will be necessary for us to have Israel’s position in the next few days. We can not go any further in developing the possibilities of a settlement with the Arabs until we know Israel’s position.

Mr.Sharett said that he saw no certainty that Egypt, if it knew Israel would agree to a settlement, would itself agree. There was no certainty, if Israel agreed, that such a concession would close the breach in the wall against Soviet penetration in the area. Israel leaders sat with Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax at the beginning of World War II and heard them say that the clouds were gathering, that the Allies must gather the Arabs to them, and that on those grounds they were forced to repudiate the 1939 White [Page 796]Paper.3 War broke out but the Arabs did not rally to the Allies. The only thing that brought the Arabs to the Allied side was the Allied victory. Mr.Sharett said that he did not dispute the purity of the Secretary’s intentions but it is results and not intentions that count. He said he did not see Israel capable of making the concession that the Secretary asked.

The Secretary said that in Korea and Formosa there were governments, faced by Communist mass power, that felt the only way out was in world war, wherever the U.S. would defeat their enemies. He said he assumed that Israel would not want to get into that situation vis-à-vis the Arabs, that it would not want to go down a road where there would be no solution short of general war. The Secretary said he was against peace at any price as much as anyone but that one cannot be blind to the fact that the scales are more heavily weighted against war than at any time in history. The sacrifices that are called for to save peace are greater. No one is suggesting that Israel do anything that would cripple it. But it is necessary for us to know whether there is flexibility in Israel’s immediate answer and he hoped that he would not give him a negative answer. The consequences to everyone concerned would be most serious.

The Secretary said he wished to say that the views of the United States and the United Kingdom are very close. He had not seen Eden’s speech until a few hours before it was given. He would not have put things in just the way that Eden did but he did not want Mr.Sharett to think that there is any sharp divergence that could be exploited to advantage. Mr.Sharett said that it was not a question of exploiting a difference, it was a question of whether the United States concurred in Eden’s idea of a compromise. The Secretary said that we are not engaged in an intellectual dialectic. We are faced with a very practical situation and that it was a matter of importance for him to know whether, to make possible a settlement that could be of infinite value to Israel, Israel would be willing to give up something of comparatively little value. Mr.Sharett said that if it was a question of give and take, of exchanging territory on a small scale on the principle of mutuality, it could be discussed but that Israel could not give up vital points, such as Elat, nor could it agree to something that would result in cutting Israel in two.

The Secretary said that he would like to have the Israel Government’s answer in writing. Mr.Sharett said that it would take two or three days.

  1. Source: Department of State,S/S-NEA Files: Lot 61 D 417, Alpha Volume 16. Top Secret; Alpha. Drafted by Russell on November 21 and revised by Dulles on November 25.Russell’s original draft, which contains the Secretary’s handwritten revisions, isibid.
  2. See Document 424.
  3. Dated May 17, 1939. (Palestine: Statement of Policy. Cmd. 6019)