437. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, December 6, 1955, 2:30 p.m.1

SUBJECT

  • Israel-Arab Settlement and Israel Request for Arms

PARTICIPANTS

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

The Israel Foreign Minister called at his request. He said that the Israel Government had given careful and searching thought to the aide-mémoire which the Secretary had handed to him on November 212 and to the remarks which the Secretary had made at that time.3 Mr.Sharett said that he had exchanged messages with Prime Minister Ben Gurion and it could be assumed that the Prime Minister had consulted his principle colleagues in the Israel Government. He said that the Israel Government’s reactions have been incorporated in an aide-mémoire which Mr.Sharett handed to the Secretary. 4

Mr.Sharett said that he had been deeply impressed by the Secretary’s statement in their last meeting that if there should unfortunately be head-long clashes requiring a decision on the part of the United States between supporting Israel and the Arab states, it is a foregone conclusion that the United States would support Israel. The Secretary commented that Mr.Sharett had over-simplified his remarks. He said the United States has repeatedly reaffirmed its position under the Tripartite Declaration of 1950 and, if a clash in the Middle East occurred through any aggression by Israel, it would be necessary for us to oppose it. What the Secretary had intended to say in the remarks Mr.Sharett referred to was that if, despite all of our best efforts, a struggle developed in the Middle East between a Soviet-supported Arab world and a democratic Israel, our sympathy, at the very least, would be with Israel.

Mr.Sharett said that he intended to speak seriously and frankly. He hoped the Secretary would also regard his remarks as friendly. The most vital and crucial interests of Israel are at stake. Israel wants [Page 827]to differ as little as possible from the United States, but it was necessary to state Israel’s position clearly. First, Mr.Sharett said, he had been taken aback by the upsurging of a wave of optimism at the possibility of an early settlement. He had seen the wave rising in press reports from Cairo and later from Washington. The previous day a reporter had quoted Vice President Nixon as being optimistic. Mr.Sharett said he saw no change of heart in Nasser nor any change in the provocatory activities along the borders. The Israel Government has had indirect contacts with Nasser, in part through American Jews traveling through Egypt, but none of the reports had been encouraging. In reply to a question from the Secretary, Mr.Sharett said that none of these contacts had been very recent. The most significant factor of all, Mr.Sharett said, was the Egyptian-Czech arms deal. With all Israel’s passionate desire for peace, it was necessary for the Israelis to exercise prudence in appraising the present situation. It does more harm to be unduly optimistic than to be healthily skeptical. Apart from an evaluation of the concrete prospects Israel is faced with, the Israel Government has noticed a certain departure, indicated in the speeches of the British Prime Minister at the Guild Hall and in Parliament and also in the suggestion by the Secretary that it may be inevitable for Israel to make territorial concessions to Egypt and possibly to others. There seemed to be a significant chronological sequence and the Israel Government could not help from believing that there had been cause and effect. It believes the new departure is the result of the Soviet-Egyptian arms deal. Before the deal, Israel had sought clarification of passages in the Secretary’s August 26 speech relating to boundaries. What the Israelis were told was reassuring.Macmillan told Ambassador Elath that “nothing drastic” was contemplated, only “minor adjustments”. Ambassador Eban had gathered the same thing here in Washington. So Israel is forced to conclude that this insistence upon the indispensability of concessions is new and stems from the turn of events in Egypt. If this is so, then it is nothing less than a premium upon doing business with the Kremlin. The Israel public will regard the reported prospect of a loan to Egypt for the Aswan Dam as an additional premium. It will appear that if any country wants a loan or support for concessions the thing to do is to strike a deal with the Soviet Bloc. The Egyptian junta is getting the best of both worlds: arms from Russia, loans from the United States and the United Kingdom, and support for concessions from Israel. These public impressions will inevitably evoke the ghost of Munich.Nasser is out to gain time and to outwit both the West and Israel. What he wants would be at the expense of Israel’s security and ultimate survival. He is creating the impression of willingness to talk settlement in order to get the Aswan loan and also to gain time to absorb [Page 828]his new arms and to achieve military confidence. Mr.Sharett said that he wished the crux of his remarks to be that there is no question of Israel agreeing to cede territory. It is essential to differentiate between adjustments which would be reciprocal, mutual, minor, and the result of give and take on the one hand, and cession of territory on the other. This is not a difference in degree but a difference in kind. What is now suggested is a cession of territory and that is not something that Israel can accept. Aside from a question of statesmanship, there would be no chance of such a cession being approved by the Israel Parliament or ratified by its electorate.

Mr.Sharett said he regarded Eden’s speech not only as a blunder but as a disaster. He said he was driven to the conclusion that Eden did it to improve Britain’s position with the Arab world. It was a “disaster” because it was bound to strengthen Arab intransigence. If Nasser has Britain upholding his claims, why should he settle for any less? Since Israel will not concede, it makes the absence of a settlement a certainty. Mr.Sharett said that he believed the most charitable hypothesis is that Eden is committed to certain ruts of thought carried over from previous days. The Bernadotte Plan had carried a “Made in Britain” label. Mr.Sharett commented that Eden’s speeches had not earned him any support in the British press, with the sole exception of theLondon Times. Most of the papers had been scathing in their attacks. The American press had also found the speeches revolting in their suggestion that Israel, which is so small, should give up land to the Arab states who already have so much.

Mr.Sharett said that he wished to be constructive as well as critical and he hoped the aide-mémoire that he had handed the Secretary would be regarded in that light. If the Arabs want a settlement they should agree to the Jordan Valley Plan. It has been worked out on the concept of reciprocity. The Israel Government prefers to approach the question of a settlement through direct negotiation but it is not opposed in principle to mediation, as it has indicated by its cooperation with Ambassador Johnston. But a mediator should not take up a position on a question such as the Negev in advance.Eden had, therefore, disqualified himself as a mediator. The question for Israel is whether it can embark upon negotiations from a position of weakness while Egypt does so from strength. Does the United States believe it is wise or fair to begin negotiations at a time when Nasser has planes and tanks in increasing quantities and when he knows that Israel has no definite prospect of getting them. Is not Israel’s claims for a similar number of weapons an irresistible one? Should Israel trust that nothing untoward will happen? For its part, Israel cannot put such trust in Nasser.

[Page 829]

With respect to the Secretary’s request on November 21 that Israel not force the issue of the Gulf of Aqaba at the present time, Mr.Sharett said that all Israel is doing is to use its own port. It is not encroaching on anyone. It is Egypt that has declared that it is going to use violence to prevent this use. What the United States is doing is asking Israel to submit to violence, to stay put, to submit to brutal force. There is, of course, always the question of political sagacity. If Israel were actually negotiating a settlement, it would not force the Aqaba issue. But unless and until negotiations begin or appear practical, Israel cannot renounce its elementary rights. It would be reducing its strength of negotiation. Israel, by renouncing its right to use its own port, would merely be giving additional strength to Nasser’s position. With what prospect would Israel be starting negotiations? It is being undermined at all points. This is not the general theory of the democracies in their efforts to cope with the Communist threat. The Secretary remarked that he did not believe the two situations were parallel.

Mr.Sharett said that, as his last point, he wanted to suggest the advisability of concentrating on the Johnston mission. This is concrete and tangible and on this issue Nasser is on trial. He promised Ambassador Johnston that he would use his efforts to overcome the objections of Syria and other Arab states. Would it not be advisable to wait a couple of months and see if he carries out his pledge? Two years have been spent on the negotiations on the Jordan Valley Plan, which is a U.S. undertaking. If it succeeds, there will be grounds for encouragement. If it fails, then it will be necessary to strengthen Israel and wait for a better mood.

In comment upon Mr.Sharett’s protest at the encouraging state of mind, he found in certain quarters about the prospects of a settlement, the Secretary said he had set forth his position in his press conference that morning.5 He read the following from the transcript: “We continue to feel very strongly that there should be a solution of that problem. I can only go back in these matters to my comprehensive statement of August 26 on this subject, which was very thoroughly and carefully prepared, which emphasizes what we believe to be the imperative need of a solution to prevent, as I then said, the development of an arms race which would sap the economic strength of these countries. The gains to come out of a settlement from both sides are immense. We continue to hope that both sides will see the possibilities of such gains in the situation. I would not say that there are any concrete developments which could be adduced [Page 830]as proof that they had been so convinced as yet. But the possibilities in our opinion still exist.”

With respect to Mr.Sharett’s point that the U.K. and possibly the U.S. had changed its position with respect to territorial adjustments and with respect to aid on the Aswan Dam as a result of the Egyptian-Czech arms deal, the Secretary said that such was not the case. As far as the U.S. is concerned, its views with respect to possible territorial adjustments had been in formulation for more than a year, ever since the Secretary had told Eban in the fall of 1954 that he was studying the question. The views we hold today are the same as those we had six months ago. The Secretary said that he had asked Francis Russell to work with him in seeing what the U.S. could do to help in making a settlement possible. He hoped that some day it would be possible for him to tell Mr.Sharett or some of his colleagues more in detail what our views were. We have been studying the possibility of assisting in the construction of the Aswan Dam for over two years. Our attitude on what constitutes a fair agreement with respect to territorial adjustments and our attitude on economic development in the area has not altered as a result of the Soviet arms deal.

On the question of “cession” of territory in the Negev, the Secretary said that the Israel-Egyptian Armistice Agreement provides that the armistice lines were to be without prejudice to the question of ultimate boundary decisions. Israel’s present title to territory in that area is provisional, not final. The Secretary said that Mr.Sharett had mentioned a lot of evil things that would flow from a willingness on the part of Israel to regard the Negev boundaries as negotiable: loss of access to Elat, loss of valuable mineral products, loss of population, and dismemberment of Israel. The Secretary said that he believes there are ways of avoiding this chamber of horrors and still provide land communication between Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. Mr.Sharett remarked that Israel had offered to provide a right of transit. The Secretary commented that that was not enough, in his best judgment, to obtain a settlement.

The Secretary said that, in his opinion, any possibility of a settlement must be carried forward by the mediation approach. He said we are not offering ourselves in that role but we are exploring simultaneously on both sides what the attitudes toward a settlement are. The Secretary said that he believes the time for a special effort at settlement is right here now. Today and for some months, the position of Israel will be one of military superiority. It will take time for Egypt to assimilate any arms it acquires. Egypt has always taken the position that it could not negotiate from weakness but it may feel that the prospect of an increase in its actual armed strength will suffice to enable it to contemplate a settlement. It is not probable [Page 831]that we shall ever find a time of perfect equilibrium. Mr.Sharett said he must deny that Israel has military superiority. The Secretary said that all he could do was to take the advice of this Government’s military experts who believe that Israel has current military superiority. Mr.Sharett said that if Israel has superiority, it is the result of factors unrelated to equipment. The Secretary said it was quite true that this superiority may be less decisive in the future than it is now. The present is, therefore, a good opportunity to make a serious effort at a settlement.

Mr.Sharett said that the mood in Israel now is one of tense calm in the face of a grave danger. He pointed to the fact that there had been no recent reactions to border provocations because the public knows that the Government is attempting to deal with the larger danger. The Secretary said that he thought it doubtful that efforts by both sides to increase armaments would produce a better situation.

The Secretary said he had only had an opportunity to read very hastily the aide-mémoire which Mr.Sharett had just handed to him but it was his impression that it was not adequately responsive to the Secretary’s requests of November 21. Nevertheless, it does indicate a certain willingness to negotiate. Mr.Sharett interpolated, “provided the cession of territory is not made the starting point.” The Secretary said that he had not suggested it as a starting point. The Secretary said that whatever merit there may be in Israel’s attitude toward the question of the use of the Gulf of Aqaba, it was necessary to bear in mind the practical fact which Mr.Sharett had mentioned, namely, that a raising of the issue6 at this time would be most unfortunate with respect to the prospect of a settlement. The Secretary referred to Mr.Sharett’s suggestion that negotiations be delayed for a couple of months to see whether there might be agreement at the end of that time on the Jordan Valley Plan. The Secretary said that those two months are too valuable to spend in waiting. That may be the very time when a rough military equilibrium will best provide an opportunity for moving toward a settlement. Mr.Sharett asked whether the impression his colleagues had obtained at the time of the Secretary’s speech last August that territorial adjustments would be mutual and not drastic was accurate. The Secretary said that Francis Russell had studied the problem intensively last spring and that, from a review of the situation with him, the Secretary’s impression had been that Israel would have less in terms of square miles but that it would not involve areas that were heavily populated or had great strategic value. With respect to Mr.Sharett’s [Page 832]comment that it was one thing to negotiate and another thing to have a pre-judged plan, the Secretary said that he was not sure which category he would put our present thinking into. We have tried to satisfy ourselves that there is a solution that would not involve real loss to Israel but out of which would come some very real gains. The Secretary said that he believed there is a possibility of an equitable settlement and he hopes that Israel will not foreclose it.

Mr.Sharett said that he expected to be leaving the United States in a week and that it would be most important for him to have some indication of the United States’ answer to Israel’s request for arms. The Secretary said that the Department expected to receive from Defense by the end of this week a report with respect to availability and cost. Mr.Sharett said that what he would be most interested in would be not the details but a general understanding with respect to availability and especially the possibility of acquiring jet aircraft.

  1. Source: Department of State,S/SNEA Files: Lot 61 D 417, Alpha Volume 16, Top Secret; Alpha. Drafted by Russell on December 8.
  2. See Document 424.
  3. See Document 421.
  4. Supra.
  5. For excerpts from the transcript of Secretary Dulles’ news conference of December 6, see Department of StateBulletin, December 19, 1955, p. 1007.
  6. At this point in the text, the word “forcible” is inserted in Secretary Dulles’ handwriting.