103. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, February 20, 19561

SUBJECT

  • Letter for the President from Prime Minister Ben Gurion

PARTICIPANTS

  • U.S. Government
    • The Acting Secretary
    • G—Mr. Murphy
    • S—Mr. Russell
  • Israel Government
    • Ambassador Eban
    • Minister Shiloah

Ambassador Eban and Minister Shiloah called at their request. Ambassador Eban said that he had been asked by Prime Minister Ben Gurion to deliver the attached letter to the President through the Acting Secretary. Ambassador Eban said he wished to make some supplementary oral remarks. He said that despite the somewhat reassuring statements that Prime Minister Nasser had made to Mr. Robert Anderson on the latter’s recent trip to the Middle East, the Israel Government had serious doubts concerning Nasser’s sincerity and good will. In the first place, the Israel Government doubts Nasser’s desire to work wholeheartedly with the West. It believes he is at best playing off the Soviet Union against the West and his relationship with the Soviet Bloc may be even closer. Also, despite Nasser’s statements to Mr. Anderson of Egypt’s desire for a settlement, Nasser’s public statements continue, up to the present moment, to be violently anti-Israel. Therefore, while Israel earnestly hopes that Mr. Anderson will succeed in his mission and will do everything it can to assist in its success, it is bound to have grave doubts. For this reason, Israel’s need for arms is increasingly great. Although the Israel public has not kept its fears at fever pitch since tense feelings, no matter how strong, cannot be maintained indefinitely, the leaders of Israel have a constantly increasing sense of desperation. Ambassador Eban said that he thought that an announcement now that the U.S. was going to supply some arms to Israel would, in fact, make Nasser more likely to take a reasonable position on a settlement. It would also, the Ambassador thought, make Nasser more likely to carry out his promise to use his position with the other Arab countries to obtain their agreement to the Jordan Valley Development Plan. Ambassador Eban said that he thought that this was most pressing as Israel could not delay its water plans indefinitely.

[Page 184]

The Acting Secretary said that Secretary Dulles was returning to Washington on February 22 and the President within a day or two thereafter. 2 He said that he was not sure that it would be feasible to send the letter to the President while he was in Georgia but that, in any event, it would be given to him immediately on his return to Washington. 3 Ambassador Eban said that he saw no reason for sending it to the President before then.

The Acting Secretary inquired whether it would be possible, in the event no agreement was reached at this time on the Johnston Plan, for Israel to announce that it was going ahead with construction which was consistent with the Johnston Plan and that it would divert no more water from the Jordan River than it would be entitled to under the Plan. Ambassador Eban said that Israel would be prepared to do that. He said that the Israel Government had consulted three eminent water experts who had given their opinion that the construction which Israel contemplates carrying out this year is consistent with the Johnston Plan.

Mr. Murphy said that there had been a good deal of interest on the part of the press in the question of arms shipments to the Middle East and that he felt it was in the mutual interest of this country and of Israel that nothing be done to unduly increase public excitement about the problem. Ambassador Eban said that Israel was in a difficult position. If it revealed publicly the extent of its fears, it would increase Nasser’s cockiness. If it said nothing it might not get the arms it needs.

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[Attachment]

Letter From Prime Minister Ben Gurion to President Eisenhower4

Dear Mr. President: I thank you for your letter dated January 9th introducing Mr. Robert Anderson, 5 which through inadvertence in Cairo reached me only a few days ago.

I feel that you could not have chosen a more fitting emissary for the noble mission you have initiated with a view to bringing about a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Mr. Anderson has doubtless reported to you on the conversations he conducted in Jerusalem and Cairo and I therefore will not trouble you with a restatement of our position in detail. We have declared our full and unqualified readiness to enter forthwith into contact with the head of the Egyptian Government or with such responsible representatives as he may designate, in order to explore possibilities of a settlement or of progress by stages towards an ultimate peace. We are prepared to engage in such negotiations without any prior conditions as to their scope or the terms on which a settlement might be sought.

Peace holds a paramount place in the national and spiritual aims of our people. It is a supreme imperative of the People of the Bible. It is a national interest of the highest order for a young state which must apply its main resources to the absorption of immigration and the rebuilding of a desolate land. As citizens of the free world, dedicated to democratic values and the freedom of man, we fully realise the significance of peace in this area for the peace of mankind as a whole.

Frankness impels me to say that the position taken thus far by the Prime Minister of Egypt, as conveyed to us by Mr. Anderson, has raised in my mind the following fateful questions:

(a)
Does Col. Nasser sincerely desire peace or is he merely seeking to gain time until Soviet arms have been properly absorbed into the Egyptian Army and he will be militarily capable of striking down Israel? My doubts are unhappily strengthened by the fact that Col. Nasser has not undertaken to observe the Armistice Agreement between Israel and Egypt or even to give a cease-fire order to his troops on the frontier—two requests made to him by General Burns [Page 186]and Mr. Hammarskjold. Egyptian soldiers continue to shoot daily at Israel settlements and at Israel soldiers.
(b)
Even if Col. Nasser’s intentions vis-à-vis Israel are peaceful, and although he himself is clearly not a communist, has he not succumbed to Soviet influence and has Egypt not become a base for Soviet penetration to the African continent to such a degree that he no longer enjoys freedom of action in his foreign policy?
(c)
Assuming that he does desire peace with Israel and is not a captive of Soviet policy, will he be able to withstand negative pressures from his own colleagues in the junta?

Despite these doubts we shall continue to extend to Mr. Anderson our fullest co-operation for the success of his mission.

Yet, Mr. President, I would not be true to my conscience and to my people were I not to use this opportunity to bring to your attention the grave peril in which Israel finds itself in face of the Soviet arms acquired by Egypt. In all Arab states—particularly Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria—radio, press and official statements forecast Israel’s early destruction; the incessant flow of Soviet arms to Cairo lends these forecasts a grim and menacing significance. In the present circumstances our villages and towns are defenceless against air attack. The denial of defensive arms to Israel jeopardizes its very survival. In the absence of a positive response from the U.S. we find it well-nigh impossible to get arms from any other country in the free world.

If attacked we shall fight desperately and with our backs to the wall, for Israel today is the last refuge of our people even as at the dawn of history it was our first homeland. I feel however bound to say to you in all earnestness that the U.S. is assuming a very grave moral responsibility. Every day that passes without our receiving from your country or her allies planes and tanks, not inferior in quality to those supplied to Egypt from Soviet sources—brings the danger ever closer and deepens the feeling that we are being abandoned by our closest friends. Your declaration from Denver on November 9th regarding the legitimacy of defensive arms 6 stirred in us the hope that the U.S. would not fail us.

I repeat that my government and people will extend every possible co-operation to your invaluable initiative to bring about peace between Israel and Egypt. Should you succeed in your efforts, not only our people but the entire free peace-loving world will salute you. Yet even the great might of the U.S. cannot compel Col. Nasser to make peace. It is however within your power, perhaps within your power alone, to prevent a war in the Middle East by affording us adequate defensive means in proper time. It is highly [Page 187]probable that this will also contribute towards peace; no Arab country is ever likely to make peace with a defenceless Israel.

I hope that you will excuse me for having set down frankly what is in our hearts here.

My cabinet colleagues and the entire people of Israel join me in sending you heartfelt wishes for health and strength for many years to come.

Yours sincerely,

D. Ben-Gurion
  1. Source: Department of State, NEA Files: Lot 59 D 518, Alpha—Anderson Talks w/BG & Nasser. Jan. ’56—memos, etc. Top Secret. Drafted on February 21 by Russell.
  2. According to Secretary Dulles’ Appointment Book, Dulles was on vacation and did not resume his duties until February 23. (Princeton University Library, Dulles Papers)

    According to the record of the President’s Daily Appointments, Eisenhower was also on vacation and did not return to Washington until early afternoon on February 25. (Eisenhower Library)

  3. On February 24, Barnes transmitted the original text under cover of a memorandum to Goodpaster and indicated as well that the Department of State would submit at a later date a suggested reply from the President to Prime Minister Ben Gurion. (Department of State, Central Files, 684A.86/2–2456) For text of the reply as sent to Ben Gurion, see Document 132.
  4. The source text is a photocopy of the original, which is in the Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, International File.
  5. See Document 12.
  6. See the editorial note, vol. XIV, p. 725.