140. Telegram From the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State1
865. Spent over hour with Ben Gurion and Sharett today in conversation on Israel’s need for yes or no decision on arms question; Secretary’s testimony2 and what conclusions Israel must draw from it. I have never seen Ben Gurion so emphatic, forceful or so emotionally upset and, on several occasions, so near to tears. Sharett was less dramatic but for first time in my experience was unsmiling throughout interview, displaying attitude of undisguised cold bitterness and foreboding criticisms.
Ben Gurion spoke from his own rough notes and what appeared to be Her-Trib3 report of Secretary’s testimony. He was obviously most impatient to begin and dismissed amenities in matter of seconds.
He described Secretary’s testimony as “very bitter disappointment” he could accept suggestion that peace should not rest on arms alone if it didn’t exclude arms to Israel at time when its neighbors and Saudi Arabia and Iraq were supplied with arms.
He was scathing in rejection to suggestions Israel should rely on UN and tripartite declaration. “None of us would be living” he said, “if Israel had relied on UN in 1948. As for tripartite declaration, Great Britain is signatory but its shipment of offensive arms to Egypt and not to Israel bears no relationship to what I think is spirit of tripartite declaration. Israel does not rely on it nor does it intend to”.
He professed great worry over Secretary’s suggestion Israel’s frontiers could not be guaranteed until they were defined by agreement. In his view modification of frontiers implicit in testimony did not mean Secretary favored Israel moving into Sinai or expanding [Page 258]into Syria or to Jordan River. It was obvious he had in mind just the contrary. Pounding on table for emphasis he said Secretary obviously meant—from Israel’s standpoint—change for the worse or diminishment of Israeli territory. This would not happen as long as “we are alive. Our girls and boys will fight to the death”. He said Secretary had right to opinions on Israel’s requirements but whatever they were Israel was entitled to “yes or no answer. If the answer is to be no, please let it be said now. It was question of life or death. We are in mortal danger. Every week arms are pouring into Egypt. If war is declared there will be one military commander able to move all the forces of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria against Israel. Chances of attack are greater than ever before. I know how Nasser will read the Secretary’s statement. If US letting Israel down he would regard it as an invitation to attack”. He spoke bitterly of his conviction that in same circumstances which prevailed for Israel, if Belgium were to ask for arms it would not have been answered as Israel was— “Certainly not England nor even West Germany.”
Ben Gurion brushed aside my suggestion he was probably having to resist tremendous pressure both within his government, his political party and from the public. He declared only pressures on him were pressures of events. It was obvious, and confirmed later by Herzog who was present, that Ben Gurion meant that really effective pressures are those coming from the very heavy personal and official responsibilities he bears—responsibilities the weight of which he has been feeling with progressive consciousness during the past few weeks. This personal responsibility aspect of this attitude is significant of his dangerous attitude for making quick personal policy decisions in his capacity of Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. Although he denied the influence of other pressures it is believed that he is under heavy and continuous pressures from the IDF, the mobilization of Egyptian and Syrian armed forces on Israel’s border, the GOI, party members and the opposition.
He stressed requirement which time placing on him. Israel could not rely on UN or tripartite declaration. In such grave circumstances they could only rely on themselves. If Israel were given arms he was sure there would be no attack. Without them Israel would have to reorganize its life. This was their land. Their frontiers were as sacred to them as those of America to the US. They would have to reorganize under the pressure of knowing they had been let down by the US on their request while arms were pouring into Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Ben Gurion said that he would be obliged to tell Knesset very soon what dangers were and what measures were necessary for preservation of Israel. In absence of assistance from US, Israelis must assume enormous burdens and make great sacrifices.[Page 259]
They were not going to rely on Secretary’s advice when their very lives were at stake. He said he proposed to tell Selwyn Lloyd the same on his forthcoming visit.4
Sharett reviewed his personal experiences in pressing Israel’s arms request stating that despite various encouraging indications contained in statements by Secretary and President many months have passed. Delay was undignified both to US and Israel. “For you it is undignified to have to demonstrate inability to make up your mind on this burning issue and there is no dignity for Israel in continuing to beg for arms. However, it is not only undignified but dangerous to feed our people for so many months on false hopes”.
Sharett said there was inexplicable inconsistency “in the US advising Israel to rely for its security on international rule of law and establishment of peaceful relations with its neighbors whereas for itself and its favored friends in NATO the essential element had been reliance on armed strength”. Sharett referred to Secretary’s statement to effect that he did not exclude possibility of delivering arms to Israel at time when such deliveries might contribute to peace. He described this as “far-reaching qualification opening way for indefinite delay in same manner that indefinite delay was inherent in suggestion that frontiers could not be guaranteed until their definition was mutually agreed.”
Both Sharett and Ben Gurion repeated again and again that delayed US decision was same as negative one. At least twice Ben Gurion said if no decision on arms request was received, “we will have to make the decision ourselves”.
Comment: I believe from emotional restraint which Ben Gurion exercised in conversation which, given its content, might have been very melodramatic had he been staging show, that he is very near decision that will set Israel’s foreign policy direction, if not action, for some time.
He—and Sharett—are genuinely astonished at apparent US intention to ignore for time being Israel’s arms request and provide no indication of ultimate decision. They are resentful and nursing sense of personal grievance.
Ben Gurion has too great feeling personal destiny and responsibility for Israelis to permit events themselves to shape Israel’s future. To this sense of personal responsibility for providing solution to all problems confronting country must be added pressures, which he professes to ignore, but which nevertheless weigh heavily on him such as IDF desires for solution by action; government’s public declarations that question of war or peace hinge upon US decision [Page 260]on arms, and growing strength of Arab forces on its borders. Taken together I am sure they will impel him to decide soon.
His summons to me is probably a last effort to induce an affirmative reply. If it fails—and I think he is sincere in saying that was [if?] answer much longer delayed will be considered here as negative answer, decisions he feels obliged to take will follow very shortly.
Furthermore, I think we would have only very short time in which to meet his request if that were our desire. Indefinite answers by US will not win additional time.
While I am persuaded that he is perhaps nearer to policy decision of the scope now confronting him than at any time since establishment of state, they will not necessarily include determination date which they will be put into motion. Decision could range from request Knesset for legislation increasing degree mobilization, for curtailing civilian consumption, etc. to decision to impose settlement upon Arabs by military action.
If we reject this last-minute appeal for favorable reply on arms or an undertaking in future, I am convinced we may have no further opportunity to influence course of events by diplomatic action aimed at Israel alone.
- Source: Department of State, Central Files, 684A.86/2–2956. Secret; Priority. Received at 6:24 a.m., March 1. Repeated to London and Paris.↩
- See footnote 5, Document 131.↩
- Presumably reference is to the International Herald Tribune.↩
- Lloyd spoke with Ben Gurion and Sharett in Jerusalem on March 13. See Document 202.↩