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

868. Following interpretation submitted regarding conversations reported 861,2 864,3 8654 and 867:5

Secretary’s February 24 testimony coupled with Allen’s interpretation (Deptel 7066) and retardation decision French Mysteres leaves Israel Government with no foreign policy and no defense program. For four months orientation here has been on development adequate defense posture, primarily through procurement minimum number of interceptor jets. Relatively speaking this was policy of moderation.

Sharett’s untypical sternness and bitterness reflected his reaction to collapse of his pro-western orientation and of foreign policy which place reliance on US. He finds in ashes his basic approach to problem of Soviet arms to Arabs which was one of maintaining workable defense posture through acquisition of minimal number of high quality defense arms from US and its allies. Sharett is now defenseless against accusations of his opponents within and without Cabinet who, since October last, have argued that Sharett’s moderate approach and trust in US would be betrayed.

Ben Gurion’s demeanor suggests typical behavior pattern noted by his close associates in periods when he is intensely occupied with some major problem during which he gives evidence of uncertainty and emotional strain. Once he has made his decision he reportedly relaxes, puts his uncertainties behind him and pursues with equanimity [Page 270]the execution of his formulation. Both Prime Minister and Foreign Minister must be haunted with thought that had they adopted different policy October last (Embtel 861) the Egyptian military threat might have been removed with much smaller loss of Jewish lives than may now prove to be case.

From their conversation with me yesterday it apparent that Ben Gurion and Sharett making one last effort to obtain affirmative US reply and failing that they must assume their policy has failed and new approach developed forthwith. Logic that this is time of decision must appear inescapable to GOI for following reasons: Increment large Egyptian and Syrian military units along Israeli borders is preview of progressively greater future pressures as Arab equipment and ability to utilize expands. With its military manpower on civilian reservist basis, Israeli could not indefinitely meet this challenge except at exorbitant price of progressively larger disruption of its economy and way of life. Furthermore, IDF appears (Embtel 861) to have advised Ben Gurion that only very short time remains before balance of power shifts to Arab side and is urging action before too long delay. It is at this point that there appears to be vital divergence in interpretation of subsequent events as between Israelis and some US observers. Israelis are convinced that given capability the Egyptians aided by other Arab States will attack Israel unless they can achieve same objective through progressive weakening of Israel by forced negotiations. This conclusion which may be correct or incorrect is based on Israel’s past experience in dealing with Arabs, statements and actions of Arab leaders and information reaching IDF through its comprehensive Intelligence Services in Arab States. While IDF Intelligence may come up with its full share of false reports on occasion it has proved accurate. (As examples report paragraph 3, Embtel 172, August 27, 1955,7 subsequently verified by Fedayeen raids and Israel contention September last that Nasser’s help to Johnston would be pro forma which appears to be confirmed by Jordanians as per paragraph 3, Amman telegram 427 to Department.8) In any event Israelis have firm conviction about Arabs intentions and US arms policy appears to have undermined their ability to meet this threat through balance of power approach and to have provided no satisfactory substitute.

While Ben Gurion made it clear to me yesterday that he considers the forthcoming vital decision his personal responsibility, it [Page 271]is apparent that in arriving at his conclusion he will weigh carefully the advice of “his boys” in the IDF that the only remaining alternative to assure Israel’s survival is a military showdown. Their views have the support of Achdut Avoda, the militant wing of Mapai within the government and of Herut and many General Zionists in the opposition. While it is known that the progressive and Mapam leadership, as well as the Mapai moderate (Sharett) wing, are most reluctant adopt a policy which may lead to general hostilities, they are unable at moment to present workable alternative. Ben Gurion, while no longer dominant on many questions of domestic policy, still retains the confidence of Israel public in security matters. They will follow his leadership at this decisive moment in Israel’s history.

From information available to it from various sources including comments made by Ben Gurion and Sharett to me today, coupled with their grim and determined manner, I believe it is possible to forecast the minimum and maximum ranges of Israel’s new formulation of policy and program to replace those which it is now in process of abandoning. At minimum, Israel’s economy would be placed on an emergency basis with partial mobilization of reservists. In the Embassy’s judgment, once this basic step is taken it will set in motion trend of public attitudes which would make it almost impossible for the GOI to avoid adoption of a militant policy toward specific Arab-Israel issues. This could be accompanied by determination to assure, by military measures if necessary, absolute sovereignty and strict observance of armistice agreements including decision to proceed with Banat Yaacov, to retaliate for any continuation of Egyptian firing across the border which is now daily occurrence, enforcement of transit rights Gulf of Aqaba or Suez. One or more of these measures could be taken with full knowledge that they might lead to wider hostilities but with willingness to accept such risks. As maximum, the IDF might be authorized by Ben Gurion to take off on an offensive against the Egyptian troops in the Sinai with no more pretext than one of the many recurring incidents on frontier. In view of Tiberias action experience,9 however, it is believed that Ben Gurion’s Cabinet colleagues would counsel him that widespread hostilities should develop only over major issue with which world opinion is already acquainted.

Embassy concurs in Ben Gurion’s thesis that the Israelis would fight rather than acquiesce to truncation Israel’s territory. This is not so much question of loss of so many square miles of territory as it is reflection of firm belief that it would constitute the first of series of [Page 272]weakening measures designed culminate in Israel’s eventual extermination.

Embassy does not exclude possibility that at this juncture GOI may make some approach to the Soviet Government to explore possibility obtaining arms. It is known, however, that many Israel leaders believe such an approach would prove abortive and Embassy considers it doubtful whether, even if such step is taken, Israel Government would delay placement its country on war footing pending a reply.

While Embassy may not be fully informed all aspects of the evolution of American policy on arms question, it appears to us that the imminent shift in Israel security policy which will greatly increase possibilities general hostilities in area could still be avoided by supply of minimal number of modern jet fighters. Ben Gurion has been quoted by several associates as saying that he believed Israel could maintain adequate defense posture with 25 percent of the new jets in possession Egypt. This appears to us a legitimate approach in defense terms, and one which, if adopted, might stabilize the situation here so as to make possible progress with the Israelis toward settlement along the lines set forth in Secretary’s August 26 address.10

Lawson
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 786A.56/3–156. Secret; Priority. Received at 8:32 a.m., March 2. Repeated to London and Paris.
  2. Document 139.
  3. Lawson reported in telegram 864, February 29, that during his conversation with Ben Gurion and Sharett on February 29 (see Document 140), he had also asked Ben Gurion about Banat Yacov. Ben Gurion replied that if the Johnston Plan could be accepted soon, he “would be prepared to see short delay. Obviously we prefer peaceful settlement”, [but] if it appeared it could not be settled under international agreement ‘we will do it ourselves.’” Lawson added that he believed that Israel did not want to delay the work another season. (Department of State, Central Files, 684A.85322/2–2956)
  4. Document 140.
  5. Lawson informed the Department in telegram 867, February 29, that following the February 29 conversation, he raised the subject of Mystere aircraft with Ben Gurion and Sharett. Sharett expressed bitterness over the delays. (Department of State, Central Files, 784A.56/2–2956)
  6. Reference should be to telegram 607 to Tel Aviv, February 28, which informed the Embassy that Allen had informed Eban in a conversation on February 28 the “Secretary did not feel it in Israel’s interest for US concur in Israel request [for arms] at present moment.” Allen remarked that “Israelis should avoid conclusion Secretary’s remarks before Senate indicated change in his thinking or an adverse development for Israel.” (Ibid., 684A.86/2–2856)
  7. Paragraph 3 of telegram 172 from Tel Aviv reads:

    “3. GOI secret intelligence has learned that Nasser has told other Arab countries that, effective yesterday and until UN General Assembly, he ‘intends to engage in most vigorous measures against Israel and felt it his duty to inform Arab colleagues of this’.” (Ibid., 674.84A/8–2755)

  8. Not printed. (Ibid., 785.00/2–1856)
  9. See the editorial note, vol. XIV, p. 854.
  10. For text, see Department of State Bulletin, September 5, 1955, pp. 378–380.