29. Message From Robert B. Anderson to the Department of State1

No. 19

Arrived Israel 5:00 p.m., Sunday.2 Proceeded to Jerusalem by car [Page 52] and dined with Mr. and Mrs. Teddy Kollek, and Mr. Shalit. No business was discussed.

We met this morning3 for two and half hours with Prime Minister Ben Gurion, Mr. Sharett, Kollek and Mr. Herzog of the Foreign Office, the latter to keep notes.4 … I opened the conversation by telling the Prime Minister of the great desire of President Eisenhower to secure a lasting peace in this area in order that the standards of living and national ambitions of Israel and her neighbors could be accomplished and expressed our concern over recent developments in the Middle East. It was suggested that I wanted above all else to fully understand the problems on both sides and therefore suggested that Ben Gurion begin our discussions by outlining the problems as he saw them.
Ben Gurion then related the historical and spiritual ambitions of his countrymen to re-establish the traditional home of the Jews, and recited the hardships which his countrymen had had over centuries, both during times of war, and as a result of discriminations in various nations in times of peace. He emphasized his belief in the ultimate superiority of spiritual values over material values.
Relating to the current tensions, he pointed out that war began on the day Israel was declared a state and continued until the Armistice was signed. He said Israel had at all times adhered strictly to the Armistice and still would abide by its terms. This he said Nasser had been unwilling to do. He expressed appreciation for the operation at hand and hoped that it could be productive but expressed grave reservations, particularly with reference to the sincerity of Nasser’s desire to achieve a settlement.
Ben Gurion emphasized his own great desire for peace but stated that it must be within the framework of their national aspirations, that their territory was exceedingly small and that peace which involved a loss of territory would be suicide rather than settlement. He then stated that if Nasr were sincere and wanted peace in order to better the standards of living for his people there was hope. However, if Nasr believed that both the East and West were competing for his support and was influenced essentially by political aspirations with this competition to his advantage there was little hope. He stated that so long as there was one percent hope of settlement his country would enter the negotiations with sincerity.
He then indicated a desire to be informed as to the result of my visit with Nasr. I explained that my conversations had been limited to Nasr and Zacharia. That the problem of security was [Page 53] uppermost in the Egyptian mind. That Nasr separated the problems into those involving the current tensions, and the larger question of his ability to sell the idea of settlement both to his own people and the other Arab countries. That Nasr insisted he wanted settlement but that it had to come after an atmosphere of acceptance was established in both Egypt and other Arab countries. That Nasr had been very concerned with the political aspects of the Baghdad Pact which he felt was directed from outside the Arab countries toward diminishing Egyptian influence. That he had frankly thought it necessary to counter the political consequences of Baghdad by propaganda campaigns directed against Turkey and the Western Powers which now had a substantial influence upon his ability to lead an Israeli settlement. I stated that our own evaluation of the political difficulties facing Nasr, both inside Egypt and among other Arab States, lent support to the belief that his problem was a difficult one.
I outlined the immediate problems of concern to Nasr relating to existing tensions, saying that he felt the refugee problem must be settled and that it should include a choice of repatriation or compensation on some acceptable terms. That he had insisted upon substantial sovereign Arab territory, linking the Arabs of Africa and Asia. That I had urged him to maintain a flexible position in this regard. That there were other boundary problems involving the linkage of villages and farms which would have to be settled but were of secondary importance. That problems of the secondary boycott, the blockade and the use of the Suez could be resolved in the absence of hostilities. That throughout my conversations I had urged an attitude of negotiability, but uppermost in Nasr’s mind were questions of his own limitations in leading Egypt and Arab nations to accept a settlement and the establishment of the atmosphere in which this could be done. That certainly this atmosphere would require a cessation of hostilities and border incidents with an agreement on both sides to this effect to punish those who violated orders.
I pointed out that with the Egyptians now securing arms from Russia and Satellites, a new element of danger confronted Israel which must be faced realistically. That Israel could not hope to compete on a long term basis in view of the wide differences between their populations. That the sheer weight of numbers could eventually determine the balance of strength and influence their survival.
I then asked Ben Gurion if he thought the atmosphere within which settlement could be accomplished might be helped by a unilateral declaration of assurances by Israel to the President—that there would be a cease fire with a similar assurance from Egypt. He replied that it would provided there were discussions that could take [Page 54] place between representatives of both sides on neutral territory at a lower level. I stated I had asked Nasr to explore this possibility. It was made clear that in conversations with Nasr we had not sought specific yes or no answers to questions of unilateral declarations, talks by representatives on neutral grounds and similar questions but had rather asked him to explore these possibilities which he was willing to do. Ben Gurion stated he was agreeable now to:
Assurances of cease fire.
Punishment of any on his side who violated cease fire.
The designation of a representative to discuss the broader issues in secrecy on neutral ground. That if results were not obtained, the secrecy would be maintained.
Ben Gurion repeatedly said he did not like to doubt Nasr’s assurances of sincerity but did view his intentions skeptically stating “The facts were incompatible with a desire for peace” and then recited that he had asked General Burns to secure from Nasr a cease fire and an agreement to abide by the terms of the armistice. Burns had been unable to see Nasr and secure this agreement. That Israel had accepted the Hammarskjold proposals by [but] Egypt had not.
Ben Gurion said he appreciated the political difficulty of Nasr entering into direct negotiations at this time and believed it was more difficult for a dictator to make terms of settlement than for the leader of a democracy. However if there was the least desire for peace a cease fire and an agreement to carry on secret talks between representatives of the two countries should be possible.
Ben Gurion several times insisted that a final peace would only be achieved through agreement by heads of state but any advancement towards this end would require some exchange between representatives of the two governments at lower levels. He would prefer his representative would be Sharett.
Ben Gurion elaborated on his belief that Soviets were making a calculated bid for Central Asia and Africa in their support of the Czech arms deal and stated “Nasr probably believes that he is using the Russians but in fact he is their instrument”. Ben Gurion stated that Russia now has one half of Europe and one half of Asia and with the Middle East and Africa in turmoil they would have gone a long way toward their goal of world domination.
At this point I again inquired of Ben Gurion if he believed sincerely that a declaration from both sides establishing a cease fire and some secret negotiation between the representatives of their countries would be a really constructive advancement towards settlement. Sharett intervened by saying it would be the “First serious step” toward achieving peaceful settlement.
Sharett stated that he understood Nasr’s problem of establishing settlement because of the technique of the Arab States had been to inflame the people by propaganda in order to achieve cohesion of their people. In expanding on this theme Sharett stated the Arabs in attacking Zionism “Painted it blacker than the devil and utilized mass hysteria to focus the attention and hatred of the people against Zionism. In turn the leaders themselves became slaves to their own tactics and are unable to shift their ground since they cannot break the vicious circle”.
Ben Gurion then asked “Is it your conclusion that the only thing you will be able to do now is (A) possibly obtain a cease fire, and (B) possibly arrange for discussions between representatives of both governments on a secret basis.” I replied that I would like to put his inquiry conversely. That I did not think at this moment it was possible to evaluate all that could be accomplished. I doubted that a direct meeting of heads of state was feasible at this moment. That much could be accomplished through development of negotiable thinking, that a belief could be established that peace was achievable, that the final price for peace on both sides would ultimately have to be resolved by those responsible, that we might incorporate a definition of the principles upon which a solution could be achieved even though their principles at first might be different. We could, nevertheless, spell out the wideness of the gap, and explore the ways necessary to close the gap by flexibility on both sides. I stated that it was my belief that the most serious of all problems was that of boundaries and territory.
Ben Gurion then stated that he must face realities, that he was willing now to agree to a cease fire and for representatives to discuss problems, that he feared this would create an illusion in the U.S. with those who really mattered, naming President and the Secretary of State; that the Egyptians were receiving arms from Soviets and England; that they were being trained by Russian and Polish officers; that Egyptians were in Russia learning to use arms; that soon bombers could reach Israel from Egypt in 10 minutes and make 10 trips per day carrying 6000 lb bombs; that they could thus destroy Israel cities, population and industry, that Nasr would be sorely tempted to use this power; that he might come to believe peace was unnecessary because he could destroy Israel. This could come in a few months. He was forced to think about the security of his people. This security required arms which would match Soviet bombers and fighter planes. A decision concerning such offensive armaments had to be made by the U.S. He was trying to think as Nasr would think and this led him to doubt Nasr’s real desire for peace because Nasr might conclude that Israel could be destroyed. [Page 56] He stated this was Israel’s last stand and wanted U.S. to appreciate the depth and sincerity of his worry.
Ben Gurion stated he could not finally depend on Nasr’s assurances to me. They were not public, he would not reaffirm the armistice. He might simply continue talks. If U.S. maintains its present attitude of embargo of arms to Israel and failed to provide for Israel’s safety, we would be “Guilty of the greatest crime in our history.” During whole of this speech containing other arguments, he was most impassioned.
The meeting ended at this time because of other official commitments by Sharett and Ben Gurion. Talks will continue this afternoon.5 Please give me your comments and counsel.6
  1. Source: Department of State, NEA Files: Lot 59 D 518, Alpha—Anderson Talks w/BG & Nasser. Incoming Telegrams—Jan.–March 1956. Part I. Top Secret.
  2. January 22.
  3. January 23.
  4. Not printed. (Department of State, NEA Files: Lot 59 D 518, Meetings with Israeli Officials. January 1956–March 1956)
  5. See Document 33.
  6. See Document 34.