103. Memorandum of a Conversation, Secretary Dulles’ Residence, Washington, February 16, 1957, 4 p.m.1


  • Israeli Withdrawal


  • Mr. Abba Eban, Israeli Ambassador
  • Mr. Reuven Shiloah, Israeli Minister
  • The Secretary
  • Francis O. WilcoxIO
  • Herman PhlegerL
  • William M. RountreeNEA
[Page 181]

Ambassador Eban met with the Secretary at the latter’s house shortly after the Secretary’s return from Thomasville (Georgia). The Ambassador said he had sent a full report to Jerusalem on the discussion with the Secretary on Friday, February 15, and expected later in the day to receive further instructions. Meanwhile, he had discussed the matter in detail with the Foreign Minister in New York and he felt that her views, which he would summarize, would be very close to those of the Government in Jerusalem. The Foreign Minister, the Ambassador said, did not have the feeling of being as far apart from the United States as might generally be felt. She considered that the United States and Israel had in general a common policy. The American Aide-Mémoire of February 11 and the conversation with the Secretary on that day had impressed her and the Israel Government, both having expressed in particular appreciation for the constructive efforts of the United States. She thought the objectives of the two governments regarding Aqaba were similar, although she would desire some suitable form of assurance that those objectives would be met. She shared the Secretary’s sense of urgency regarding the withdrawal of forces from Gaza, but was encouraged to believe that the United States also wanted a situation in Gaza different than that existing before the military operation. Thus, the Foreign Minister felt, there was considerable common ground and she wanted the two governments to get together on an approach to the matter. There were, however, some procedural problems particularly regarding timing. The Foreign Minister felt this was a situation in which her presence in Israel might be very useful and she would like to go there without delay, accompanied by the Ambassador. The question was whether this would be practicable in view of possible activity in the General Assembly. If there should be any violent proposals put forth there within the next few days it would be difficult for the Foreign Minister and the Ambassador to leave. The Foreign Minister would, therefore, welcome any impressions which the Secretary might have as to what General Assembly action was likely to take place. The Ambassador remarked that neither the Foreign Minister nor he could commit themselves to return with anything different than that already expressed to the Secretary, although he thought the visit might be useful.

The Secretary responded that he was also concerned about the time element. Ambassador Lodge did not think that it would be possible to hold off beyond the first of the week further General Assembly action. We had been successful in delaying matters for about ten days, although there had been great pressure for putting forth resolutions calling for sanctions. Responding to the Secretary’s query, Mr. Wilcox expressed the view that while we might be able to hold off further General Assembly action until the first of the week, it was unlikely that a delay beyond that time could be achieved.

[Page 182]

Ambassador Eban said he was not aware of any broad opposition in the General Assembly to a delay. A number of European and Latin American countries had expressed themselves as opposed to sanctions on the grounds that they would not solve any problem. The opposition also was based upon the character of the beneficiary, i.e., Nasser, who was regarded as a “highway man” seeking the assistance of the United Nations. He, therefore, did not take it for granted that those who wanted to develop a constructive situation, rather than a destructive one, could not attain it.

Continuing, the Ambassador turned specifically to the question of Aqaba. He felt the issues boiled down to a few key points. The declaration of American policy and legal position was reassuring. The problem was to implement that position and to assure that the spirit inherent in it would prevail. Israel had no lack of trust of the United States, but did have a deep mistrust of Nasser. There were three ways in which this “missing link” could be provided: 1) to provide stability through the UNEF by having the Assembly endorse its functions in accordance with Ambassador Lodge’s January 28 statement; 2) if the foregoing were not possible, to provide a statement of the intention of the United States and other maritime powers which would set forth clearly their intentions regarding the defense of the freedom of passage for all nations; 3) alternatively, for Egypt to say something in the General Assembly or elsewhere to the effect that it would not impose a blockade of Israeli vessels. The Egyptians probably would not do this, the Ambassador recognized, but if they should it would go far in solving the problem. The Foreign Minister felt that these possibilities held the key to the situation and would eliminate the “tormenting feeling” that Nasser was getting away with another “paper victory”. Israel felt that if there were not a physical representation of the anti-blockade forces, there could be no confidence regarding passage through the Straits. The United States had indicated it had no reason to believe that any one would prevent passage through the Straits. That statement was impressive, but on the other hand declarations by Egypt the effect that it would claim belligerent rights until all Arab refugees were repatriated had to be fully weighed.

Mr. Shiloah remarked that he had been impressed by the Secretary’s statement at the February 15 meeting that Israel would not stand alone should anything unexpected happen following withdrawal. If Nasser should do something following Israeli withdrawal, Israel would have to defend her rights of passage. He had no doubt as to the usefulness of the Secretary’s statement, but the possibility could not be excluded that, should this unfortunate contingency occur, the United States might come to Israel and say that for reasons of international peace no action should be taken to impose its rights of passage. Israel did not want to be faced with such a crucial test. A decision might then [Page 183]have to be taken to undertake military action to defend Israeli rights. Thus, the Israel Government felt that it was much better to make a supreme effort for another few days to assure that the UNEF was stationed at Aqaba until a danger did not exist.

The Ambassador questioned whether the United Nations might not adopt a resolution, following a declaration by the United States and other maritime powers, calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces and for the introduction of the UNEF for as long as may be necessary to assure passage through these international waters. He observed that when the Western powers stood together regarding Algeria, the Arab-Asian bloc had to go along. He felt that some Asian and the more moderate Arabs would be “detached” on such a reasonable proposal regarding the Straits.

Continuing, the Ambassador said Israel had to consider what would happen if it acceded to the American suggestions as an act of faith and then, three or four months later, Egypt should start trouble. He did not know what Egypt’s relations with the Soviet Union would be, although he felt that the Eisenhower Doctrine might enter into a situation of this type. The theory that any guns implanted by Egypt along the Straits could be blasted away presented many questions. Israel felt it possible that the United States might say that, while Israel had a right to send its ships through the Straits, it should not do so because of the danger. This concept had been applied, in fact, in certain other instances such as with respect to the waters of the Jordan. Israel had been told while it had a right to the waters, it should not exercise that right since it might cause trouble.

Turning to Gaza, the Ambassador said that the November 2 General Assembly resolution had spoken of the withdrawal of forces. Only recently had it been implied that the Israeli withdrawal should include every aspect of Israeli participation in Gaza. Israel would like to achieve a staged process under which there would first be a withdrawal of Israel forces, after which there would arrive in Gaza a United Nations mission to decide what the future administration would be; to determine what were the Egyptian rights and what was the Israeli interest. If this should be done after withdrawal from Aqaba, all purely Egyptian territory would have been cleared. It would then be easier to discuss Israel’s interest in Gaza.

The Secretary thought he understood and appreciated, as well as any outsider could, the pre-occupation of the Israel Government. He did not see a situation which would not involve some risks. He would be the last to try to persuade Israel that its withdrawal, even with the benefit of what the United States had said, would provide any guarantee that what Israel wanted would come about. There was no assurance that Egypt would not be obstructive after the Israel withdrawal, and certainly the United States could give no guarantee in this regard. [Page 184]He did believe, however, that the experience which we had been through had provided a lesson in maintaining world order and justice, and that there would be a less lethargic attitude in the future than in the past where nations had been disposed to allow the rights of others to be ignored so long as their own rights were not affected. He did not think that we could give a guarantee in favor of Israeli ships and cargoes. He could state our general policy, but to back it up by an internationally binding guarantee could not be done without a treaty or something of that sort. Nor could we provide assurances regarding the UNEF moving into and staying in the area of the Straits. Neither did he think that we could obtain a statement from Egypt as suggested by the Ambassador, particularly since Egypt had stated that it would make no promises to obtain the withdrawal of Israel forces which were illegally in Egyptian territory. Even if they did, they could logically say that the promises were given under duress. It was recalled that just before the seizure of the Universal Suez Canal Company, Egypt had made certain statements reassuring the Company, but such statements had done nothing to prevent the seizure. Thus, the Secretary thought we could do little more than we had already done in making a statement of our intentions. The President also did not feel that we could go beyond that, or put ourselves in a position of negotiating with Israel on these questions. He thought the second resolution of February 2 had gone far in the right direction. It had been difficult to get that resolution adopted without negative votes from the Arab countries, which would have implied that they would oppose what was requested in the resolution. Although we might be able to make slight variations in the wording of our February 11 Aide-Mémoire, it was unlikely that we could in substance go beyond what was said in that document.

The Ambassador commented that he had drafted some possible variations in the wording of the Aide-Mémoire and hoped to have authority by the following day to hand these to the Secretary. The Secretary responded that if the authority was received the variations would be discussed at a meeting the following day. If not, however, we would have done all we could and would have to let the matter proceed in the United Nations. That would not be good, but the Israeli decision would have been made solemnly and with recognition of what was involved. We also would have made our decision on the basis of a most careful study of the matter. Regarding our own attitude, we had felt that the Israel grievances against Egypt were not of a character which justified a full scale armed attack. We had taken the position which history alone can judge that the first task of those trying to build world order was to avoid war for the settlement of grievances. If that was the correct principle, it was important that Israel withdraw and not condition its withdrawal on the satisfaction of [Page 185]its grievances. When the territory of another state was held, it was hardly possible to achieve a peaceful settlement of disputes. This was so basic and fundamental that we must correct that situation as a first task. If we accepted the principle that nations having grievances had the right to use force, the clock would be dangerously set back. It may be that our efforts to achieve peace and justice on this basis were in vain and there was no other way to settle grievances, but the Secretary did not believe that to be so. The United Nations was a first step in the direction of world order, even though as yet inadequate means had been developed to achieve peace and justice. There was, however, a great deal more pressure of world opinion to achieve this goal, and events of the recent past had contributed much to that pressure. We believed that Israel should use the Charter of the United Nations and not use force.

The interests of our two governments could be achieved much more easily if Israel would join in that great effort. Even if it should fail, Israel’s position before world opinion, and certainly Israel’s relations with the United States, would be much better. That was a big decision which Israel would have to make. Our position and our advice was not based upon short-range expediency, but was based upon what we thought was best in the long term. We had assumed the same attitude with regard to the United Kingdom and France, both of which had acceded to the demands of the United Nations. The Secretary observed that the position which he stated transcended the views of any single individual. We had done our best to make the Israeli Government feel that if it joined with us in this matter, it would not in the long run be the loser for having done so. It was the judgment of the President and himself that the two governments could find a way to work together, and we would be gravely distraught if this should not be done. He believed the way was withdrawal in accordance with the United Nations resolutions, putting the United States and all the United Nations under responsibility for having urged Israel to take the risks involved, and hoping that Israel would be repaid for its efforts to achieve a just settlement.

The Ambassador said his Government was weighing these matters with great care. He observed that, regarding the broad question of the United Nations, there was an obverse side of the coin under which member states could perform every kind of violence short of war without getting into trouble. Egypt had engaged in military action in civil disguise, had imposed blockades against Israeli shipping, and had carried out many other acts as detrimental to Israel as if overt military force had been employed. A defect in the Charter was that it did not contain effective provisions against such forms of aggression. Israel had, therefore, never had the feeling that the Charter provided it with adequate assurances, and in fact Arab-Israel relations generally had [Page 186]never been within the Charter. The big question was what the United States position would be if Israel’s rights were violated. That was far more important to Israel than any United Nations assurances. Israel had a number of friends in the United Nations, particularly Western Europe and Latin American countries, which felt that the position that Israel was taking was reasonable and that its withdrawal should be conditioned on something more than generalities. He repeated his concern that if Israel should withdraw, it should know what the United States would do. What would history say of Prime Minister Ben Gurion if he should withdraw without adequate assurances? What would be the attitude of Israel’s American friends who persuaded them to withdraw if Israel again should be confronted with hostile Egyptian acts? These questions, the Ambassador said, tormented his Government.

The Secretary responded that those questions could not be answered in any clear cut way. All of us at the State Department who had been giving thought to the broad aspects of the problem realized that ways had to be found to put some measure of force behind action to prevent the unlawful interruption of lawful rights. As he had said before, however, we did not believe that these were circumstances in which force should be used to achieve Israeli purposes. The situation would require a far more careful shaping of the issues than was the case in the recent military intervention by Israel, France and Great Britain, before the use of force could have been justified before world opinion. We would be unhappy to see a situation develop, after the withdrawal of Israel in accordance with the opinion of the overwhelming majority of the members of the United Nations and in accordance with the Charter, involving a continuation of Egyptian obstruction. We would be prepared to consult regarding ways to meet any such problem, which certainly ought to be met. As the Secretary had said in his November 1 speech before the General Assembly, we must do better than go back to the conditions existing before the military attack. If we should now merely return to the status quo ante, it would be as much of a defeat for United States policy as it would be a defeat for our policy if Israel should not withdraw. He could promise on behalf of the Administration that we would try to make the second resolution of February 2 succeed, just as much as we were now trying to make the first resolution succeed.

The Ambassador said that was important. However there were many issues and many dangers which had to be considered, which in the aggregate were also very important. Israel was acutely aware of the possibility of various countries saying in the future that, while Israel might have rights to transit the Straits, it should not exercise those rights. Nations had previously said that, while Israel had rights [Page 187]to take waters from the Jordan, it should not do so in light of the present situation. If that should apply to Aqaba, the result would be that many areas of Israeli national life would be “blacked out”.

The Secretary remarked that he had previously indicated to the Ambassador that we might want to make public our Aide-Mémoire of February 11. If the Ambassador had hopes of further progress the following day we would hold off publication until then. In any event, however, our position must be made clear before Monday when the matter would be resumed in the United Nations. It was agreed that a further meeting between the Secretary and the Ambassador would be held at 3 o’clock February 17.

Mr. Shiloah commented that the Embassy intended to correct the statement in the Israeli Aide-Mémoire relating to the proposed mission to Gaza. It wished to make it clear that the suggestion was for a United Nations mission and not for a United States-Israeli mission. He then commented that if it should be decided that the Foreign Minister and Ambassador would fly to Israel, he hoped that the United States would support a delay in the United Nations so that matters would not be brought to a head there during their absence.

The Secretary said we would support a delay so long as we ourselves were convinced that there was a hope for progress. We had successfully postponed discussions for a number of days, however, and could not give any assurance as to how long we might succeed in further delaying matters.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 674.84A/2–1657. Secret. Drafted by Rountree on February 18. The Department of State transmitted a summary of this conversation to the Embassy in Tel Aviv in telegram 799 on February 18. (Ibid., 674.84A/2–1857)