15. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, January 11, 19571


  • The Middle East


  • U.S. Side
    • The Secretary of State
    • The Legal Adviser, H. Phleger
    • Assistant Secretary, C. McCardle
    • Assistant Secretary, Francis Wilcox
    • Acting Assistant Secretary, C. Burke Elbrick
    • Mr. Fraser Wilkins
    • Mr. William R. Tyler
  • French Side
    • Mr. C. Pineau, French Foreign Minister
    • Mr. H. Alphand, French Amb.
    • Mr. C. Lucet, French Min.
    • Mr. F. de Laboulaye, Counselor of French Embassy
    • Mr. J. Beliard, Press Officer, French Foreign Office

A. Suez

Mr. Pineau said that the French position with regard to the procedure for negotiations with Egypt was flexible, and that he was willing to consider any arrangement which Mr. Hammarskjold might find workable. He said he thought the major factor was one of timing. There were a number of problems which should be settled by the time the Canal is again open to traffic in March. The French Government, [Page 22] he said, had two chief concerns: 1) possible discrimination in the passage of ships by Egypt, and 2) the question of tolls which should not all be paid to Nasser without certain guarantees as to the role he would play. Mr. Pineau said he could not accept any attempt by Nasser to make a settlement of the Suez Canal problem conditional on the settlement of the problems concerning Israel. He said it was not true, as had been reported in the N. Y. Times, that he had come to ask the Secretary to push Mr. Hammarskjold. He did want, however, to try to reach agreement on the principles, if not the details, of a settlement, even for a temporary solution, say for the next 5 years. By then Egypt will have shown her true colors and the West will have developed alternatives to the Suez Canal if Egypt has shown herself to be unwilling to respect the terms of the settlement.

The Secretary said it was very important that we arrive at a common understanding on how we deal with the Egyptians when the Canal starts operating again, particularly on the subject of dues. He said he had always felt that if we could get all the ships passing through the Canal to pay dues to SCUA, this would provide the most effective potential sanction, which would be better than having to go to court. However, he said, we did not yet know whether Egypt was prepared to deal with SCUA and recognize it as an agent of the users.

Mr. Phleger said that Mr. Hammarskjold’s letter to Dr. Fawzi of October 24, 1956, stated in detail the functions of SCUA, which included the right of visitation, and the role of SCUA as the agent of the users for the collection and disbursement of dues, and as their representative. In the meantime, until SCUA was in a position to discharge its responsibilities in these respects, it should assemble all useful and pertinent information for its tasks.

Mr. Pineau, referring to a cable from the French representative at SCUA in London concerning the session of January 10, 1957,2 said it appeared as though the U.S. conception of SCUA might be undergoing a change in the direction of a less active role than what had originally been intended.

The Secretary and Mr. Phleger said this was not the case, and that there had been no change in our thinking about the role of SCUA. The whole thing amounted to a question of timing: first, SCUA should collect all the relevant information necessary for its tasks, and then become an operating agency. Mr. Pineau said that he thought there was a need now for SCUA to play an active role in establishing priorities for shipping through the Canal. The Secretary asked whether we could expect agreement between Egypt and the other interested countries by March 1st. If so, this would be fine, but we did not have [Page 23] much over six weeks before us. On the other hand, he said, if the Canal is open before there is any agreement, we would find ourselves back where we were last October. The Secretary added that we must impress Hammarskjold with the need for speed.

Mr. Pineau said he had held talks with Mr. McCloy and Mr. Hammarskjold in the preceding days, on the basis of the October 24th letter, and had told them that 1) France is prepared to let Egypt act as the day-to-day operating authority for the functioning of the Canal, 2) SCUA must exercise non-discriminatory supervision over the way the Canal was operated by Egypt, fix the tolls, and act as collecting and disbursement agent, and 3) there should be a Fiscal Agent, which would probably be the World Bank, in order to ensure that the clearing, dredging, and development of the Canal were properly provided for financially.

Mr. Pineau said he had also discussed the arbitration aspect of a settlement with Mr. Hammarskjold. He said that the idea of a permanent arbitration committee with proper national representation was acceptable to France. Such a committee should be empowered to decide whether there had been infraction of the rules under the Suez Canal agreement, and then ask the guilty party to apply the rules. If the guilty party refused to do so, the arbitration should formally establish (“constater”) the delinquency of the guilty party. The question was, said Mr. Pineau, what happens then? In the October 24th letter, there was some suggestion of sanctions being applied by some kind of police action. Mr. Hammarskjold was not particularly happy about this idea, and besides said Mr. Pineau with a grin, once you start a police action it does not always end up the way you expected it to. He said he had therefore proposed to Mr. Hammarskjold on January 10 that the arbitration committee be empowered to assess damages, and impose a fine for continued violation of the rules governing the operation of the Canal. If Egypt were the guilty party, a proportion of its share of the tolls would be withheld, whereas if one of the users were guilty, a fine would be imposed in addition to the normal toll for passage through the Canal.

Mr. Phleger said there was a variety of ways in which freedom of transit could be assured, and this was most important. He said that Mr. McCloy was hopeful that more money would not be needed before the Canal is open to traffic. Then if more money were needed, Egypt would have to get it from the users and this fact would provide considerable leverage. The Secretary said that he was not in a position to subscribe to all the details of Mr. Pineau’s suggestion, but he could say that he thought that in general it represented an interesting and useful contribution. He said that in the present situation the initiative lay with Mr. Hammarskjold, but that we were prepared to press him as seemed appropriate.

[Page 24]

At this point Mr. Pineau read from a cable he had just received reporting a conversation between the Foreign Minister of Lebanon, Mr. Charles Malik, and Nasser, as told to Mr. Maurice Faure in Paris by Mr. Malik. Mr. Malik stated that Col. Nasser was a man dominated by a few simple ideas but possessing a considerable amount of shrewdness. When asked whether xenophobic hysteria being whipped up in Egypt would not get out of hand, Col. Nasser replied that he could turn it off or on as expediency dictated. Col. Nasser further stated that he was playing a cagey game with the Soviets, and that his main purpose in doing so was to get as much as possible out of the U.S.

Mr. Malik stated that the main problems confronting the Middle East were: 1) Communist infiltration in Syria; 2) Egyptian policies; the question of Israel occupied only the third place. Mr. Malik added that he was preoccupied by the possibility that France would eventually feel driven to retire within her own frontiers and decide to spend for internal French purposes the funds she was now expending in North Africa and the Near East.

B. Israel

Mr. Pineau expressed French sympathy towards Israel and stated that at least a certain minimum should be done in order to take into account the Israeli point of view. Insofar as the evacuation of the Gaza strip, of the Sinai peninsula, and of the coast of the Aqaba Gulf was concerned, these questions were tied to that of the freedom of navigation in the Aqaba Gulf and in the Canal and to that of the Fedayeen. Of the three questions, the first was the most important one, particularly as the Israelis are building a pipeline from Elath to Haifa. If the Egyptians reoccupy the islands in the Aqaba straits and if they use them again to prevent navigation in the Gulf of Aqaba, the renewal of armed conflict seems unavoidable.

It would be highly desirable if the United Nations emergency force could be used to occupy those islands. It is not certain, however, what the legal status of this force is at present. It seems that Mr. Hammarskjold is giving an exaggeratedly narrow construction to the rights of the U.N. force, subordinating anything it may do to the permission of the interested countries, in this case Egypt.

It would be highly undesirable if the General Assembly tried to act simply by voting a resolution demanding of Israel to evacuate Sinai and the Gaza strip without taking any steps in order to avoid the recurrence of the problems which have led to the present crisis.

The Secretary said we were concerned by the prospect of a resolution in the UNGA simply calling on Israel to withdraw behind her frontiers. There was a lack of equity in calling only on Israel to comply with the U.N. resolution. Egypt should have to comply, too. He said [Page 25] there was evidence of renewed Fedayeen activity. He asked Mr. Pineau whether he had talked with Mr. Hammarskjold about this. Mr. Pineau said he had, but that Hammarskjold is only the Secretary General of the U.N. and does not have the authority to enforce U.N. decisions. The Secretary said that we had been able only to obtain a postponement of the resolution from the Afro-Asian powers, and that we had this matter under active study. The Secretary speculated on the possibility that the UNEF might play a role with regard to the Gulf of Aqaba. Mr. Pineau observed that the mission of the UNEF had not yet been defined. He said that France was opposed to Hammarskjold’s conception of the extent of the role and of the authority of the UNEF. If the UNEF were entirely dependent on Egypt’s approval of its activities, freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aqaba could never be assured or imposed by it. He said that France was prepared to vote for an extension of the powers of the UNEF. The Secretary said that Mr. Hammarskjold had indicated that he might be disposed to instruct the UNEF to move to areas vacated by Israel. He asked Mr. Wilcox what authority the Secretary General had in the matter. Mr. Wilcox said that the Secretary General was assisted by an Advisory Committee. The Secretary concluded by saying that we were studying this whole problem intensively.

C. Syria

Mr. Pineau said that the Syrian Government was still subordinating the repairs to the IPC pipeline to full Israeli compliance with the U.N. resolution, and that this meant that the delay might go on for months. The Secretary said we were doing all we could diplomatically to influence Syria and had made representations several times.3 He said that by delaying repairs, Syria was forfeiting the payments she would otherwise receive on the oil going through, which amounted to something like $20 million per annum. Mr. Pineau observed that this obstinacy on the part of Syria suggested that there were special pressures at work on her.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 684A.86/1–1157. Secret. Drafted by Tyler.
  2. Telegraphic reports from the Embassy in London concerning this and other meetings of the Suez Canal Users Association are ibid., 974.7301.
  3. Documentation concerning U.S. interest in the repair of the IPC pipeline is ibid., 883.2553.