218. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, March 13, 1957, 6:15 p.m.1


  • Gaza and United States-Israeli Relations


  • Mr. Abba Eban, Israeli Ambassador
  • Mr. Reuven Shiloah, Israeli Minister
  • The Acting Secretary
  • Robert MurphyG
  • Herman PhlegerL
  • William M. RountreeNEA

Ambassador Eban, who had just returned from a curtailed vacation in Florida, handed to the Acting Secretary a letter from Prime Minister Ben Gurion to the President, and read the substance aloud (a copy of the letter is attached). The Ambassador said he wished to supplement the message by stressing the Prime Minister’s reliance upon the assurances received from the President and other officials made in conjunction with the Israeli withdrawal, and expressing on behalf of the Prime Minister the fervent hope that such reliance would suffice to avoid a new and serious crisis. He had been asked to sum up the expectations of Israel as to how his government saw the situation. He reviewed, with respect to the Gaza strip, the expectations which had been stated concerning the employment of the UNEF and its exercising exclusive responsibility, the UNEF serving as the agency to perform the civil functions set forth by the Secretary General on February 22, and the tenure of the UNEF which should be until there is reached an overall settlement or an agreement on the future of the Gaza strip. These assumptions had been drafted in close consultation with the Department in order to be sure the United States agreed with them. Ambassador Lodge had affirmed that these expectations were reasonable, as did the President on March 2, and as other members of the United Nations had also done in the General Assembly. There had therefore developed a clear picture of a solution which we wanted to operate on a de facto basis. The Secretary had told the Ambassador repeatedly that although the United States had no idea of circumventing any legal rights of Egypt, the assurances of the Secretary General encouraged the belief that this de facto arrangement would ensue.

[Page 407]

Continuing, the Ambassador said these expectations were set in a framework of a broad association which the Secretary had envisaged. It was understood that if Israel withdrew the United States and “all humanity” would owe a debt of gratitude to Israel and the Secretary believed that this debt would be fulfilled/The Ambassador had understood that the United States would not merely go back to the preoccupation position, but in fact looked toward an even more intimate association with Israel.

The Ambassador was sure that the Acting Secretary was as shocked as Israel was to learn of the situation developing in Gaza. Tension of great depth now existed all around the frontier. In Gaza there had been a relatively stable administration under Israeli control which had now left. The fedayeen were roving free and there were incidents each day on the Israeli side of the border near Gaza. So-called refugees were coming from Egypt into Gaza, and these included many fedayeen personnel. The UNEF was not controlling the situation, and had in fact liberated a notorious agent who had been held in prison. It was hard to perceive that such a swift reversal of the situation could ensue. The Government of Egypt was exacerbating the problem and increasing tensions by repeatedly making statements concerning its belligerency toward Israel and its objective of the extinction of Israel, and of reiterating its position regarding the territorial nature of the waters of Tiran from which Israeli ships would be excluded. The issue, the Ambassador said, was whether Nasserism and the moral standard of Nasser would dominate the Middle East. He believed the answer to that question would depend upon the nature and character of United States’ action with respect to the United Nations, the area and to Israel. Commenting that it might be impertinent of him, the Ambassador had thought that immediately upon the withdrawal of Israeli forces there would be a renewal of normal relationships between the United States and Israel. This, however, was still being withheld particularly as it affected economic aid, the return of tourists to Israel, technical assistance, etc. The Government of Israel had taken a difficult and historic step in placing its hopes in the United States. That was why the Ambassador had stated on several occasions that the last paragraph of the March 2 letter from the President to Prime Minister Ben Gurion had been decisive.

The Ambassador said the Secretary had stated that while the United States did not control the Gaza situation, it did have considerable influence and what the United States wanted very much to happen would have a good chance of happening. Israel expected the United States and others who had urged the Israeli withdrawal to help bring about these things which we wanted to happen.

[Page 408]

Israel believed that this was a period in which exclusive United Nations control of Gaza should be maintained. Nasser was practicing policies which the United States and the United Nations were against. The situation in Israel was grave. The return to Gaza of an Egyptian Governor might not sound so bad, but it was extremely bad if that Governor was dedicated to the destruction of Israel. The Ambassador concluded his remarks by urging that the Acting Secretary tell him something reassuring regarding the American attitude on these crucial questions.

The Acting Secretary responded by informing Ambassador Eban that we were acutely conscious of the situation, which was receiving our urgent consideration. He did not feel that at the moment he could be specific in responding to the message conveyed by the Ambassador, but he could say that we viewed the situation with seriousness and hoped that we could be successful in helping to bring about realization of the aims which we had discussed with Israel. He said that the Prime Minister’s letter would be brought immediately to the attention of the President and that an answer would be provided without delay.

Ambassador Eban inquired whether the Acting Secretary could express any views regarding the Egyptian situation and the impending Egyptian decision regarding the dispatch of personnel to Gaza. The Acting Secretary replied that we had understood that Egypt was considering sending a Governor and five assistants, and there were indications that they expected to depart for Gaza tomorrow. We were handicapped by a lack of information, and of course we could not check the accuracy of the reports which we had received. We had made representations to Nasser but had not yet learned of the outcome of discussions between Ambassador Hare and the Egyptian President.

Ambassador Eban said that Israel was convinced that the Secretary General had power to require that Egypt not move into Gaza. Israel considered that the United Nations had exclusive jurisdiction in Gaza, at least for the time being. He thought that that authority derived from the United Nations’ resolutions setting forth the functions of the UNEF for the “initial period” following Israeli withdrawal. Legally, he emphasized, the Secretary General could say which people could come into Gaza and which could not come in. He asked whether Mr. Phleger would agree with this interpretation.

Mr. Phleger responded that he did not think that the Secretary General had the legal power stated by the Ambassador, but that his operation in Gaza would be in the context of the Secretary General’s report of February 22 to the General Assembly. The Secretary General could, of course, recall what Egypt had agreed to as set forth in that report.

[Page 409]

Mr. Shiloah felt that the Secretary General would have greater authority if he went back to the basis of the establishment of the UNEF. The force would need Egyptian consent for its entry and deployment, but the United Nations had authority for deciding what tasks it would perform. Continuing, he said that his Government had received information that 25 Egyptian “contractors” had been permitted to come back into Gaza. Taken with others already in Gaza, these could provide the nucleus of an effective staff to run the organization in Gaza. The Acting Secretary observed that Egypt had been complaining that the UNEF was taking into Gaza former employees who were not acceptable to Egypt.

In a general discussion of the rights of Egypt in Gaza, Ambassador Eban restated his view that Egypt should have no right to reoccupy Gaza so long as it considered itself in a state of belligerency. He wondered if Mr. Phleger would agree. Mr. Phleger responded that he did not agree. An Egyptian return to Gaza would in itself be no violation of the Armistice Agreement. Mr. Shiloah interjected that Egypt had stated publicly that it was in a state of belligerency and that was a violation of the Armistice Agreement. He thought the Armistice Agreement would cover threats as well as acts. Mr. Phleger responded that while acts of belligerency would be inconsistent with the claim of rights under the Armistice Agreement, there was a considerable difference between statements and acts. He thought there had been no recent reports of significant Egyptian violations of the Armistice Agreement. Mr. Shiloah said operations of the fedayeen were well known, and he would now report formally that there had been Egyptian violations of the Armistice Agreement through fedayeen activities. Mr. Phleger inquired whether these violations had been reported to the United Nations. The proper procedure was, he thought, to report them to the Truce Supervisory Commission and to the Secretary General.

The Ambassador said that the basic question was whether we approved the policies of Nasser. The Israeli opposition to those policies included the fact that Nasser wanted to get back into Gaza so that he could carry out acts of aggression against Israel. He also wanted to exercise control over the transit of the Suez and Tiran Straits in order to exclude Israeli vessels.

Responding to a comment by Mr. Murphy that Nasser’s desire to send some Egyptian personnel to Gaza might be motivated by public pressure, Ambassador Eban said all dictators had this problem. In order to achieve his purposes, Nasser pursued policies with respect to Gaza, the Suez and Aqaba which would not contribute to an improvement in the situation. One might inquire where he obtained the sense of strength to pursue such a policy. That strength, the Ambassador [Page 410] thought, must be the Soviets. It appeared that whenever the Soviet Union said something should happen regarding Egyptian policies, that would happen within a few hours.

Mr. Shiloah observed that Nasser’s purpose might be to get “all of us” involved in Gaza so that we would forget about the Suez until it was opened and its operation in his hands. Negotiations would then begin at a time when all the cards were with him. Mr. Phleger said that these questions were of course very much in our minds. The Canal had not yet been opened, and would not be opened in the immediate future. We expected to receive word shortly concerning arrangements for an interim solution to the Canal problem.

The Ambassador said he would like to emphasize one particular point of importance to his Government. There was a certain anomaly in the situation whereby, on the one hand, Israel had been asked to withdraw as an act of faith in the intentions of the United States and other likeminded nations, and in the interest of world peace; and, on the other hand, United States-Israeli bilateral relations following that withdrawal continued on the same basis as before. The Israeli representatives had discussed with American officials “at low levels” the resumption of programs of interest to Israel, but these approaches had been coolly received. The Acting Secretary responded that these matters were receiving our attention now and we should be in a position to discuss them with the Ambassador in the near future.

It was agreed that in responding to questions by the press the Ambassador and the Department would say something along the lines that the Ambassador had called to convey a message from his Government to the Government of the United States regarding the current situation. The Ambassador said he would comment that Israel viewed the situation with great concern.


Letter From Prime Minister Ben Gurion to President Eisenhower2

Dear Mr. President: Not a week has passed since our evacuation of the Gaza and Sharm-el-Shaikh area and I must unfortunately draw your attention to the extremely grave turn which events are taking.

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Colonel Nasser’s agents have already rekindled a dangerous tension in the Gaza Strip. He has now appointed and is about to send back there an Egyptian military Governor and staff. We have grave apprehension that the Secretary General of the United Nations may acquiesce in this. In addition, Fedayeen units have already begun to operate against our settlements.

At the same time, Cairo Radio has officially announced that Egypt will not permit any ship, Israeli or other, including American tankers, to exercise the right of free passage through the Straits of Tiran. If immediate and effective steps are not taken to ensure, in the words of Secretary Dulles, the “de facto exclusion” of the Egyptians from the Strip, and to halt the regression to the status quo ante of tension, violence and blockade, I fear that the area will once more be cast into the throes of a most grave crisis.

It is my fervent hope that Israel will not have to make use of her right of self-defense as we announced in the General Assembly of the United Nations on March 1 that we might have to do under certain circumstances, and as was noted by the United States and other governments.

Mr. President, I place my reliance on your assurance that we shall have no cause to regret our withdrawal.

Sincerely yours,

David Ben-Gurion3
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 674.84A/3–1357. Confidential. Drafted by Rountree. The Department of State transmitted a summary of this conversation to the Embassy in Tel Aviv in telegram 874, March 14. (Ibid., 674.84A/3–1457)
  2. The text of this message was contained in a letter from Eban to Dulles, which requested that the message be delivered to President Eisenhower. Eban’s original letter is in the Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, International File, and bears the handwritten notation by Goodpaster: “President has answered 16 Mar 57”. a copy is in Department of State, Central Files, 974.7301/3–1359.
  3. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.