233. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, March 18, 19571


  • The Situation Since Israel’s Withdrawal


  • Mrs. Golda Meir, Foreign Minister of Israel
  • Mr. Abba Eban, Ambassador of Israel
  • Mr. Gideon Raphael, Counselor, Israel Foreign Ministry
  • Mr. Reuven Shiloah, Minister, Embassy of Israel
  • The Secretary
  • The Under Secretary
  • NEAWilliam M. Rountree
  • LHerman Phleger
  • IOFrancis O. Wilcox
  • NEDonald C. Bergus

Mrs. Meir stated that she had only been in Israel a few days before it had been decided that it would be best for her to return to the United States. Mrs. Meir had left the United Nations for Israel under certain assumptions which had made it seem that Israel withdrawal was the best course. The basic things which Israel had expected were non-belligerency and a UN takeover of both Gaza and Sharm el Sheikh. In Gaza, it was expected that the UNEF would exercise both military and civil functions including security.

Before leaving the United Nations for Israel, Mrs. Meir had talked with the Secretary General regarding “the initial period” of the UN takeover. She had been shocked by the fact that the Secretary General was already talking about the next step before the UN was even in Gaza. Mr. Lodge had agreed that discussion of the next step should be deferred.

The Israelis were perturbed because it was a question of hours between the Israel withdrawal and Egypt’s practically taking over. Not only had an Egyptian General come in as Governor of Gaza, but he had brought a staff with him. On whose authority had he come into Gaza? Mrs. Meir was sure that she could not enter Gaza without UN authorization. The Egyptian General must have received word permitting him to enter Gaza. There were Egyptian police in Gaza. The Egyptian Army was controlling the road between El Arish and Gaza and might be in Gaza within a matter of hours. Israel’s information was that Nasser planned to put the Army into Gaza and then ask the UNEF to withdraw to the border. UNEF would then be on the border to watch over the Egyptian occupation of Gaza. What Nasser did not [Page 434] do for the four months during which Israel occupied Gaza, he was doing now. He had been quiet during that period; now he was making declarations such as his statement of this morning that Israel had no right to exist and that passage through Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba should be denied Israel. King Saud had joined with him with respect to Aqaba.

For the first time in two generations, people in Israel did not understand what the Israel Government had done. There had not yet been time for a complete review of the pre-withdrawal discussions before the Knesset. The cry in Israel was, “What are those assumptions under which you withdrew?” The situation in the agricultural settlements near Gaza was bad again after four months of quiet. Israel leaders were not afraid of taking a stand with their people when they were convinced they were right. Mrs. Meir did not know what to say to the Israel people now because she was not convinced. Israel had not relied on the United Nations, it had relied on the United States and the President. There had been an understanding among the United States, Israel, and the French. The United States might say that it was not the United Nations but it had strong influence there. These developments in Gaza would not have taken place if the United Nations had opposed them. Who was in charge of the UNEF? Who carried the responsibility? Israel had had no doubt that the United States would use all its influence to oppose these developments. Israel was disappointed. In his most recent message to Prime Minister Ben Gurion, the President had expressed the hope that Israel would take no precipitate action. Israel had replied that it would not. This was not child’s play. Israel could take Gaza again but did not want to. The question had been before the Israel Cabinet yesterday, but no decision had been taken. She wished she could state that all would be fine and peaceful but it did not depend on Israel. Not only the Israelis, but others wanted to know who was in charge—the eighty-one members of the UN or Nasser? Did Israel have to live with a Gaza under the control of a belligerent Egypt?

The Secretary said he did not wish to disguise the fact that developments had not been entirely as we anticipated. In saying that, he should say that our anticipations were not quite as optimistic as Israel’s. There had been no lack of frankness on either side in that respect. We took the position that what was done had been done within the framework of the General Armistice Agreement which gave Egypt the right of occupancy. We had assumed that there would be token Egyptian occupation, and had hoped that it would remain token although a certain amount of fanfare was probably unavoidable. We hoped for a de facto UN administration even though Gaza was nominally under Egypt. The Secretary General, and we through him, felt that this was a likely result. We had no direct negotiations during this [Page 435] period with Egypt, but relied on the Secretary General. We thought it would be improper and inexpedient to do otherwise. The expectations outlined by Ambassador Lodge, who had quoted the Secretary General, were, we believed, acquiesced in by Egypt. Egyptian activity regarding Gaza had gone somewhat farther than we had expected and Israel had hoped. The attitude of Nasser with respect to the Canal had not been what we had hoped for. The Secretary did not think the situation was hopeless because the fact was that while we had exerted considerable pressure on Nasser, we had not exerted the full weight of our influence on the situation. One of the difficulties was how this might be done, particularly in the light of the Secretary General’s responsibilities and activities. We had not yet found an adequate way to coordinate our activities with his. Nasser was anxious to know such things as the future attitude of the U.S., etc., which he could not get through the Secretary General. We were thinking intensively on how to deal with Nasser. We did not know when the Secretary General was going to Cairo. We imagined that Mrs. Meir would be seeing the Secretary General.

Mrs. Meir said she was prepared to meet him but honestly did not expect much good to come from such a meeting. Israel would not have withdrawn if it had been subject to his expressions. They had read all his reports and he had never said that he had approached the Egyptian Government and the Egyptian Government had stated something. Regarding Egypt, the Secretary General always used such language as “assumes,” “has reason to believe,” or “can state with confidence.” Israel on the other hand had made public statements, sent letters to the Secretary General, etc. Israel would not have withdrawn on the basis of the Secretary General’s February 22 statement. Israel left Gaza when the United States Government had advised it to work the matter out with a statement regarding assumptions. Except for a few sentences regarding a call for peace to the Arabs, Mrs. Meir’s statement of March 1 had been worked out in the Department. That was why Israel had left Gaza. Israel had failed to withdraw before this, not because it sought a political victory but because the lives of its people were involved. The Israel people now felt either that their Government had misled them or that they had not understood what they were doing.

Mrs. Meir had called on Prime Minister Mollet when she had passed through Paris. She had asked him if Israel had been right in assuming that developments would take place along the lines of her statement. He agreed. Mrs. Meir admitted that the United States had a difference of opinion on the validity of the Armistice Agreement. Israel held that Egyptian action had been such as to prevent it from claiming [Page 436] rights under that agreement. Nevertheless the United States had spoken of the de facto exclusion of Egypt. All this had been turned topsyturvy. Nasser was de facto in Gaza.

The Secretary said that it was premature to assume that the things we had hoped for were not going to happen. He did not think that the game, if you could call it such, was played out. The United States did not assume it had reached the end of the road. At present, there was no evidence which demonstrated that Gaza would be used as a fedayeen base and that Israel shipping would not pass. There had been a lot of words which were not in the right spirit. It was too early to assume that these expectations and compliance with international law would not happen. There were actions still in the making, such as the Secretary General’s trip to Cairo. If he went there, the U.S. would support him strongly. The Secretary hoped that Israel would not come prematurely to feel that the basis of its action in withdrawing had been unwarranted. Whatever happened, he did not feel that Israel would be worse off for doing what it had done. This applied to the British and French as well. Israel was starting again from a sound juridical and moral basis. The Secretary did not think it was necessary to assume things would be as disastrous as Israel and Nasser had forecast. These things may happen but they should not be assumed. In his long experience in foreign affairs matters, the Secretary realized that problems of this type were not easily resolved. Often when things look gloomy, when you realize that you are on the right track, you know that right will prevail in the long run. It need not be such a long run in this case. The Secretary could understand that the Israel Government was going through a difficult period. He had known that we would be in for a tough time and thought that Israel had known so too. He knew that Israel’s withdrawal would bring on the second phase of dealing with the Egyptians. We had not found a way to bring maximum pressure to bear, in the light of the Secretary General’s role. The Secretary felt that if we could get more directly to grips with Nasser it might be better. This had to be reconciled with the power and influence of the UN which was considerable. Although Mrs. Meir had said that she did not rely on the UN, the United States did. What we were trying to do was to bring about the supremacy of the principles which we were backing, not individual nations. We believed that the United States occupied a role requiring it to support principles. We were working for Article 1 of the Charter. The first thing to do was to get the stage set for a peaceful settlement in conformity with the principles of justice and international law. If Egypt was at fault regarding Aqaba and Suez, Egypt should conform. On the question of border raids there was room for a difference of opinion. The Secretary thought that Israel should accept the UNEF on its borders and put an end to Israel raids. If Egypt did not conform on Aqaba and Suez, all the weight of world [Page 437] opinion should be brought to bear on Egypt. The UN might not be the only place to do this but it was a real place. The Secretary realized that nations voted by bloc and could not be relied upon to reflect accurately the moral judgment of mankind. Perhaps you could not get a condemnation of Egypt, but the UN was a place where a considerable degree of moral judgment could be expressed. We did not write off the UN nor did we wish to displace it. The problem of accommodation was difficult. We were giving this our most active attention and were planning to continue our study. We certainly felt that it was not yet time to say that the effort on which we embarked had failed.

Mrs. Meir said that she did not know why the British and French went into Suez, but she knew why Israel did. She did not know what interests dictated their withdrawal. Israel had been in danger of an Egyptian attack. Israelis were as sensitive as others to moral values. You could not discount the moral value of people who wished to live and to work out their own destiny. Egypt was trying to destroy Israel. Not for one moment did Mrs. Meir envisage a Gaza of this kind. Had she done so, she would have said no to requests for Israel withdrawal. When Mrs. Meir had gone to Israel in December, she had exaggerated the possible consequences to Israel if it failed to withdraw. Nevertheless, Israel had decided at that time to stand firm. She was convinced that nobody could prove that Israel had started the border raids. She began history with the signature of the Armistice Agreements. Years had passed with Arab raids into Israel and Israel had done nothing. With regard to the value of the United Nations, when the U.S. is so attached to the UN, that attachment arises from a wonderful position of strength. The Israelis were little people who had a life and death interest in the UN. Representatives of countries in the UN had approached Israel and said Israel should not withdraw, even if their own countries voted against Israel.

Israel had envisaged a Gaza from which Egypt was de facto excluded. If Egypt were to be there, let the UN go, and let Egypt face Israel. If Nasser wanted to disregard the United States, Britain, France, and even the United Nations, then Israel had played with the fate of its people. The Secretary had said that Nasser had not yet done anything about Aqaba. The Captain of a Danish ship which Israel had chartered was afraid to go through Aqaba in the light of Nasser’s statements. Israel had approached the Danes who had said they would consult the UN. The Danish ship was going to Djibouti and then decide whether to risk the voyage through the Straits. There had been fine declarations but there were no ships. The U.S. had approached Israel, made statements about Israel’s behavior, etc., but there had been no public announcement regarding Egypt’s actions.

[Page 438]

Mention had been made of stationing UN forces on Israel’s side of the armistice line. The U.S. had taken a public position that Israel consent for this was something very vital. Why should they be placed there? The only basis for placing them was the Armistice Agreement which Egypt had flouted. What kind of an agreement was there when it was one-sided? Israel did not understand why Egypt had to be handled so delicately. Egypt was returning to Sinai and not alone. The USSR was sending arms again to Egypt. Israel had heard that the Russians would not make the same mistake twice, this time they would have plenty of technicians and pilots to operate the arms. We were coming back in giant steps to the same situation which prevailed before October 29.

Israel had already had casualties from infiltrators from El Arish and Gaza. Israel had spoken to a UNEF representative at El Arish. He had said that he had no authority to arrest people or search for arms. Settlers in Erez, about 200 metres from the armistice line, north of the Gaza Strip, had chased back an Arab who had crossed the line. When they complained to the UNEF man on the border he had said that the settlers would have to shoot at such people. The only ones who could keep peace and quiet were Israel. Israel could not live with a Gaza of this kind. If Nasser said that he wanted to have peace, a new leaf would be turned over. The Secretary General would not even ask Nasser if he would follow a policy of non-belligerency after withdrawal, despite Israel entreaties that he do so. Now Nasser had volunteered the answer. Israel could not live with the United Nations giving de facto protection to the Egyptians against Israel.

Mr. Eban said he would like to make an observation with respect to the discrepancies between Israel and U.S. thinking about Gaza. There had been agreement that we should try to achieve de facto control of both civil and military functions in UN hands. The U.S. had spoken about symbolic Egyptian presence and token representation. The Secretary said that this was a fair statement. Mr. Eban said that he compared this with a wholehearted Egyptian takeover. There was an Egyptian Governor on the spot and he was pushing the UN into a corner. What had happened was not a difference in emphasis, but a total, substantive, reversal.

The Secretary said he would not dispute the statement that things had moved contrary to our anticipations. Unless the present trend of Nasser’s thinking were altered, it might lead to a dangerous situation. We were not satisfied that the present trend was definitive and could not be altered. We had intentions but could not guarantee that they would succeed. He had said at the time that there were risks involved, but he still thought Israel did right. He still thought there was a good chance that Israel’s forebodings would not be realized. He could understand popular apprehension in Israel. Israel had jumped to the [Page 439] conclusion that the full scope of its forebodings had been realized. He still hoped there was a chance we could prevent Gaza’s becoming a fedayeen base and open Aqaba. A difference between us was the assumption that these would follow automatically Israel withdrawal. We foresaw stress and strain and the possibility that Egypt would go back on its assurances. We knew that Nasser was unreliable. The dependability on what he said was not on the fact that he said it but pressures to make it expedient. The question was whether we could find ways to make it expedient for him to live up to what he said. The possibilities were not exhausted. If this effort failed, there would be a new situation. Israel had said it would exercise its rights of self-defense, we had said that we would consult with other UN members. This contingency might come about but had not yet done so. The Secretary realized that this was a difficult situation to live with but must urge Israel to live with it for a longer period.

Mr. Eban said that world opinion did not know that the United States was trying to reverse trends in Gaza. The Secretary said that we would give thought to that aspect of the matter. He asked if anything had been done in his absence. The Under Secretary replied that there had been a background statement to the press on March 15.

Mr. Shiloah said that newsmen were quoting State Department sources that the Secretary intended to warn Israel today. There had been press conferences which had been construed to blame Israel as well as Egypt since Israel would not permit the stationing of troops along its side of the border. An effort might be made to correct these impressions. The Secretary said that we would try but he doubted whether it would pay. He had been asked about the stationing of UN forces while he was in Canberra and had answered the question, he thought, accurately.

The Secretary said that although this was not a central point, he could not understand Israel’s objections to the stationing of the UNEF in Israel and greater mobility for the UNTSO. It was hard to reconcile this attitude with Israel’s bitter complaints.

Mrs. Meir said all this had its source in the Armistice Agreement. The Agreement provided that the El Auja (Nitsana) area should be demilitarized and Israel lived with it for a while and permitted UN observers there. The Agreement had also said that there should be no Egyptian forces for a certain distance behind the Egyptian border. This Egypt violated. Israel took up this matter with the Secretary General in April stating that either the Armistice Agreement bound all sides or else it didn’t exist. We asked the Secretary General if he could get Nasser to live up to Article 1 of the Agreement. The Secretary General had said that if Nasser agreed to this, his Government would fall. Israel had then said that if Egypt allowed Israel shipping through the Suez Canal, Israel would get out of Nitsana. The Secretary General [Page 440] had said that this was fair, that if Nasser promised to open the Canal to Israel shipping and then did not do so, he would support Israel’s remaining in El Auja.

Israel had a small territory but long boundaries. If they had the UNEF on the border with Egypt, then there would be pressure to bring them along the Jordan and Syrian borders. The UNEF’s remaining on the Egyptian side of the line in Sinai created no problems, because there were no people there. If they were brought to the Israel side of all the frontiers, Israel would be an occupied country and, with all kinds of soldiers on its soil, would no longer be independent. In any event, this would not be necessary. Israel would live up to the Armistice Agreement. The United States should ask Nasser if he was still in a state of war with Israel.

The Secretary mentioned that we had similar problems with regard to Korea and Communist China. We did not recognize Red China. Despite the fact that there was an armistice agreement with Communist China, we still applied our Trading with the Enemy Act. When he talked about stationing troops along Israel’s side of the boundary, he was not thinking that Israel was obligated to do so anymore than Egypt was obligated to forego some of its rights under the Armistice Agreement. This did not answer his question.

Mrs. Meir said that Israel had tried the UNTSO but it had not worked. The UNEF had no more power. The Secretary thought that exposing the facts of a situation through an impartial source was a preventive. Mrs. Meir said that Israel had lived through this for eight years. Bad things had happened even though there had been UN observers. The Secretary said that the hope had been to make it less grim. The UNTSO had been inadequate in numbers and authority. Mrs. Meir said that they would not have to watch over Israel. Israel would not cross borders. The Secretary pointed out that Israel had crossed borders. Mrs. Meir said that Israel had acted the same as any other people in the world would have acted.

Mrs. Meir asked what she could tell her Government. The Secretary hoped that she would report what he had said. We had not given up hope that the conditions we anticipated could be brought about. We had not mobilized fully our influence on the situation. We were in touch with the Secretary General. This was not an easy situation but he believed that it was not hopeless. We hoped for quiet in which to work. We hoped we could achieve a condition such as described in the Secretary General’s February 22 statement. Mrs. Meir said that to be fair to the Secretary General she wished to know how we interpreted the statement. The Secretary said he had always assumed that there would be some Egyptian presence in Gaza. He hoped it could be kept down to nominal with a de facto UN administration.

[Page 441]

Mrs. Meir said that there seemed to be a full process of the liquidation of the UN. The Secretary General was already in the area in the persons of Dr. Bunche and General Burns. He had his Advisory Committee on the UNEF. Mr. Pearson of Canada had informed Mrs. Meir that he had opposed what was going on in Gaza in the Committee.

Mr. Shiloah said that the UNEF was acting as a shield for Nasser to reorganize his fedayeen bases. It would be better to remove the UNEF in such circumstances. Mrs. Meir said that there would be nothing more simple than for Israel to go get this Egyptian General in Gaza and parade him through Tel Aviv, but the UN forces there protected him. Mr. Eban said the UN was protecting a situation it could not control.

The Secretary asked if this was not a new viewpoint. Mrs. Meir said that if Nasser would not give Gaza to the UN then he shouldn’t expect a UN screen.

Mr. Eban referred to the President’s letter to Mr. Ben Gurion where it mentioned close consultation. The Secretary said he would like to have such consultation. He would like Israel’s own thoughts as to how this matter might be handled. He hoped above all else that Israel would not move abruptly without notice to the United States. He knew this was difficult, and was not asking for a veto, but he did not think that our attitude was arbitrary. He assumed there would be normal consultations between Messrs. Eban and Shiloah and Mr. Rountree. It would be useful if Mrs. Meir talked to the Secretary General this afternoon.

Mrs. Meir said that the world should know what the U.S. thought and what it still thinks should be. This should be made public. Mr. Eban said this was as true with respect to Aqaba as well as Gaza. Mrs. Meir said that Saud wouldn’t have made his statement about Aqaba if he were sure of the U.S. position. The Secretary felt that Saud was more sensitive on the question of Aqaba than Egypt was.

It was agreed that a joint press statement would be drafted and issued.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 674.84A/3–1857. Confidential. Drafted by Bergus. The Department of State transmitted a summary of this conversation to the Embassy in Tel Aviv in telegram 891, March 19. (Ibid., 674.84A/3–1957)