3. Telegram From the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State1
786. Ben-Gurion received me at his Jerusalem residence at 8:30 last night, only ten hours after I received Deptel 661,2 which although cabled December 28 did not reach me until mid-morning 30th. Due to continued Fedayeen activity on Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road at night, he insisted I have 10-man armed police convoy. I delivered Department’s views on invalidation Israel-Egyptian GAA fully in aide-mémoire to which he said GOI would reply formally. Ninety minute soliloquy ensued which I succeeded in interrupting only infrequently and briefly.
His major points follow: one addressed to invalidation GAA; others to Secretary’s Friday meeting with Meir and Eban3 which he elatedly regards as harbinger improved US-Israel understanding.
- GOI firmly holds Egypt’s eight years willful, flagrant violations various GAA articles as well as specific SC resolutions invalidates GAA. For instance, while one article November 2 resolution calls for evacuation occupied areas, another proclaims right of free transit Suez which Nasser defies in Israel’s case. However, GOI does not claim such invalidation establishes juridical state of belligerency thus implying, I gathered, GOI does not feel it has same unhampered liberty of action vis-à-vis Egypt as if state of war existed between them. (Ben-Gurion did not make this point explicitly, but Herzog after consulting him at conclusion of our talk, told Embassy officer who accompanied me he had meant to stress it, adding Prime Minister hoped very much Secretary would have it in mind along with the other principal points our conversation when Secretary sees Hammarskjold in meeting GOI thinks is scheduled for today).
- He said repeatedly and emphatically he was determined Gaza which had never been Egyptian, should not revert to Nasser. It would be “fatal mistake if UN because of existence political anomaly which had no moral validity whatsoever” should insist on restoring status quo ante by reinstating Egyptian control. Egyptians controlled Gaza, he said, only because at moment in history when Israelis, having expelled Egyptian armies from all other invaded areas, were about to expel them from Gaza as well, US ambassador had come to him saying “this must stop”, and Israelis had complied. He also objected, [Page 6]although less vehemently, to idea of Gaza strip’s occupation by UNEF which he said would only provide cover for renewed Egyptian Fedayeen activity. He then read paragraph from Meir–Eban account their conversation with Secretary reporting acknowledgment by Secretary that Gaza had never been Egyptian and purported statement by Secretary to effect USG did not know exactly what would be equitable disposition, strip being neither in Israel nor in Egypt. Ben-Gurion admittedly regarded statement as one of most significant developments in US-Israel relations since President’s November 9 letter.4 He returned again and again to hour and one-half Secretary gave Meir and to theme of “Secretary’s generosity with all cares of troubled world on his shoulders, in giving time and thought to problems tiny Israel”, and several times remarked on USG’s understandable difficulty fully appreciating intensity problems affecting Israel.
In regard to question ultimate disposition Straits of Tiran, he was almost as pleased with Secretary’s avowal (again as reported by Meir–Eban) that he is “immutably committed” to freedom of transit international waters without discrimination. Ben-Gurion did not suggest Israel forces must stay at Straits, but he did insist they remain until there are effective guarantees Straits are international waterway available to all. Nasser he said does not respect international law, treaties, GA resolutions or SC resolutions. In blocking Suez Canal, first to Israel and then to world in recent crisis, he had defied all of these.
When I asked him what he would consider effective guarantee, he replied as example “US undertaking that it would move against any attempt to block Eilat as with case of Formosa”. He added, “theoretically UN guarantee should be enough, standing above even one by US but unfortunately it does not”.
Straits of Eilat area had never been settled in all history for any purpose but controlling Straits. (Only permanent settlement ever established there, he said with broad grin, was small Jewish kingdom—a band of robbers—which 1300 years ago had inhabited Isle of Tiran and from there preyed on shipping until destroyed by Byzantines). Nothing there except waterless desert. Egyptian garrison had been established for sole purpose manning battery denying Straits to Israeli commerce.
- He said he was reluctant to say it in connection Secretary’s meeting with Secretary General, “and I would of course never say it in public”, but he felt Hammarskjold’s good faith and impartiality were in question. He recalled meeting with Hammarskjold last spring in presence Burns, Vigier and eight GOI officials. He had asked why five years after SC resolution opposing Egypt’s blockade of Canal to Israel, Hammarskjold acquiesced in Egypt’s justifying its defiance by claiming [Page 7]state of war with Israel. Hammarskjold had replied “for Nasser to concede no state of war existed would be fatal to his position”. “I asked him,” said Ben-Gurion, “are you representing UN or Nasser? You are here to see agreements are carried out, not to protect Nasser’s position”. He recalled stormy occasion when Hammarskjold from Cairo sent him message through me (Cairo’s 249, April 13 to Department)5 saying Secretary General convinced Nasser wanted peace and Secretary General felt question war or peace was in Israel’s hands, making no suggestion Egypt had any responsibilities. “I refused to accept message” he said, “Then I received long cable in which he excused himself with lot of sophistries”.
- Defending Israel’s Sinai–Gaza campaign, he said, when nation is convinced its very existence is threatened and all sources of help are ignoring its plight, then it alone can decide what course to take. Israel, convinced destruction Egyptian build-up was matter of life or death, had attempted to destroy Egyptian army before it destroyed Israel. “I am convinced US under similar conditions of life or death would take like steps. Even President Eisenhower, sincere and strong advocate of peaceful settlement, would not disagree with this thesis”.
- Summarizing, Ben-Gurion said he considered Secretary’s interview with GOI representatives in New York as gracious first step which he hoped would not be last toward détente Ben-Gurion suggested in conversation I reported Embtel 774.6 If US could see Tiran and Gaza as imperatives of Israel position there was no other issue in mid-east complex on which GOI would not endeavor coordinate its policy with ours.
- Source: Department of State, Central Files, 674.84A/12–3156. Received at 8:36 a.m., January 1. Repeated to Cairo, Amman, Damascus, Beirut, Paris, London, and USUN.↩
- Vol. XVI, p. 1338.↩
- The conversation took place on December 28; see (ibid.,) p. 1341.↩
- For text, see (ibid.,) p. 1096, footnote 4.↩
- Reference should be to telegram 2054 from Cairo, April 13, not printed. (Department of State, Central Files, 684A.86/4–1356)↩
- Vol. XVI, p. 1326.↩