337. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, June 12, 19571


  • Israeli Warships in the Gulf of Aqaba


  • Abdul Rahman Azzam Pasha, Special Representative of King Saud of Saudi Arabia
  • Mr. William M. RountreeNEA
  • Mr. Leonard MeekerL
  • Mr. Joseph SiscoUNP
  • Mr. James LudlowNE
  • Mr. David D. NewsomNE

Mr. Rountree opened the session by reviewing the background of the recent exchange of letters between King Saud and President Eisenhower on the Gulf of Aqaba and the suggestion by the President that discussions might be held between United States and Saudi Arabian representatives, after which further steps might be considered.2 He explained the United States view that the U.S. position in the event the problem of Israeli warship movements in the Gulf of Aqaba should be taken to the Security Council would depend in large measure on what Saudi Arabia intended to do in the Security Council.

Mr. Rountree said the Department had a series of questions which might serve to form the basis for a further examination of the problem. For example, does King Saud wish to have a Security Council meeting on the question of the Israeli warships? If so, what is the Saudi Arabian concept of the ultimate result of such Council action? Mr. Rountree stated that the Department presumed that if the matter were taken to the Security Council, the King would not wish to raise matters other than the movement of Israeli warships.

[Page 637]

Mr. Rountree also noted that King Saud’s letter of May 7, 1957,3 had stated that Saudi Arabia considered the Israeli warships to be in the Gulf of Aqaba in violation of General Assembly resolutions. He asked what specific application of these resolutions the King might have had in mind. He also asked whether Saudi Arabia had analyzed the position of other states, particularly those in the Security Council and that of the Soviet Union.

Azzam Pasha, in reply, stated King Saud was worried about several aspects of the problem: Israeli warships in Arab waters; the establishment of rights of passage for Israel; and the threat to the traditional Pilgrimage routes. He explained that, for centuries, the traditional route for the poorer pilgrims from North Africa lay across Sinai to the town of Aqaba, and thence down the Eastern shore of the Gulf. Others, he said, came from the north to Aqaba. Some of both groups went by sea from Aqaba to Yenbo. The establishment of the Israelis at Elath had cut off the traditional North African route, but those from the north still came his way. He said the numbers who used this route might now be much smaller than in the past, but it was a route of great tradition with sacred connotations for the whole Moslem world.

Mr. Rountree said the United States was aware of the King’s feeling regarding these pilgrim routes. Knowing this, the Department had expressed concern to the Israelis, not only over the reported warship movements, but also over the safety of the pilgrims. He said the Department had made clear to the Israelis that nothing should be done in any way which would interfere with this traffic. In reply, he said, the Israelis, had given categorical assurances that they would not interfere with the pilgrim traffic in any way and, on the contrary, would cooperate to facilitate it.4

Azzam Pasha replied that, whatever the Jewish assurances might be, in the Arab mind they were worth nothing. He stressed that the Arabs considered the Gulf of Aqaba to be their waters and they were not prepared to permit an Israeli fleet in these waters and then to ask mercy of the Israelis. He added that the question was wider than the Arab world; it was a Moslem problem and the Moslem world would [Page 638] not permit the Jews to sit on their sacred routes and then give passes to the pilgrims to let them pass. This would only arouse strong indignation, he said.

The immediate problem of concern to the King, Azzam said, was that of the violation of Saudi Arabian territorial waters by Israeli warships. The King was seeking his advice on whether to take this issue to the Security Council. He said he had examined the question at the United Nations and had even talked to the Russians. He has advised the King that he did not consider it would be useful for Saudi Arabia to take the matter to the Security Council because the violations, in themselves, do not form a subject which would bring satisfactory results. This question would undoubtedly lead to larger issues.

Mr. Rountree said that, on these larger issues, the United States recognized that important differences existed between the U.S. and Saudi Arabian positions. The U.S. position, he said, is based on legal considerations and principles involved. The United States does not wish to extend to Israel rights it did not have before the Israeli attack on Egypt, as a reward for Israeli withdrawal. The U.S. position is related in important respects to U.S. interests in other parts of the world since the situation in Aqaba could affect U.S. legal interests in maritime matters elsewhere. The U.S. would, however, review its present position in the light of a contrary ruling by an international judicial body. Mr. Rountree added that the question of warship rights was, in some ways, a different one from that of commercial usage and the United States had no preconceived notions about this.

Mr. Rountree continued that the United States had discussed the reports of warship movements with Israel and the Israelis had categorically denied the recent use of warships. He suggested that, in any Security Council consideration, problems of fact would arise. He agreed, also, with Azzam Pasha that the discussion in the Council could probably not be limited to the narrow issue of warship movements. He added that the United States view toward Security Council consideration depended on what Saudi Arabia saw as the ultimate objective of the Council consideration. Did Saudi Arabia desire merely a general discussion, as in the Suez matter, in order to bring the problem before world opinion? Or did Saudi Arabia seek action which would lead to a legal ruling. Mr. Rountree stressed that the United States did not object to a ruling being sought from the International Court of Justice.

Azzam replied that the King was waiting for the view of the United States before deciding what to do since he did not want to quarrel with the United States. If he knew what the United States might do in each case, he can then decide. Azzam said then, out of the [Page 639] talks in the Department, he could advise the King that it was best not to go to the Security Council. Perhaps, he said, this was what should be done for the present.

Azzam stressed that Saudi Arabia did not agree with the United States position. In the Arab mind, he said, the United States is an outsider which stepped in and made a declaration with the good intentions of stopping a quarrel. He stressed that this had not been the time for the United States to express an opinion on Aqaba; it had no appreciable trade in the Gulf, no shipping, no interests. It served only to place the United States in a position against the Arabs.

Israel, he said, had come to the Gulf and wanted the whole situation changed. Practically, he said, the Jews were there, but to the Arabs, they were not there legally. The Israelis had upset the status quo. They had warships in the Gulf and international forces on the Gulf to protect them. Then, he said, they call what they are doing “innocent passage”.

Further, Azzam said, the United States declaration was trying to force matters as if there were no belligerency between the Arabs and the Jews. The whole thing was being played in Israel’s favor. In the Arab mind, the United States was in the position of maintaining Israel’s position. The United States, he said, cannot deny the enmity and the belligerency. Saudi Arabia, he stressed, was still in a state of war with Israel.

Mr. Rountree replied that the views Azzam had stressed clearly indicated the difference of views between the United States and Saudi Arabia. He added that the United States did not insist its views remain inflexible and had suggested consideration by the International Court. Meanwhile, he said, the differences remained.

Mr. Rountree mentioned that the Security Council had already assumed a position on belligerency. He then explained that the United States had made strong efforts to get the Israelis out of Egyptian territory. He did not know how this would have been possible if there had been a continuing right of belligerency on Egypt’s part. We had taken the position that Israel had the right of transit through the Strait of Tiran only after it ceased exercising the right of belligerency by having its troops in Sinai and Gaza.

Azzam said, in his view, the Israeli withdrawal was not related to rights of belligerency but to the Israeli violation of the armistice agreement. He admitted the conciliatory role of the United States. In order to get them out in accordance with the United Nations resolutions, however, the United States, he said, had to satisfy them on other points. He said he was not blaming the U.S. because he was certain its intentions were of the best. The immediate problem, he said, however, was to find a way to assure continued peace in the Gulf. He asked whether there might be a narrower view of “innocent passage” developed. [Page 640] Is there a way, he said, whereby the United States could maintain its theory and the Arabs their view and find a modus vivendi to prevent the peace from being broken.

One of the problems, Azzam said, is that the Jews talk of the Gulf as if they could do anything they wanted there. He mentioned the transportation of strategic materials. This attitude, he said, left no room for understanding. Both sides might see, he said, whether an interim measure could be developed until the matter could be brought before the International Court or the Security Council. If such a means could he said, he would then be willing to make the suggestion to the King. He added that, if such a measure were possible, the United States and Saudi Arabia might take it together to the Security Council.

With reference to the International Court, Azzam said, he had asked the King about the Court, but had no reply. If the matter were to go to the Court, he said, Saudi Arabia would want first to consult with the other Arab states. He noted that the Egyptians had said they would not object.

Azzam stressed that the idea of an interim measure was his own and that the King’s position remained firmly that the situation should be returned to the status quo prior to the Israeli invasion. He then asked whether a country did not have a right to stop the passage of warships through its territory, even if the right of innocent passage existed.

Mr. Meeker replied that there was a difference in international law between innocent passage by a warship and by commercial vessels. A sovereign could, he said, require previous notification and authorization for a warship.

Azzam mentioned that an agreement on passage through the Strait of Tiran existed on this matter between Egypt and Great Britain. Mr. Meeker said that this did not apply to other states. He added that in the draft on the law of the sea by the International Law Commission in 1956,5 it was stated that innocent passage through an international strait cannot be suspended by the coastal sovereign. When Azzam noted that the Gulf of Aqaba comprised largely territorial waters and that Egypt and Saudi Arabia claimed six miles each, Mr. Meeker said that the United States did not recognize territorial waters to a limit of more than three miles, and pointed out that the Gulf of Aqaba at some points was 17 miles wide.

Returning to his suggestion for an interim measure, Azzam said that control of the Gulf had gone from 100 per cent Arab to 100 per cent Israeli. He said the United States should adopt a legal attitude [Page 641] which is not so completely against the Arabs. He suggested that innocent passage should not include Israeli warships, strategic materials, or Israeli-flag commercial vessels.

Mr. Rountree then noted that any consideration of this problem which might ultimately go to the Security Council raised the question of the type of resolution which might be put before the Council. He noted that such a resolution might or might not be in Saudi Arabian interests. It was possible, he said, that some Council members might suggest a recommendation that the Gulf be demilitarized, or that Israeli warships could be confined to certain areas of the Gulf. On the other hand, he said, it was possible some nations might move to confirm the right of Israeli warships to use the Gulf. Some nations might also seek to re-emphasize the absence of any basis for the exercise of belligerent rights.

Azzam Pasha agreed that these various considerations emphasized the difficulties of taking this matter to the Security Council unless the United States and Saudi Arabia were prepared to support a proposal related to the larger issue.

Mr. Sisco also pointed out that one possibility in the event the warship case went to the Security Council would be a recommendation for a fact-finding commission. He also pointed out the advisability of avoiding a situation in which the various parties concerned were required to assume a public position on this delicate issue.

. . . . . . .

It was agreed that the Department and Azzam would examine further possibilities of actions which might be taken in connection with the Aqaba problem and that the Department officials and Azzam Pasha would meet again at 3:00 p.m. June 17, 1957.6

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 980.74/6–1257. Confidential. Drafted by Newsom on June 17.
  2. In a letter to King Saud dated May 14, President Eisenhower suggested that U.S. officials discuss Saudi concerns over the Israeli presence in the Gulf of Aqaba with designated Saudi officials in Washington. (See footnote 4, Document 324.) In a reply dated May 25, King Saud agreed to conduct discussions as suggested, and restated the Saudi Arabian position that the Gulf of Aqaba was a closed Gulf. (Translation in Eisenhower Library, Whitman File, International File) Shortly thereafter, Saudi Ambassador Al-Khayyal indicated to the Department of State that the King had designated Abdul Rahman Azzam as his representative in this matter. (Memorandum from Rountree to Dulles, June 1; Department of State, Central Files, 980.74/6–157) On June 11, Burdett forwarded to Rountree, who had been designated U.S. representative in the discussions, a briefing package which included proposed talking points, a historical review of the Gulf of Aqaba problem, and other documents pertaining to the question. (Ibid., 974.7301/6-1157)
  3. Reference is to King Saud’s letter of May 6, delivered to the White House on May 7; see footnote 2, Document 321.
  4. During a conversation on May 29, Eban informed Rountree that since Saudi Arabia had raised the subject publicly, the Israeli Government wanted to put on the record its assurances that the Israeli presence in the Gulf of Aqaba constituted no threat to the passage of Arab pilgrims. Eban also asked that the United States convey this message to the Saudi Government and handed to Rountree an aide-mémoire containing the assurance. (Memorandum of conversation by Bergus; Department of State, Central Files, 980.74/5-2957 and Israeli aide-mémoire; ibid., 974.7301/5-2057) In a memorandum to Rountree on May 31, Wilkins cautioned that the question was very sensitive for the Saudi Government. Wilkins suggested that the delivery of the Israeli assurance be deferred until the proposed talks with the Saudi representative. Wilkins’ memorandum bears Rountree’s approval. (Ibid., 974.7301/5–2957)
  5. The draft articles on Law of the Sea are in the Report of the International Law Commission for 1956. (U.N. doc. A/3159) See also Yearbook of the International law Commission, vol. II. (U.N. doc. A/CN.4/SER.A/1956/Add 1)
  6. See Document 341.