339. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, June 14, 19571


  • The Gulf of Aqaba2


  • Mr. Abba Eban, Ambassador of Israel
  • Mr. Reuven Shiloah, Minister, Embassy of Israel
  • The Secretary
  • NEAWilliam M. Rountree
  • NEDonald C. Bergus

Mr. Eban said there were signs of improvement in the Near East. There were lessening chances of military outbreak, less emotionalism with respect to Israel, and growing awareness of the threat of Nasser and Communism. It was against this background that he wished to raise a matter which was disquieting Israel.

Mr. Eban referred to the Saudi Arabian attitude with respect to the Gulf of Aqaba. Israel had done what it could to decrease tension, such as minimizing publicity on transits through the Gulf, and eliminating the United States aspect by stressing vessels of other flags. One Israel flag vessel had now passed through. The traffic to and from Eilath was innocuous to legitimate Arab interest.

On the other side, there had been effort to increase tension. There had been false charges that Israel ships had bombarded Saudi territory. Mr. Eban assured the Secretary that these reports were untrue. The Israelis would be “off their heads” to do such a thing. If the Saudis had in fact been bombarded they would have done much more than send a letter to the Security Council. Mr. Rountree mentioned that a Saudi representative had recently stated privately to him that the bombardment had taken place on the Egyptian side of the Gulf.

Mr. Eban continued that the Saudis were now appealing to religious sentiment and stating that Israel’s presence in the Gulf threatened the pilgrimage. Mr. Eban said that this was untrue and referred to his Government’s assurances on this point. Furthermore, only 2 percent of the pilgrims to Mecca came via Aqaba, therefore the action of Saud and Hussein in closing the Gulf had been purely gratuitous. The Saudis had put pressure on Iran with respect to oil sales to Israel. There had been pressure on the Turks with regard to their relations with Israel. Parallel to this, the Israelis noted increased cooperation in the relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States. When the United States had pointed out to Israel the need for strengthening Saudi Arabia against Egypt, Israel had seen the wisdom of such a course. The Israel Government hoped that the United States would use its influence to prevent difficulty in the Gulf.

Use of the Gulf of Aqaba, Mr. Eban continued, posed a crucial question for Israel. It was Israel’s southern outlet and its defense and maintenance were more important to Israel than destroying this route would be of importance to the Arabs. Eilath would hardly become an oil port; it would be used primarily for things such as phosphate and potash. Israel had no certainty with respect to the use of Suez. Israel would be disturbed if a controversy developed with respect to the Gulf and the Saudis raised litigation. This would serve to discourage shipping companies from using this route. Israel regarded the understandings [Page 644] reached on the basis of the United States February 11 Aide-Mémoire as paramount. Israel hoped that the United States could tell the Saudis that it was to their interest to make less of an issue of this. There should be no act of interference nor raising this as a litigious or contentious issue. The United States position should be emphasized.

As for Israel warships, Mr. Eban could now say that there was no intention to use them to convoy vessels through the Gulf. Israel would not move the vessels through the Straits either northward or southward. Although there were territorial waters in the Gulf which were indubitably Israeli, and Israel war vessels had a right to maneuver in them, Israel would abstain from maneuvers. The Secretary thought this showed a constructive attitude.

Mr. Eban said his Government was disturbed at reports that the United States might supply naval weapons to Saudi Arabia. This could lead to an explosive situation in the Gulf.

The Secretary said that he was perplexed to explain the degree of Saudi Arabian intransigence on this matter. When Saud had been in the United States he had shown considerable agitation but had seemed to acquiesce in the United States position towards the end of his visit, particularly when he noted our assurances with respect to the pilgrim traffic. We had been surprised at the action taken in closing the Gulf to pilgrims. The King was, however, surrounded by advisers, many of whom were unfriendly, even to the United States. The Secretary wondered whether the fact that Saud was splitting with Nasser and Syria made him feel that he must keep the Aqaba issue more actively alive.

Mr. Rountree said that we thought there was a great deal in that. The attitude taken by Saud and Hussein had been an attempt to elicit broad Moslem support… . Israel’s plans with respect to the non-movement of its warships were a good step. The warships could have clouded the issue.

The Secretary said that while the Israel step was important, he did not know whether it would suffice. He felt that the Saudis would try to keep the issue alive. The United States was not giving Saudi Arabia naval craft of any kind. The Secretary was inclined to believe that the Saudis would do more talking than acting. That was our hope and that was the direction in which we were using our influence.

One point Mr. Eban had made the Secretary wished to qualify. The Secretary did not know if the United States could dissuade the Saudis from taking this matter to the International Court of Justice. There was in fact no desire on the part of the Saudis to take it there. If anything, they were more reluctant than Israel. The United States on the other hand would like to see a decision by the International Court of Justice which would sustain the position which we had taken and [Page 645] which we thought was the correct international position. The United States had a broad maritime interest in this matter which went beyond the area.

Mr. Eban said he had not suggested that the matter not be taken to the International Court of Justice. He did, however, wish to see nothing transpire which would discourage the maritime powers from using the Gulf of Aqaba. The Secretary acknowledged that usage had importance in matters of this kind.

Mr. Eban said that the United States could convey to the Saudis Israel’s intentions with respect to its warships, if the United States thought this would be useful. The Secretary expressed appreciation and said this might be found useful. It would depend on the willingness of Saudi Arabia to see this matter come to an end or whether there was a Saudi desire to keep the question alive. Mr. Rountree pointed out that the warships had created problems in discussions with the Saudis on the Gulf. They raised such questions as the General Armistice Agreements, rights of warships in territorial waters, whether warships are entitled to innocent passage, etc. This served to complicate the relatively simple issue of commercial use of the Gulf.

(Note: Subsequent to this conversation, Mr. Shiloah, in a telephone conversation with Donald Bergus of NE, said that he hoped Mr. Eban made it clear that the Israel assurances with respect to warships would no longer apply if there were forceful interference with Israel-bound shipping. Neither would Israel war vessels leave the Gulf. Subject to these provisos, however, the warships would be “virtually mothballed” at Eilath.)

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 980.74/6–1457. Secret. Drafted by Bergus on June 17.
  2. During Dulles’ conversation with Ambassador Eban, the following topics were also discussed: Israel’s use of the Suez Canal, U.S. economic and military assistance to Israel, the situation in Gaza, the forthcoming visit of Israeli Finance Minister Eshkol, and prospects for an Arab-Israeli peace. Separate memoranda, prepared for each of these topics, are ibid., Secretary’s Memoranda of Conversations: Lot 64 D 199.