77. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, February 11, 1957,10 a.m.1


  • Questions Relating to the Israeli Withdrawal from Gaza and the Straits of Aqaba


  • Mr. Abba Eban, Ambassador of Israel
  • Mr. Reuven Shiloah, Minister, Embassy of Israel
  • The Secretary
  • Mr. Robert Murphy, G
  • Mr. Fraser Wilkins, NE

The Israeli Ambassador called on the Secretary this morning to discuss pending questions relating to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the Straits of Aqaba, which is presently being considered by the General Assembly of the United Nations.

[Page 126]

The Secretary said that we had a number of observations to make which had been incorporated in an Aide-Mémoire. This Aide-Mémoire could be considered in substance as a reply to Prime Minister Ben Gurion’s recent response to the earlier letter from President Eisenhower. The Secretary said the President and he had gone over the Aide-Mémoire (Tab A).2

The Secretary read aloud the Aide-Mémoire and noted, with respect to the Israeli position regarding withdrawal, that the Aide-Mémoire paraphrased Prime Minister Ben Gurion’s position as summarized in his letter to President Eisenhower.

Mr. Eban observed the Aide-Mémoire was an important communication on which he would seek an authoritative reply from his Government. Meanwhile, he would like to make some provisional comments.

With respect to the Straits of Aqaba Mr. Eban said there were great geographic advantages in freedom of passage through the Straits of Aqaba. The Straits gave Israel access to the Indian Ocean. A new pipeline through Israel would be dependent upon the Gulf of Aqaba. This pipeline would reach the Eastern Mediterranean about April 15. There would also be road connections in Israel with the Gulf of Aqaba. For the future Israel should become a bridge for commerce through the Middle East instead of a stunted ghetto dependent upon international relief. It was therefore of supreme national interest that the Straits of Aqaba should be free. It was likewise of international interest that the Straits should be free, especially for Europe which drew its oil supplies from the Persian Gulf. For these reasons Israel felt it could not give up the freedom of passage it presently enjoyed. Furthermore, Egyptian blockade of the Straits of Aqaba was illegal. It had been fortified with gun emplacements (Ambassador Eban left several pictures with the Secretary).

Ambassador Eban said Israel believed that if it withdrew from Aqaba Egypt should refrain from establishing a blockade. There should be a simultaneous liquidation by withdrawal and by a cessation of a blockade. Israel had every reason to assume that if Israel left, Egypt would return, as a result of which there would be maritime engagements and a renewal of hostilities. For this reason Israel could not adopt a position of withdrawal and Egyptian return to the area of the Straits of Aqaba. Israel could not abandon this new link with the outside world. The Suez Canal had long been closed to Israeli traffic [Page 127] and would continue closed following its reopening. Israel’s present insistence upon freedom of passage was not a frivolous tenacity but a position which was based upon Israel’s vital interest. Israel must have solid assurance that freedom of passage through the Straits would be accorded. This freedom should not be regarded as the price of victory but as a desirable result. The status quo [ante] which had prevailed in the Suez Canal, in the Straits of Aqaba and in the Gaza area prior to October 29 was illegal. Israel’s present objective was to seek new solutions for each of these problems. The Secretary’s proposal set down in the Aide-Mémoire would be studied in this light.

With respect to the situation in the United Nations, Ambassador Eban said that Israel had presented a new proposal to the Secretary General which contained a new schedule for withdrawal. Earlier, the Secretary General had been asked when the UNEF would enter the area of the Straits of Aqaba and whether there would be freedom of navigation, but he had declined to answer. This refusal adversely affected Israeli withdrawal. Ambassador Eban observed that Egypt must also desire Israeli withdrawal. Thus there were several incentives for this action. The Government of Israel would welcome United States identification with the question of freedom of passage through the Straits. It might be helpful if the United States would make known its views to the Secretary General who had thus far declined to answer the Israeli questions on this subject.

With respect to Gaza, Ambassador Eban said that Israel envisages that if it withdrew its armed forces and if Egyptian forces returned, the Israeli position would be prejudiced. When the general Armistice Agreement had been in effect Israel had assumed an absence of belligerency which Egypt denied. Gaza had been Egyptian territory stuck into the heart of Israel. Israel believed it could convince any international body that the present Israeli regime in Gaza should not be uprooted. It was geographically part of the Negev; it had insufficient water of its own as a result of which squalor and destitution prevailed. Israel was now supplying water to the Gaza area. Israel could not believe that the United Nations would want to cut this water supply. The Gaza area had other links with Israel of a similar character. Israel could make a strong case for Israeli administration. Israel did not, however, wish to annex the Gaza area. Ambassador Eban had told Khrishna Menon that Israel did not wish “to Kashmirize” the Gaza area. If Israel stayed in the Gaza area it could make a substantial contribution towards settlement of the 200,000 Arab refugees who were there. It was a complicated problem which should be handled slowly. The matter of the Straits of Aqaba should be handled first. A new structure should be erected between Israel and Egypt on the questions of non-belligerency and withdrawal. The matter of civil administration in Gaza could be handled later.

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Ambassador Eban said that in summary Israel had four points:

Israeli withdrawal, together with an affirmation of free navigation through the Straits of Aqaba.
Exchange of affirmations of non-belligerency.
Withdrawal from Gaza.
Discussion of the future of the Gaza area in its non-military aspects.

Ambassador Eban said that counter-proposals could be put forward but that there had been no discussions, especially following the adoption of the February 2 resolution of the General Assembly. Israel had asked a number of questions of the Secretary General but there had been no reply.

Ambassador Eban thought that the United States could assist by calming the atmosphere. It could say that there was no legal basis for proceeding until measures had been arranged regarding Israeli withdrawal. The Aqaba question could be quickly solved provided the UNEF was positioned there and assurances regarding freedom of passage were forthcoming. Ambassador Lodge had used this formula in speaking to the General Assembly. The withdrawal of Israeli troops in Gaza should be separate from the withdrawal of the civil administration. Relations between Egypt and Israel should be defined following the withdrawal of Israeli troops. Egypt claimed it was belligerent-Israel was not; hence the general Armistice Agreement had collapsed. This Egyptian attitude necessarily affected the Suez Canal and Aqaba as well as other problems. Now that the Canal was being cleared this question would arise again. It was therefore necessary to obtain a clarification of the Egyptian attitude. Egypt could not be belligerent and Israel non-belligerent. The United Nations which had helped Egypt in many ways should also ask Egypt for an affirmation of nonbelligerency and not to block Aqaba and the Canal. Ambassador Eban said he had sent Mr. Hammarskjold a communication containing a procedural suggestion on February 10.3 Ambassador Eban thought that a peaceful approach to the present problem would assist in their solution.

The Secretary said that in general the United States had been sympathetic with the objectives of the United Kingdom, France and Israel with respect to the Suez Canal but had been dubious about their methods. The United Kingdom had been disturbed regarding Nasser’s prestige and also regarding the possibility that the Suez Canal might be blocked. It was the fact, however, that following the recent intervention, Nasser’s prestige had remained high and the Canal would [Page 129] have continued to be blocked except for the efforts of the United States. The Secretary felt that the objectives of the United Kingdom and France could have been achieved by other means but there had been no consultation in advance with respect to these objectives and the means chosen for achieving them.

It was our view that Israeli objectives could be achieved by other means than those which had been employed. The Secretary said there seemed to be general agreement except for details. The Secretary wished to reserve the United States detailed position regarding Gaza because he did not yet know what it would be.

With respect to Aqaba, the Secretary said the result of current discussions would be important. The United States wished to help. He noted that Ambassador Eban had said that solid assurances were desired. The Secretary wondered how solid Egyptian assurances could be. They had not been solid with respect to the Suez Canal. He doubted that they would be more solid than U.S. assurances. To place greater reliance upon Egyptian assurances than upon U.S. assurances seemed to be grasping shadow rather than substance. Israel might, under such circumstances, remain in the Straits of Aqaba but would any shipping pass through these Straits or would any oil pass through the Israeli pipeline?

Ambassador Eban interjected to remark that Israeli withdrawal together with an Egyptian assurance of freedom of passage was desired rather than continued Israeli occupation.

The Secretary continued that the United States assurances which would be given outside the UN would be supplemental and would be far more valuable than Egyptian assurances. He hoped that Israel would not reject the present American suggestion which had serious and far-reaching implication and was more solid in the premises.

Ambassador Eban expressed full agreement but observed that the answer to the present problem was not to be found in verbal assurances alone. He noted that the American Aide-Mémoire referred to the exercise of rights with respect to the Straits of Aqaba and the assumption that the littoral states would not obstruct these rights. Ambassador Eban asked if there would be a physical presence by the U.S. in the Gulf of Aqaba.

The Secretary said that primary responsibility regarding the Straits of Aqaba was today being exercised in the UNGA through the Secretary General. We thought that the Government of Israel could fairly assume that the U.S. would not interject itself into a matter on which he was negotiating if it would embarrass him. We would not lightly make statements without having explored the matter and reached the conclusion that there was a good chance that it could be worked out. We had a strong sense of moral responsibility to take further steps if Israel withdrew and blockade was resumed.

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Minister Shiloah observed that American and Egyptian assurances would be as different as day and night. Israel did not wish to imply that United States assurances would be as dubious as Egyptian assurances might be.

Ambassador Eban said he thought the American Aide-Mémoire was extremely important and that he wished to consult his Government for the purpose of obtaining further views. Meanwhile he wished to clear up one or two additional points. He noted the Secretary General had not thus far said the UNEF could move into the Straits of Aqaba area as a precautionary measure. Israel had not pressed the Secretary General regarding the UNEF as Israel withdrew from Sinai because Israel had no rights there but it has pressed the Secretary General regarding Aqaba because Israel felt it had certain rights for passage through its waters. Hammarskjold had not yet said what the UNEF would do in Aqaba.

The Secretary said Hammarskjold might feel that his mandate from the General Assembly to handle this question would not permit “bargaining” with Israel. Ambassador Eban thought, however, that Hammarskjöld might explain his views without placing them in the category of conditions attached to withdrawal.

Ambassador Eban inquired what was meant by the suggestion that the future of the Gaza area might be worked out following withdrawal. Would this mean that the return of an Egyptian regime would be permitted or would there be UN control in the interim?

The Secretary said he understood that the Secretary General had this matter in hand and no details had been worked out, so far as he knew. Mr. Wilkins, in response to the Secretary’s question, confirmed that the Secretary General had been discussing the question of administration of Gaza with Israel and Egypt but that we understood that these talks were not concluded and no arrangements had yet been made. We continued to support the Secretary General in his handling of the matter. No final American attitude had been adopted with respect to the Gaza area. Ambassador Eban said that if Egypt returned to this area its future would be difficult.

The Secretary said that the phrase “non-belligerency” which Ambassador Eban had used seemed vague to him and asked what it meant. Ambassador Eban said Egypt held it had certain rights of belligerency under which it could close the Gulf of Aqaba and the Suez Canal. The Secretary replied that statements couched in generalities resulted in complications. He recalled our experience with respect to the Korean armistice which was designed to end hostilities. However, several problems continued. We forbid trade and if for example, the Communist Chinese should enter New York Harbor, they might not have smooth sailing there.

[Page 131]

Ambassador Eban said that although the phrase “non-belligerency” was not precise it meant blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba and the Suez Canal. It might therefore be preferable to spell out the objectives of freedom of passage through the Straits of Aqaba and the Suez Canal and freedom from attack from the Gaza area.

The Secretary said that the 1888 Convention spelled out the rights to be enjoyed and the six principles which had been accepted in the Security Council confirmed these rights. The matter of Aqaba was a different thing and should be differently handled.

The Secretary reiterated that Israel must realize that in the American Aide-Mémoire we were making a strong effort to find a solution. If one could not be worked out the resulting situation would spell disaster. The Secretary made it clear he was not talking about sanctions. The word “sanctions” was loosely used. What in effect did it mean? Some say that sanctions were being employed against the Soviet Union today. The greatest sanction was not a vote by the Security Council but the consequences of conduct which important governments considered unreasonable down the path toward peace and progress. The nations of the world had not moved far down this path. It would be a disaster if we turned back at this stage. There was a saying that “the perfect is the greatest enemy of the good”. We should not strive for perfection at the expense of good actions. The Secretary thought that we should continue to work in the UN and should go forward step by step. Both Israel and the United States, with their high moral standards, should work together. We believed that the views expressed in the American Aide-Mémoire recognized the merit of Ambassador Eban’s points and were the best method of achieving the results. We believed that we should proceed hand in hand and that if our paths should diverge the resulting situation would not be happy.

Ambassador Eban said that Israel was also endeavoring to work out a solution but that it did not want to withdraw from Gaza and the Straits of Aqaba and then to see the resumption of hostilities. The Secretary did not believe the British-French-Israel action had been justified in October. There was no objection, on the other hand, to the use of force when it was placed behind a clear principle admitted by the UN Charter. But it should not be used otherwise. In making this statement he should not be considered as a pacifist because his record clearly indicated his belief there were circumstances in which the use of force would be justified.

The Secretary suggested and Ambassador Eban agreed that the American Aide-Mémoire and the previous exchange of correspondence between President Eisenhower and Prime Minister Ben Gurion should not be made public without prior agreement between the United States and Israel. It was also agreed that, when Ambassador Eban was confronted by the press on leaving the Secretary’s office [Page 132] today he would merely state that there had been an exchange of views on UN problems relating to Gaza and Aqaba and how these problems might be solved.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 674.84A/2–1157. Confidential. Drafted by Wilkins. The time of the meeting is from Dulles’ Appointment Book. (Princeton University Library, Dulles Papers) A summary of this conversation was transmitted to Tel Aviv in telegram 778, February 11, repeated to Cairo and USUN. (Ibid.)
  2. According to the memorandum of telephone conversation prepared by Bernau, Dulles telephoned President Eisenhower at 8:42 a.m. that morning to report on recent developments concerning the aide-mémoire. Dulles mentioned that Hammarskjöld had made “one or two minor suggestions” concerning the document. (Eisenhower Library, Dulles Papers, White House Telephone Conversations)

    The U.S. aide-mémoire is infra.

  3. Hammarskjöld released Eban’s letter of February 10 as Annex IV to the Secretary-General’s report of February 11. (U.N. doc. A/3527) For text of Eban’s letter, see United States Policy in the Middle East, September 1956–June 1957, pp. 280-283.