16. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, April 4, 19581

SUBJECT

  • Israel Warships in the Gulf of Aqaba

PARTICIPANTS

  • Mr. Ya’acov Herzog, Minister, Embassy of Israel
  • Mr. Yohanan Meroz, Counselor, Embassy of Israel
  • NEAWilliam M. Rountree
  • NEDonald C. Bergus

Mr. Rountree said that he had asked Mr. Herzog to call to discuss the Gulf of Aqaba. This subject created many difficulties for us in our relations with the Arabs, particularly Saudi Arabia. As the Moslem pilgrimage season approached, the question gained importance. In view of the present state of the relations between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Republic, more attention would probably be directed to the Gulf. The U.S. continued to maintain its position that the Gulf of Aqaba was open to the ships of all nations. The presence of Israel warships in the Gulf complicated our position and the problem. We appreciated the fact that these vessels had been tied up for a number of months. Nevertheless, their presence continued to exacerbate the problem for us in our relations with the Arabs. We had concluded that we should suggest to Israel, in the interests of peace and stability in the area, and as a major contribution to such stability, that it remove the war vessels from the Gulf. We realized that this would be a decision of some magnitude for Israel. It was our considered judgment, [Page 37]however, that it would be in the best interests of all concerned, including Israel, to remove this extremely sharp thorn from the situation. The warships also raised serious legal questions. The passage of these ships in waters outside their immediate port area might well violate generally accepted principles of international law. We had asked our Embassy in Tel Aviv to take up this matter with the Israel Government and we were also drawing the attention of the Israel Embassy here to it.2

Mr. Herzog referred to previous assurances given by Israel, for transmission to the Saudis, if desired, that Israel was prepared to give every guarantee and assistance to Moslem pilgrims. Mr. Rountree felt that, despite the spirit in which Israel had said these things, their effect had been counter-productive. Mr. Herzog said that another possibility which had occurred to the Israelis was that the U.S. might guarantee to the Saudis that nothing would happen in the Gulf affecting them so long as the Saudis did not interfere with Israel interests. He recalled that for at least eight months the Israel warships had been tied up, as a result of personal orders issued by Prime Minister Ben Gurion. Israel had taken this step despite a belief that it was perfectly legal for warships to transit territorial waters of other countries so long as the warships took no threatening action. Generally speaking, Israel had been apprehensive lest Prince Faisal might reopen the question of the Gulf of Aqaba.

Mr. Herzog said he would of course transmit the Department’s suggestion to his Government. As a personal observation, he wondered whether the movement of Israel warships from the Gulf might not involve the forfeiture of Israel rights. If Israel could not keep warships there, other Israel rights with respect to the Gulf might be challenged. There was the further question of security. If the warships were withdrawn and Saudi Arabia then attempted to interfere with Israel shipping, the Israelis would then have to use air power. He asked if the recent vote in the Geneva Law of the Sea conference had any bearing on this matter.3 Mr. Rountree replied that he had not yet had an opportunity to consult with our Legal Adviser as to the implications of this vote. Mr. Rountree said that our primary concern with respect to the Israel warships was not legal but political. He did, however, have certain legal misgivings. It might well be in time of peace there existed a right for warships to transit territorial waters. However, it must be remembered that the Egypt–Israel General Armistice [Page 38]Agreement4 forbade the warships of one party to enter the territorial waters of the other.

Mr. Herzog called attention to press reports which had appeared that morning to the effect that Egypt was receiving three more submarines from the Soviet bloc. He felt this had a bearing on the security problem. Israel over the past few months had received reports that the Egyptians might try to put submarines into the Gulf of Aqaba. There had been other reports that the Egyptians would establish stations on the shore line for divers (from which they could carry on sabotage missions) and gun emplacements. Fortunately none of these reports had thus far proven true. He asked whether, if Israel acceded to this suggestion of the U.S., we felt that we would be able to influence Faisal’s position on the Gulf. Mr. Rountree commented that this move by Israel could help relieve Arab pressure on Saudi Arabia to do something about the Gulf. He did not, however, for a moment believe that this gesture would alter Saudi Arabia’s general position on the Gulf. Despite this, he felt that this move on the part of Israel would be a major contribution to area stability.

Mr. Herzog said there seemed to be a vicious circle in this matter. The Arab Union countries used the presence of Israel shipping in the Gulf as a weapon in their propaganda war with Nasser. Nasser then deflected this pressure to Saud who turned on the U.S. as a result. He wondered whether the U.S. might not use its influence with the Arab Union countries to choke off this process at the start. Mr. Rountree felt that the reasons for this practice on the part of the Arab Union countries were obvious. Furthermore, the Egyptians might well feel hampered with respect to this particular issue because of their January 28, 1950 note on the subject of the Gulf of Aqaba.5

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 980.74/4–458. Secret. Drafted by Bergus and initialed by Rountree.
  2. This instruction was transmitted to Tel Aviv in telegram 698, April 2. (Ibid., 980.74/4–258)
  3. Reference is to the First Law of the Sea Conference, February 24–April 27, 1958.
  4. For text of the Israeli-Egyptian Armistice Agreement, signed at Rhodes, February 24, 1949, see United Nations, Official Records of the Security Council, Fourth Year, Special Supplement No. 3.
  5. See Foreign Relations, 1950, vol. V, pp. 711, 722.