36. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, August 5, 19581


  • Use of Israel Airspace for Airlift to Jordan


  • Mr. Abba Eban, Ambassador of Israel
  • Mr. Ya’acov Herzog, Minister, Embassy of Israel
  • Mr. Shimon Peres, Director General, Israel Ministry of Defense
  • The Acting Secretary
  • NEStuart W. Rockwell
  • NEWilliam L. Hamilton

Ambassador Eban handed the Acting Secretary a letter from Prime Minister Ben Gurion to the Secretary, a copy of which is attached, expressing the latter’s consent to U.S. resumption of its airlift to Jordan through Israel and denying there was any relationship between [Page 84] his request to Ambassador Lawson that the airlift be terminated and the Soviet note of August 1 charging that Israel’s assistance to the airlift was aggressive.

Ambassador Eban said it was impossible to exaggerate the distress the Prime Minister would feel if any doubt remained in the President’s or the Secretary’s mind about Israel’s determination to resist Communism. There was room for divergence of opinion and judgment on questions of mutual concern but Israel would like to think that one thing was regarded as axiomatic—that there can be no question of Israel’s principles in regard to Communism and tyranny and democracy and human freedom. To the Government of Israel, the most urgent aspect of the problem arising from the airlift was the elimination of U.S. doubts about Israel’s steadfastness. Mr. Eban asked that this sense of urgency be conveyed to the Secretary and the President as soon as possible.

On the practical problem itself and contrary to the general public impression, Israel’s doubts about the airlift were not created by the Soviet note which Israel had no intention of answering in haste.

Governor Herter asked if he was correct in assuming that the Israelis were holding up their reply to the Soviets to be able to give them a definitive answer on the circumstances of the airlift and Israel’s termination of its consent to use of its airspace.

Mr. Eban repeated that his Government was in no hurry to respond to the note which, when prepared, would reject the suggestion that there was anything connecting international illegitimacy either about the airlift itself or Israel cooperation. “It’s a queer aggression,” Mr. Eban said, “if only one in eleven nations so defines it.” Mr. Herzog remarked that the Cabinet would not be meeting on the issue until next Sunday, August 10, and the reply certainly would not be made before then. There was no reason to suppose that it would be made with any haste thereafter.

Mr. Eban remarked that when originally approached about the overflights, they had stressed the desirability of the more rational route via Aqaba. He proposed that U.S. representatives in Tel Aviv get in touch immediately with Colonel Harkabi of the Israel Defense Force, whom he described as the liaison officer on the airlift, to begin discussions on the technical level for the purpose of terminating the airlift as soon as possible consistent with U.S. requirements.

Governor Herter concurred and introduced the question of how to move quickly to dispel the impression in the public mind, which was extremely unfortunate to Western interests in the Middle East, that the Israel action was responsive to Soviet demands. A discussion of how best to modify the impression ensued. Mr. Eban volunteered to tell the press that contact between the U.S. and Israel, which had been established with the inception of the airlift, was continuing without interruption [Page 85] and, contrary to reports in the press, the flights were going on.2


Letter From Prime Minister Ben Gurion to Secretary of State Dulles3

Dear Mr. Secretary: I am distressed and surprised by a misunderstanding which has arisen in your mind of what I conveyed to Ambassador Lawson and Sir Francis Randall on August 2.

In these conversations I was not dealing with our basic approach to global issues [11/2 lines of source text not declassified]. For many centuries our people has demonstrated, no less than any other nation, its capacity of resistance to the threats of powerful forces. For forty years, millions of our brethren in the Soviet Union itself have stood up to fearful pressures without abandoning their Jewish consciousness and their spiritual heritage. I was therefore shocked to hear that you found it possible to say to our Ambassador that Israel had “caved in” immediately to a Soviet threat, and that a Soviet letter can bring us to submission. I cannot imagine, Mr. Secretary, how it could occur to you that we are capable of “subservience to Soviet Threats”. We do not have the physical strength which certain great nations possess. But I venture to say that we do not fall short of any nation in the world in moral courage. Were this not the case, no trace of us would have been left a long time ago.

I even believe that Israel in her ten years of existence has incurred more risks, defied more threats, displayed greater resolution in grave hours than most other nations in the world, including many less vulnerable and exposed than us. Although we have no doubt of the sincere interest of the United States in the independence and integrity of Israel, as expressed by the President in his last letter to me, we have never been granted a guarantee of our integrity. Moreover, we have not heard that the Soviet Union has ever been told concerning Israel what it has been told about the consequences of an attack on Turkey; nor have we ever been told that clear and explicit words about the United States interest in our integrity and independence have been said to Nasser and other Arab rulers who openly declare the policy of [Page 86] destroying Israel. We are surrounded by foes who receive abundant arms from the Soviet Union, and who receive Western arms as well, and yet we are not intimidated. I must however admit that we are concerned because up to now we have not been successful in receiving arms assistance from the United States.

As you personally are aware, we have incurred great risks for ourselves and our brethren in relation to the Soviet Union in days before the Middle East resolution of the United States Congress4 was adopted, as well as since that time. In the days immediately following the American and British actions in Lebanon and Jordan, at a time when the air was full of tension and the possibility of world conflict, I did not object to flights over Israel territory in connection with the American air demonstration over Jordan; to an airlift of British troops to Jordan; to an American oil airlift; and to a continuation of British and American supplies to British troops in Jordan for a number of days.

On the other hand, from July 16 onwards I have constantly urged the advisability of finding an alternative route. The use of Israel’s territory has involved us in serious embarrassments and dangers. To this day I cannot understand why three weeks after the first landing the alternative route has not been brought into full use.

It is my best judgment that we should try to prevent the tensions created for us and others by this over-flight procedure, and should concentrate all energies on developing the other route. I believe that it was legitimate for me to have this judgment on the over-flight question without my basic stand on the great world issues being called into question.

I admit that the Soviet Note caused us concern. The vast disparity between Soviet strength and Israel strength makes this concern worthy of understanding. But you know of our contributions to the efforts of free people to stem the tide of communism will, on reflection, not believe that a threat, even from so powerful a source, would deter us from doing something vital to the cause of human freedom, which is Israel’s cause.

In making decisions involving risk at critical times I have never had the feeling that Israel’s security is as firmly guaranteed as is that of other nations within the free world. I take note of the categorical and emphatic way in which you have informed me, through Ambassador Eban, that if a Soviet attack took place against Israel the armed forces of the United States would come to our aid under the Eisenhower Doctrine. I cannot refrain from pointing out that such important and explicit words have never been embodied in any written document from the United States to us. You also said to Ambassador Eban that [Page 87] Israel is guaranteed against Soviet attack no less explicitly than any other country. This last point is still not fully clear to me and I should like to return to it on another occasion.

[1 paragraph (51/2 lines of source text) not declassified]

Four days have passed and we have not yet replied to the Soviet Note. I told my Cabinet on Sunday that the reply would not be sent before next week.

I note that you do not regard the British request for a new airlift of troops as vital. I did not believe, when I sent my message to Ambassador Lawson, that the American supply airlifts were crucial in themselves. But if you think it necessary I now propose that we consult together in an effort to find an agreed arrangement for bringing them to a conclusion in a manner satisfactory to both our governments.

Above everything else, I am convinced, Mr. Secretary, of the urgent need to strengthen the links between the countries which I mentioned in my letter to the President. I am certain that nothing will more effectively prevent the spread of Soviet influence in the Middle East, both directly and indirectly through the aid of Nasser and communists in Arab countries, than the internal consolidation of the countries of this group and the strengthening of their mutual ties with each other, albeit for the time being without publicity.

I am studying with the deepest interest and attention the important letter which I have received from you on this subject.5

Yours sincerely,

David Ben Gurion6
  1. Source: Department of State, IO/UNP Files: Lot 59 D 582, Israel—General. Secret. Drafted by Hamilton on August 6 and approved by Herter.
  2. Following the discussion of overflights, the conversation turned to arms requirements with Peres stating the Israeli needs. A memorandum of this part of the conversation is ibid., Central Files, 784A.56/8–558.
  3. No classification marking. A letter of transmittal from Eban to Herter, August 5, is not printed.
  4. See footnote 3, Document 10.
  5. Document 32.
  6. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.