129. Telegram From the Embassy in Portugal to the Department of State1

1517. Eyes Only for President and SecState from Robert Anderson.

There follows a summary of my talk with President Nasser. Unless otherwise indicated, I will be trying to express his point of view to me.
After exchange of pleasantries, Nasser said he became worried and afraid of Israeli attack because of speeches and his own intelligence of mobilization by Israel and the intelligence shared with Syrian Govt. As an example, he stated that 13 brigades were mobilized near Syria.
Nasser explained that he did not want repetition of 1956 affair when he was reluctant to believe that an attack had begun and was slow in moving troops to Sinai only to be caught between the Israelis in the north and the British at Port Said. He said he felt he had no choice but to mobilize and send troops to Sinai, which he did, and request the removal of UN forces. While he did not say so, I believe he was surprised at the rapidity of the removal of UN troops because he said they were only a token force and would have created no real obstacle.
He was asked specifically if he intended to begin any conflict and he said to please explain to my govt that he would not begin any fight but would wait until the Israelis had moved. This was qualified by saying that he did not know what the Syrians would do and had worried all day (Wednesday)2 for fear the Syrians might start something out of anger because of the pact which he had made with Hussein. He also stated, that, contrary to most public opinion, he did not have control over the radical elements of refugee organizations who were interested only in starting a conflict because they had no real responsibility for the conduct of military affairs. He was asked if this conflict occurred, for example, if Syria should attack against his desires, whether he would [Page 234] respond and he answered affirmatively, saying that any conflict begun, whether in Jordan or Syria, would necessarily bring response from him.
It was pointed out that if Israel felt she was virtually alone she might be motivated to strike first in order to secure a strategic advantage and that so long as she felt she had friends she might be restrained. Nasser replied that this was a risk which he would have to accept and that he thought first Israeli target and main thrust of Israeli offensive would be against Egypt and Cairo. He said that elaborate plans had been made for instant retaliation, and that he was confident of the outcome of a conflict between Arabs and Israelis.
Nasser said that Hussein requested a meeting with him and that he agreed on the basis that it would be secret unless an agreement was reached between them. Nasser then consulted with the govts of Morocco, Algeria, Iraq and Syria. All of these agreed that some agreement with Hussein was desirable except Syria who was opposed to any agreement with Jordan. He was asked if he had consulted directly or indirectly [with] the Saudi Arabs and he replied that he had no contact, direct or indirect, with the Saudi Arabs or Faisal. However, Nasser felt that Faisal was in a difficult position and could not avoid participation if fighting began.
With reference to Gulf of Aqaba, Nasser stated that for eight years after 1948 the Straits had been closed to Israeli shipping and was open only by the illegal act of Israel, France and England, and he proposed merely to return to the status of 1956 which had been at least tolerated by all the nations for eight years. He explained that even we had deplored and opposed the act of the Israelis, British and French which changed the status quo in 1956. He stated that the Straits of Tiran were navigable only in a width of three miles which was clearly territorial waters and that he intended to maintain this position. He was asked specifically what commerce he would allow through the Straits under his concept and he replied by saying that the exclusions would be 1) Israeli ships, 2) oil or any refined products, and 3) arms for Israel. Here he stated that all countries claimed territorial waters to a greater distance offshore than he was asserting and further that he was at war with Israel and had been since 1948 with nothing existing between them except an armistice, and that under these circumstances he was entitled to assert jurisdiction.
He was asked if he would consider referring this matter of the Straits to either the United Nations or the World Court, in view of the fact that four countries had borders on the Gulf. He replied that he would not submit the question to the UN because the Israelis normally treated resolutions of the UN not favorable to them as “pieces of paper.” He said that he did not have sufficient knowledge of the World Court to [Page 235] answer specifically about referring the matter to the World Court for decision but would consult his legal advisers. This was qualified by saying that he did not want to undertake any course of action that would take “years” to decide.
He also stated that even if he agreed on some other course of action, any other course of action would be strongly opposed by all Arab countries who were now his allies. On this point he seemed on the one hand adamant about the position he had taken in the Straits and yet he did not rule out completely possibility of a World Court review if it could be done speedily. For the time being I think he will remain firm.
He was asked if he was not prepared to accept Israel as a matter of fact, even though he might have emotional and legal feelings concerning the establishment of the country in Palestine. Nasser replied by saying that he did not believe stable and lasting peace could be achieved without disposing of the refugee problem. He was asked if this could be done by compensation as well as some limited return of refugees. He replied that he thought practically all refugees would return if permitted and that even if compensation were paid they would not be satisfied but would continue to agitate for return to Palestine. He went into long discourse on Arab mentality as it affects their feelings toward the place where they were born and reared.
Nasser stated that he had been prepared to sign an agreement with the Monetary Fund but had just received a letter saying that the Fund wished to review their relationships with Egypt further. He then stated he was glad he had not signed the agreement with the Fund because they were unreasonable and left him no flexibility. He emphasized that he did not want to be subject to economic pressure. It was explained to him that neither the Fund nor local American banks were in fact exerting pressure when they did not comply with national requests since they were all governed by strict rules that limited their own flexibility in making loans to countries that did not comply with all regulations.
Nasser expressed keen desire to have friendship of American people and American Govt explaining that under no circumstances was he a Communist. On other hand, he felt that US policy was motivated largely by the large Jewish vote in US and that American Govt would be reluctant to oppose this voting strength. He then called attention to the fact that Eisenhower had taken a strong position in 1956 against Israeli invasion and this had not hurt him politically.
He seemed anxious to have Zakaria Mohieddin explain his position directly to US Govt and said he hoped we would take the long view because the Arab countries stretched from Morocco on the west to Pakistan on the east and that now he even had the support of Pakistan [Page 236] and India. He did not see how a minority in the US could influence US policy to oppose what such a vast region and such large numbers of people believed proper. It was explained to him that the US Govt was not motivated by political considerations but was concerned essentially in maintaining peace and the integrity of countries.
At this time Nasser said that if the policy was for Arabs and Israelis to live together harmoniously and Israel should allow a million refugees to come back to Palestine, which would solve the refugee problem and still the Israelis would have two million of their own citizens in the same country, this, he said, would be true “living together.”
He made it clear that he felt US was taking the lead in peace efforts but that these efforts were oriented toward Israel and not toward the Arab point of view. He kept reassuring me that he was not going to start a war but that he was not responsible for all groups and that he would intervene in any actual conflict begun. He stated that under present circumstances Jordanian troops, insofar as the Israeli problem was concerned, were under UAR command. This of course is applicable to other troops such as Iraqis and Algerians who were reporting for duty.
This I think summarizes the basic points of our conversation on which I will elaborate further on my return.
For your general information I spent three days in Beirut before going to Cairo. During this visit I saw Saudi Arabs, Kuwaitis and Iraqis, as well as Lebanese. They are people who are generally moderate and have a tendency to oppose Nasser. At this time they were all applauding Nasser’s action, insisting on the closing of the Gulf of Aqaba and taking a position that the US was supporting a minority for political purposes. I am impressed more because of the quality of the people who made these assertions than the fact that they were made. Under the circumstances it would seem desirable that whatever international arrangements are thought proper it would be helpful if the initiative could be taken by some country other than US and that US be in a position of support of international efforts to secure peace rather than leadership which seems to be construed as favoring Israeli cause.
[sic] During our conversation Nasser was relaxed, in sport clothes, and seemed confident both of his intelligence and of his military capability. We had no discussion re Soviets except his assertion that he was not and would not be Communist. I believe he would regard any effort to open the Straits of Tiran as hostile and any act of aggression, whether originating from Israel or resulting from actions in Syria by the terrorist groups, would bring response. He stated that his target system was prepared and that this time he would be ready.
I am proceeding to send message to Cairo through US Embassy to Nasser which will result in Zakaria Mohieddin arriving in New York presumably Sunday or early in week. I will return to New York Saturday3 afternoon and will be available to come to Washington Sunday or thereafter. I can be reached through Embassy here today and tomorrow morning, if desired.
Upon rereading this text I want to make clear as I understand it UAR has military command over its own troops, the Jordanian troops as related to any Israeli problem, the troops committed by Iraq, Algeria or any country sending troops, but does not include command over Syrian troops. It is because of this latter situation which I think bothers Nasser as to whether or not the Syrians might undertake unilateral action designed to force a confrontation. It was because of his concern on this subject that he was asked if he would intervene even if the Syrians acted against UAR desires and the reply was affirmative.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL ARAB–ISR. Top Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Received at 8:29 a.m. Walt Rostow sent a copy to the President at 12:40 p.m. with a memorandum stating, “It is urgent that we decide whether we should inform the Israelis of this visit. My guess is their intelligence will pick it up. We would be wise to have Sec. Rusk tell Harman.” He also added, “In the light of this picture of Nasser’s mind, we must work out most carefully the scenario for talks with Mohieddin.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Middle East Crisis, Anderson Cables)
  2. May 31.
  3. June 3.