131. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson1
Evron came in today at 11:00 a.m. with the following extremely important statement. It is not (repeat not) a communication from the Government of Israel. Moreover, he underlined several times the need for it to be held within our government in the narrowest possible circle.
Nevertheless, Evron does not talk irresponsibly.
Here is his statement.
Time is working rapidly against Israel.
Nasser’s forces are being built up and digging in. The Arab military forces are being unified and consolidated. The economic costs for Israel are rising. The political and psychological pressures for a prompt solution are increasing.
- They took our advice to wait as a cold, responsible calculus. Nevertheless, it is now clear that the military cost to them of a war with Egypt is rising every day.
He then asked what our reaction would be to the following scenario:
The probe at the Gulf of Aqaba would not be made under the protection of an international armada. It would be made by an Israeli ship. The first shot would be fired by the UAR. Acting on the principle asserted by Golda Meir in the attached UN statement of 1 March 19572 (to which Lodge assented),3 Israel would attack the installations at Sharm al-Sheikh covering the straits of Aqaba. The next move would be Nasser’s. The Israelis believe he would attack Israel on a wide front and probably other Arab nations would join in the attack.
- His questions then were:
- —Would the United States stand by its political commitment in 1957 that Israel under these circumstances was asserting a legitimate right of self-defense?
- —Would the United States stand off any Soviet intervention in that kind of war?
- I immediately replied that this was not a question to which I could give a responsible answer. I said that the scenario he outlined was not the one raised by Foreign Minister Eban with the President; but, obviously, it was an alternative which might be considered. I said I would report it to the President.
- I then asked some questions on a wholly personal basis:
First: How much time did they think they had?
He replied that they had made a commitment to hold steady for about two weeks. He would measure that from the Cabinet meeting last Sunday. Therefore, he was talking about things that might happen in the week after next; that is, the week beginning Sunday, June 11—although he indicated that there was nothing ironclad about the time period being exactly two weeks.
Second, I asked him what about the stories of the Israelis buying and organizing ships to run the blockade on a national basis?
He said they were taking action of this kind; but they would not move to run the blockade without there being a clear political decision in Israel, of which we would be made aware.
- Two other points emerged in the final stage of our conversation. First, he appeared to suggest that it might be better for us in our relations with both the Arab world and the Soviet Union if we were not the ones to force the issue. He also referred to intelligence which we share that Nasser’s response to a U.S.-escorted probe would be not to fire. Therefore, the issue of Israeli access to the Gulf of Aqaba might be left hanging indecisively.
- Second—and fundamental to his whole presentation—was the question: Do we still stand by Lodge’s assent (and Foster Dulles’) to Golda Meir’s statement in General Assembly? The track discussed between Eban and the President—on which we have hitherto been moving—is consistent with the commitments made in 1957 that we would ourselves assert the right of innocent passage; that we would assert that right on behalf of others; but that we would have to engage through our constitutional processes if we were to use force to assert that right with force on behalf of others. What is involved in the track he is suggesting is reaffirmation of the other branch of our 1957 commitment incorporated in the Golda Meir statement and Lodge’s assent.
WWR comment: Although it cannot be emphasized too strongly that Evron was not making a formal communication from his Government, I believe we should most urgently consider the track he suggests. It has always been an alternative. It has its attractions, as one measures up the consequences for our relations with the Arab world and the Soviet Union, as compared to that which was agreed with Eban. It also carries the risk of a terrible blood bath. There is also the possibility of a combined scenario—in which the Israelis assume responsibility for responding to attack on their flag ship, but against the background of a naval force standing by to shepherd through other flagships. But this—like the Eban scenario—would require a prior Congressional Resolution.
- Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Middle East Crisis, Vol. III. Secret; Eyes Only. A handwritten “L” on the memorandum indicates the President saw it. Saunders sent a copy to John Walsh with a memorandum of December 10, 1968, commenting that the memorandum was the clearest statement “on whether we had a ‘commitment’ from Eshkol to wait two weeks.” He added, however, “but even there there’s a possibility of our overreading. I was there and sat through Walt’s dictation of the memo and believed at the time it reflected accurately what Eppie said. But by that time, even Eppie may have been overtaken by thinking in Jerusalem.” Saunders indicated that Walsh should particularly note Evron’s reply to Rostow’s first question in paragraph 6. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL ISR–US)↩
- Reference is to a copy of the second document that Harman gave to Eugene Rostow on May 26; see footnote 3, Document 69. It quotes paragraph 13 of Foreign Minister Golda Meir’s speech of March 1, 1957, before the UN General Assembly, which reads in part: “Interference, by armed force, with ships of Israel flag exercising free and innocent passage in the Gulf of Aqaba and through the Straits of Tiran, will be regarded by Israel as an attack entitling it to exercise its inherent right of self-defence under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and to take all such measures as are necessary to ensure the free and innocent passage of its ships in the Gulf and in the Straits.”↩
- The attachment also quotes Lodge’s statement before the UN General Assembly on March 1, 1957, taking note of the declarations in Meir’s statement and indicating that its expectations were “not unreasonable.”↩