132. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • Near East Crisis

PARTICIPANTS

  • H. E. Avraham Harman, Ambassador of Israel
  • Mr. Ephraim Evron, Minister of Israel
  • The Secretary
  • M—Mr. Eugene V. Rostow
  • NEARodger P. Davies

Ambassador Harman, departing for consultation in Israel within a few hours, had asked to see the Secretary to learn what he could tell his government concerning U.S. assurances of support. The Secretary responded that at this juncture nothing could be added to what the President had already communicated to Prime Minister Eshkol.

In answer to Ambassador Harman's question on the Maritime Declaration, the Secretary said we hoped to get at least 14 adherents. Both the Dutch and the Belgians seemed to be aboard and, since Costa Rica supported the principle in 1957, we hoped to get support from this country and other Latin American states. The reaction in Bonn had been encouraging, but it might be well if Israel could work on the French and Canadians who seemed to be lagging.

Ambassador Harman said reports of Portuguese support for the Declaration were embarrassing since the Africans would be extremely sensitive to anything supported by Portugal. The important thing to Israel is the timetable. We should assure the closing off of Security Council action soon; the longer it runs on, the more difficulties there will be. Already the “breathing spell” was giving rise to rumors and reports of “deals”.

The Secretary said that apparently there had been a complete misrepresentation of the U.S. Government's position on the Declaration stemming from briefings that had been given in the Congress. It might ease matters if the Declaration could be made public, but we could not move in this direction until other governments had a chance to discuss it. We hope it can be released when it is clear that the Security Council can do nothing on the problem.

[Page 248]

In answer to the Ambassador's question, the Secretary said that the key issue was return to the status quo ante on use of the Gulf of Aqaba. Nasser, however, was firm on his present stand. Whether he can be moved is anybody's question. The Secretary indicated that the Maritime Declaration might provide a “handle” for the Secretary General to take further action and indicated that we have not had anything back from the Soviets on their attitude toward the question of the Strait.

The Ambassador asked whether he could faithfully report that the USG position is that there must be a return to the status quo ante, that there would be no “deal”.

The Secretary said this was what we were seeking to bring about. In the Security Council it is apparent that the Soviets would veto anything calling for the parties to forego belligerency. We believe we have eight votes in support of our draft resolution and are somewhat hopeful that we may be able to line up nine.

The Secretary said that in his talks with Iraqi Foreign Minister Pachachi 2 he did not find any “give” in the Arab position on the Gulf. Mr. Rostow said that he detected a little more flexibility in the course of his talks, although whether Pachachi had, in fact, any authority to negotiate was questionable.

The Ambassador repeated that the timetable on the Naval Task Force and next steps was of supreme importance to Israel.

The Secretary said we are going ahead on all contingencies, looking at all factors. Joint consultations would be started shortly. At present we have not developed a multilateral context, and from the Congressional angle this was of great importance. We believe the Dutch would join with us but are not sure now of the Canadians. It is important that we be joined by a half dozen or so before we can move ahead on timing. There have been no final decisions. On these, the President and the Prime Minister must be in touch.

The Ambassador said he would come to the crux of Israel's concern. The military situation is deteriorating rapidly.

Hussein's accord with Nasser, Arab military coordination, the dispatch of Iraqi troops to the UAR and Jordan, the move of Saudi troops to the Aqaba Gulf area, the big build-up of Syrian forces, the caving in of Lebanon with respect to Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) activities, and the stationing of PLA units on all frontiers are causing heightened [Page 249]concern in Israel. The time has come for effective resistance to Nasser. Nasser's declaration that the situation had been returned to that of 1956 was now followed by threats that it would be returned to that of 1948. Israel has mobilized 100,000 reservists in addition to its regular forces. In these circumstances Israel must know the modalities of the U.S. commitment. In addition to the direct threat to Israel of the coalescence of the Arabs around Nasser, there were ripples which must certainly concern the West, not only in connection with its position vis-à-vis the Soviets but also with the implications for Turkey and Iran. If there is a rapid show of strength in Tiran, this could affect the entire situation. Everyday the situation was allowed to continue however heightened pressures and danger. The question he would be asked in Jerusalem was: What is the attitude of the U.S. toward the question of the Strait and toward the general situation? What action would the U.S. take if hostilities began in either connection?

The Secretary said on such matters the President and the Prime Minister should be in touch. However, the question of who initiates military activities is important. The Soviets will support the Arabs if they are attacked. An Arab onslaught on Israel would create a different situation from that of an Israeli attack on the Arabs. This is a most important consideration for the Congress. Israel should weigh heavily any decision to attack.

Ambassador Harman said that those responsible for the destiny of Israel will not be prepared for any deal or a “Munich”. Israel is prepared to face the present danger and would prefer to face it than to have its security slowly eroded. Israel understands the importance of who fires the first shot, but does Israel have to accept 10,000 casualties before the U.S. will agree that aggression has occurred? Aggression exists in the build-up of forces on all of Israel's borders, the blockade of the Strait of Tiran, and the belligerent statements threatening the extinction of Israel. In the context of President Kennedy's statement of May 8, 1963, the aggression is already mounted.

The Secretary said that there is some difference between what is said and what is actually done.

The Secretary said that no one can say what the Soviets will do in the event of hostilities. However, if a Jihad mentality is evoked by the Arabs and the Arabs don't attack, how long can this state be maintained. A stalemate could work against Nasser.

Mr. Evron replied that a military build-up sets in motion a chain of events that probably will lead to military action.

The Secretary said we have been told categorically that Egypt will not attack. If we had these assurance from the Soviets in connection with our own security, the U.S. would not rush into a confrontation.

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Ambassador Harman said the Soviets were a different people from the Arabs. The Soviets played a rational form of brinkmanship. In answer to the Secretary's question as to how much influence the Soviets actually wielded in Cairo, Ambassador Harman said that this was a weakness on the Soviet side through which their restraint could be neutralized. Nasser's momentum is such that Israel's assumption is that he must be in deadly earnest.

Had Israel acted on May 23 against the advice received from the U.S., Israel would be facing a different political and military situation from that faced today. Israel was at a disadvantage.

The Secretary said that Nasser was sending former Prime Minister and Vice President Zakariyah Muhi ad-Din to Washington this week end. If he should say anything significant, we would let Israel know.

Ambassador Harman said Soviet moves now seemed directed toward gaining time and confirming the new status quo. Israel had a strong feeling that the Soviets would not seek a confrontation with the U.S. in the Middle East. The gut question in Israel is what would the U.S. do to help Israel?

The Secretary said this depends in part on who initiates hostilities. Ambassador Harman questioned what this meant. What does Israel have to take in a situation where she is threatened not with aggression but with genocide? Egypt's action in closing the Strait is a clear act of aggression. Israel was convinced that an attack was inevitable. Nasser has cast himself in a certain role, and now there is no room for any other course of action. If he is challenged quickly and strongly, this might prevent inflation of the conflict. Since May 16, Nasser has shown how he can make rapid moves. Israel operates from five airfields. This question is foremost in Israel's mind. Air power is decisive. If Israel loses initially, Israel has had it. There will be little to salvage. This situation can arise any time. Israel did not agree with the estimate given by Mr. McNamara and General Wheeler that it could absorb a first strike. Israel is not seeking hostilities, but Nasser seems to be playing “for broke”. The situation calls for speedy action. The farce in the Security Council must be broken up.

The Secretary said that there were some advantages to Security Council considerations. The fact that the Cuban problem was in the Security Council didn't affect the settlement, but it did allow some prestige to be salvaged which weighed in the settlement.

Ambassador Harman said the test of the Strait must be made in the course of next week. Secretary Rusk replied that the test would take place seven to nine days after a decision was reached. [Page 251]Ambassador Harman said that any testing must include an Israeli flagship. They had one, the Dolphin (ex-Arion)3 in Massawa ready to go.

The Secretary said that John Finney and Chalmers Roberts do not speak for the USG. What the Prime Minister and the President say to each other is the important factor. Ambassador Harman said the public in Israel lives on the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The Ambassador said he expected to return by Sunday4 evening.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL ISR–US. Top Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Davies. The time is from Rusk's Appointment Book. (Johnson Library)
  2. Rusk and Eugene Rostow met separately with Iraqi Foreign Minister Pachachi on June 1. Telegram 206672 to Baghdad, June 2, which summarized their conversations, is printed in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XXI, Document 193. After meeting with Rusk and Rostow, Pachachi met with the President. No record of that conversation has been found.
  3. According to a telegraphic summary of the conversation, the Dolphin was formerly the Greek-owned Arion. (Telegram 207977 to Tel Aviv, June 3; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL ARAB–ISR)
  4. June 4.