144. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson1

Mr. President:

The purpose of this memorandum is to lay out a course of action for the coming week (or two weeks) which will maximize the chance that we can: (1) achieve our objectives in the Middle East without an Arab-Israeli war; and (2) should such an Arab-Israeli war come about, produce minimum damage to the U.S. position in the world and to our position in our own country, including continued support for the war in Viet Nam.

I. The Situation.

It is now increasingly clear that the Israelis will wait only about a week to take on themselves the forcing of the blockade at the Gulf of Aqaba. They clearly envisage forcing Nasser to fire the first shot; they will respond on a limited basis in Sinai but be prepared to fight a war against all the Arab forces arrayed against them without external assistance in manpower or other direct application of foreign military force.

The plan for an international regatta to force, say, an oil ship through the Straits is unlikely to get operational support except for four countries: the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and Netherlands.

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The moderate Arabs—and, in fact, virtually all Arabs who fear the rise of Nasser as a result of this crisis—would prefer to have him cut down by the Israelis rather than by external forces.

Beyond these factors the situation in the Middle East is that the radical nationalism represented by Nasser, while powerful at the moment in the wake of his breakthrough against U Thant, is waning: Arab socialism and other such doctrines have not proved successful; the moderates of the region (Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon) have done better than Egypt, Syria, and Iraq; Nasser’s plans for external expansion have not gone well; in short, we are dealing with Nasser not on a rising trend but in somewhat the same as Khrushchev in the Cuba missile crisis; Nasser is trying to achieve a quick fix against an underlying waning position.

Just beneath the surface is the potentiality for a new phase in the Middle East of moderation; a focusing on economic development; regional collaboration; and an acceptance of Israel as part of the Middle East if a solution to the refugee problem can be found. But all this depends on Nasser’s being cut down to size.

The problem before us is whether this crisis can be surmounted in ways which lead on to that historical transition and which avoid: the destruction of Israel, on the one hand, or the crystallization of a bloc unified only by a hostility to Israel, which would require us to maintain Israel as a kind of Hong Kong enclave in the region.

II. The Israeli Case for Unilateral Action.

The Israelis believe that their long-run future in the area—including the Arab mentality—requires that they solve the problem before them on their own. They wish in the end to be part of the Middle East. They feel that dealing with this situation on their own is necessary to achieve not merely self-respect but respect in the region.

They believe taking on the blockade themselves will make it easier for the United States to support them in other ways, short of troops. They believe it easier for the U.S. to honor its commitment of 1957 to recognize the legitimacy of their forcing the blockade than to mobilize on an international basis an effective U.S. and international commitment to use force to break the blockade. Their own diplomatic soundings, like ours, make clear how small the party would be prepared to use force to assert the international interests in the Gulf of Aqaba, including Israeli interests.

They perceive that the USSR is less likely to intervene with military force if they take on Nasser than for U.S. and a few friends to take on Nasser on the Aqaba issue; and they judge it would be better for U. S.-Arab relations in the long run, but also in terms of Western interests in Middle Eastern oil.

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III. The Moderate Arab View.

Although there is some conflict of judgment, the bulk of the evidence before us indicates that the moderate Arab view—as well as the view among our Ambassadors to the Arab world—is that it would be wiser for the Israelis to deal with the present situation than it would be for us.

IV. The U.S. Interest and Our Task.

  • —To open the Gulf of Aqaba to at least oil for Israel—which has become the test of who wins this trial of will and nerve—without war if possible.
  • —To do so in ways which maximize the chance of long-run peace in the area, including movement towards acceptance of Israel as part of the Middle East.
  • —In any case, to honor all commitments made in 1957—even, if, in the end, an Arab-Israeli war comes about; that is, our commitment to put through a U.S. flagship; to assert the right of free passage for others; and to regard Israeli counteraction to a UAR attempt to close Aqaba by armed force as involving for Israel legitimate rights of self-defense under the UN Charter.
  • —To act, in general, in such a way as to unify the political base in the U.S. around our Middle East policy so that we do not weaken the political foundations for our further conduct of the war in Viet Nam.

V. A Possible Scenario.

Here are the main elements in a scenario and their sequence—required to achieve these objectives.

—First, we must urgently make it clear to Nasser—which has not yet been made clear—that we intend to honor our 1957 commitments. His letter to you completely ignores what happened in 1957. He must be reminded that we undertook our commitments in order to get the Israelis off his neck; and it is a matter of honor and continuity of the American word that these commitments be honored. (In this context, a statement by General Eisenhower, and perhaps even a special visit to Cairo by Cabot Lodge—who was personally and directly involved in those events—may be important, as well as our conversations with Mohieddin and your reply to Nasser’s letter.)2

In making this point clear, we must also present to him a willingness to move forward with other critical issues in the area where progress is required, if, indeed, the region is to settle down and move towards peace and stability, including: the placement of UN observers on both sides of the borders; Arab refugees; regional economic development; [Page 275] water; and the damping down of the arms race. There is considerable legitimate argument as to whether Nasser is now postured as a Hitler, determined at all costs to exploit temporary Arab unity to crush Israel once and for all, or whether he is a shrewd operator, working off a weak base, willing to settle for as much as he can get from this crisis. If the latter is the case, a package deal of this kind is the best way to smoke him out. If he wants war, the Israelis and we will be in much better shape if we have laid the deal before the world.

  • —In any case, so far as U.S. public opinion is concerned, opinion in the Middle East, and opinion in the world, we must quickly produce a posture in which the hard-core issue of oil through Aqaba is diluted by the evocation of a larger, more attractive, and more basic objective; namely, to begin to transform the Middle East from its present dangerous, unstable situation into one in which there is the possibility, at least, of movement forwards toward cooperation, development and acceptance of Israel as part of the region.
  • —By the time we have transmitted this offer to Nasser, we would also have been able to take stock of the response to the declaration of innocent passage through Aqaba and have some feel for how many countries are willing to escort vessels going through the Gulf to Eilat. The stage would then be set for going to Congress and asking for a resolution. (About, say, Thursday of the coming week.)
  • —The resolution for which we would ask in this scenario would have these characteristics: It would recall and state the three 1957 commitments; it would empower us to use force, if necessary, to support the transit of Aqaba by U.S. flagships and those of other nations, except Israel; it would recognize the government of Israel’s expressed desire that it handle the question of its own flagships with its own force; but it would recognize that if the transit of such ships was met by armed force, the Israelis had the right of self-defense. The resolution would call for all parties to permit transit of the Gulf on the basis of the situation between 1957 and the present crisis; and it would appeal for movement forward with respect to peace in the area, including action on UN observers, refugees, development, the regional arms race, etc.
  • —Behind the scene we would be working for an Aqaba formula in which the oil flow would continue to Eilat; the Israelis would maintain their claim to put flagships through, but not exercise it; the UAR would ignore the fishing trawlers that go in and out of the Gulf; the International Court of Justice would take over the legal controversy involved; the forces in Sinai would demobilize; and, in this interval, we would try to get the Middle East and the world community to go to work on UN observers; refugees; development; etc. (With that kind of resolution and an explicit understanding that we would recognize Israeli rights of self-defense if their vessels were stopped by armed [Page 276] force, it might be possible to hold the Israelis for another week; that is, from Sunday, June 11 (roughly their present D-day) to the 18th of June. In that interval we would have to do two things: bring maximum pressure to bear to get a diplomatic settlement, including maximum pressure on Moscow; and organize a forcing of the blockade in terms of something like the following sequence, designed to fulfill the three U.S. commitments
  • —A U.S. vessel goes through with escort, bearing a civilian non-strategic cargo; although it might contain oil. On present evidence, that vessel would not be fired on, although if it contained oil it might be contested.
  • —A non-U.S. flagship (either Israeli-owned or not) would go through with a civil cargo, backed by whomever the naval powers turn out to be;
  • —Then, finally, an Israeli vessel would go through and the issue would be put squarely to Nasser to whether he would fire upon it, our having made it clear that we regard Israeli rights of self-defense as legitimate, if armed force were used to stop it; but the background to such Israelis forcing action would be a known formula that if oil were permitted to flow to Eilat, the Israelis were willing to have the whole matter put to the International Court of Justice.

VI. There are several gut questions unresolved in this proposed scenario, among them these:

Timing and the Israeli tactical military situation. As we now know, they would prefer to go directly to the test of the Israeli flag, and, in effect, have us stand down on our other commitments, except, of course, our commitment to regard their case as legitimate. Another reason they may wish this to have some element of control over the time which Nasser faces this showdown. If the objective of the exercise is a situation where we achieve oil to Eilat without a war, marching down quite openly to the sequence described above, is a superior scenario. It would also relieve us of a most dangerous problem; namely, of our knowing Israeli plans but holding them secret as did the British and French at the time of Suez, with all the consequent ugly debate and controversy which continued down to the present day. Our interest, and, in fact, the Israeli interest is to do this job like the sheriff in “High Noon”, rather than through tactical surprise and quiet secret understandings between Tel Aviv and Washington.

If we regard the transit of oil as the gut issue here, when should oil be brought in and under whose flag? On this I have no firm judgment but suspect the best auspices would be the most natural situation: a foreign flag backed by the escorting party. But there is some virtue in our taking oil in—preferably not Iranian oil with the U.S. flag flying.

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What, precisely, is the formula for Aqaba that Israel would accept? Is it prepared to accept a situation where oil goes through while the issue is taken to the International Court of Justice; trawlers go through with Israeli flag de facto; but, while reserving their legal rights to put Israeli flags through, they do not test that right until the International Court of Justice rules? My inclination would be to use maximum leverage with the Israelis to accept such a deal if Nasser accepts it, demobilizes his forces in Sinai, and accepts the agenda of UN observers; some progress on refugees; development; arms race talks; etc.


In the end, whether the outcome is an Arab-Israeli war or a successful transit of the crisis depends a good deal on the USSR. If we move in the way I have indicated, I am moderately optimistic that they will, in the clutch, throw considerable weight on Cairo to accept a pragmatic deal for the following reasons:

  • —They would not like to see U.S. and other naval powers actually exercised to force the Gulf of Aqaba for non-Israeli ships.
  • —I believe they honestly fear an Arab-Israeli war because they still believe that the Israelis will win it. If they win it after more than 10 years of pouring Soviet arms into the Middle East, the whole Soviet arms game will be profoundly degraded. It has already been substantially degraded by the outcome in Indonesia. If their military men calculate, like ours, that, at considerable cost in blood, the Israelis could now beat the Arabs armed with Soviet MIG-21s and Soviet tanks, they would do a good deal to avoid that demonstration. On reflection, I suspect this factor has played a big role in their anxiety about the Israelis launching an attack.
  • —Finally, they have carefully not committed themselves on the question of Aqaba and left it open for them, in the end, to play a kind of Tashkent role.3
  • —Therefore, if we move down this track and assert through the Congress our willingness to back our play on all three 1957 commitments, my hunch is that they will move rather fast to come up with their own kind of formula to avoid the war and try to portray their role as frustrating the designs of American imperialists and Israeli lackeys. If it all ends up with oil going to Eilat, the forces demobilized, UN observers, talk about refugees, development, etc., that would be quite okay with us.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Middle East Crisis, Vol. III. Secret. Rostow sent copies to Rusk and McNamara.
  2. See footnote 2, Document 148.
  3. Reference is to the Soviet role in bringing about the Tashkent Communiqué of January 10, 1966, in which India and Pakistan agreed to withdraw their forces to positions held before the 1965 fighting in Kashmir.