32. Telegram From the Mission to the United Nations to the Department of State1

5399. Subj: Middle East Crisis.

May 22, 1967

Dear Mr. Secretary General:

As you depart for your highly significant trip to the Middle East I wish to convey to you the best wishes of the United States Government and our support for your efforts to preserve the peace and maintain an effective United Nations presence in the area.

We share your view that the situation in the Middle East is more menacing than at any time since 1956. We are especially concerned that, whatever intentions may have been when the current crisis began, miscalculation or uncontrolled provocation may now slide the area into direct conflict. Every effort must be made to avoid this and to preserve for the future, at a minimum, the relative calm that has prevailed in the Middle East for the past ten years. The United Nations and its effective presence on the ground is in our view the most likely means through which this might be accomplished.

I have already expressed to you the profound regret of the United States Government about the decision to withdraw UNEF from the area. While we are not unaware of the physical and factual problems which confronted you, nevertheless it was and is our view that a decision of this magnitude required as a minimum adequate consultation [Page 50] with all appropriately concerned governments, including our own. The first official information the United States received of the initial exchange in which the basic decision was taken was over 16 hours after it had taken place.

I have also indicated to you that it was and remains the view of the United States that while non-enforcement peacekeeping operations require consent of the governments concerned, nevertheless in this instance the consent to the establishment of the force carried with it understandings regarding the circumstances of its withdrawal, and that in any event the final decision could only be appropriately taken after consideration by the General Assembly. The record to us is compelling. The manner and circumstances under which withdrawal of UNEF would be decided was thoroughly examined at the time of its establishment with a view to averting precipitate incidents of the sort we have just faced, and in fact the departure of the force to the United Arab Republic was delayed over this area.

The then Secretary General on November 13, 1956 completed a series of exchanges with the Foreign Minister of Egypt leading to the despatch of the force, stating that “withdrawal of consent leading to the withdrawal of forces before the task was completed, although within the rights of the Egyptian Government, would go against its acceptance of the basic resolution of the General Assembly” and that “the question of withdrawal would be a matter for discussion to the extent that different views were held as to whether the task established by the General Assembly was fulfilled or not”.2 The Secretary General made it clear to us, as to others, that the question of whether the task assigned to the force was completed would have to be submitted to the General Assembly. This was explicitly also his view with respect to the aide-memoire concluded with Egypt and noted with approval by the General Assembly in Resolution 1121 (XI)3 which followed shortly thereafter.

This corresponded to the views and understandings of other governments involved in the establishment of UNEF, including the United States. Our view on this was officially stated at various times. A memorandum to this effect delivered to the then Secretary General on March 15, 1957, on the occasion of a visit by him to Cairo, is attached.4

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I do not seek to document fully in this letter the history of this issue, other aspects of which I referred to in our conversation of May 17 in which I urged you to consult with the General Assembly before any decision was taken.5 But I do wish to say that the United States, having itself brought the 1956 crisis to the Security Council against the wishes of its closest allies and having been one of the most firm supporters of UNEF throughout its history also had and continues to have a special concern in the matter.

We have refrained from commenting publicly on these matters other than to express our regret at the decision because of the extreme delicacy and gravity of the situation and because we do not believe such comment would be helpful to the United Nations in circumstances where it is already suffering in both general and informed opinion as a result of last week’s developments. We are expressing ourselves in candor on this subject because of its overriding importance for the future and not out of any desire to second guess your actions, which we recognize were taken under difficult circumstances and obviously out of the best of motives.

I am sure we share the common view that the imperative task now is to make all possible efforts to turn aside the rising state of tension and the military buildup in the Middle East and re-establish conditions under which the prohibition of the use of force in any form, is fully respected. I have previously advised you that the United States Government is using its fullest diplomatic influence with all governments in the area, as with others, to this effect. I have also previously told you that any allegations that the United States Government or any of its agencies are engaged in a conspiracy in the Middle East are totally unfounded. These allegations have been mischievously and deliberately spread. You are authorized to convey our firm denial of them and our reaffirmation that the United States is opposed to any aggression or violence in the Middle East regardless of the direction from which it comes and whether it is direct or indirect.

As you go to Cairo you will be speaking on behalf of an organization which has repeatedly-both through the Security Council and through the General Assembly-called for the maintenance of peace in the Middle East. You will be speaking against the background of constructive exercise of United Nations authority in the area for twenty years. Nowhere in the world has the United Nations exercised such decisive influence in the interests of peace, and we know that your objective will be to revitalize that contribution to the maximum.

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In particular, the United States urges that in your discussions in the area your primary specific objective, in the pursuit of restoring peaceful conditions, be to retain the maximum possible degree of effective United Nations presence on the ground along the frontiers and points of sensitivity between the United Arab Republic and Israel. We fully share your view as expressed in your report to the Security Council that the Gaza Strip and the Sharm-el-Sheikh are particularly sensitive areas, involving as they do a large number of refugees and the Palestine Liberation Organization and the international character of the Straits of Tiran and Gulf of Aqaba.

In this connection, you are no doubt aware of the policy of the United States Government with respect to the Straits of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba as stated by Ambassador Lodge in the General Assembly on March 1, 1957, a policy which remains that of the United States Government today:

“The United States believes that the Gulf comprehends international waters and that no nation has the right to prevent free and innocent passage in the Gulf and through the Straits giving access thereto. We have in mind not only commercial usage, but the passage of pilgrims on religious missions, which should be fully respected.

“The United States recalls that on January 28, 1950, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed the United States that the Egyptian occupation of the two islands of Tiran and Senafir at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba was only to protect the islands themselves against possible damage or violation and that ‘this occupation being in no way conceived in a sprit of obstructing in any way innocent passage through the stretch of water separating these two islands from the Egyptian coast of Sinai, it follows that this passage, the only practicable one, will remain free as in the past, in conformity with international practices and recognized principles of the law of nations.’

“In the absence of some overriding decision to the contrary, as by the International Court of Justice, the United States, on behalf of vessels of United States registry, is prepared to exercise the right of free and innocent passage and to join with others to secure general recognition of this right.”6

The right of free and innocent passage through these waters is a vital interest of the international community and a vital interest, as you know, of the State of Israel in particular. I hope you will convey to the [Page 53] UAR the conviction that any interference whatever with these international rights could have the gravest international consequences.

What the details of a continued effective United Nations presence on the ground would be we do not seek at this point to define, as this necessarily must be explored in the first instance in negotiations with the parties concerned. But we do believe that you should not yield on the principle of an effective United Nations presence on the ground, the experience of so many years having demonstrated the decisive contribution it can make.

While the situation between the United Arab Republic and Israel is currently acute because of the movements of troops and ships and extensive mobilization involved, we trust also that you will give close attention to the problems on other frontiers, especially that between Syria and Israel. The record of Security Council action in the past two years demonstrates that recent tensions have most often arisen in that area, and the current critical situation clearly arises from those troubles. Questions of the degree to which the armistice agreement is really being carried out and of the capability of United Nations machinery are both involved. We concur in your statement that El Fatah activities are a major factor and that some recent incidents indicate a new level of organization and training as well as your statement opposing resort to force by any party and appeal to all parties to observe the armistice agreements.7 We would accordingly urge that you appropriately consult the governments concerned about these problems as well.

From all parties concerned we suggest that a first objective should be to obtain immediate assurance of peaceful intent and a commitment to remove troops from direct juxtaposition with each other. While this may be easiest to achieve with regular forces it will be equally if not more important that irregular groups such as the Palestine Liberation Army and the El Fatah organization be promptly restrained.

You might also wish to consider other steps you might take with the parties at the outset, such as a special message to their heads of state urging them to exercise the greatest reserve and to make no adverse changes in the status quo while your consultations are proceeding.

Whatever agreements you work out for a continuing effective United Nations presence should, of course, be generally acceptable, as presumably others than the United Arab Republic will also be involved. Consequently I would renew my suggestion that you seriously contemplate proceeding after Cairo to Damascus and to Tel Aviv before finalizing any arrangements.

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We will of course be carefully watching the situation ourselves as a member of the Security Council while you are on your important mission.

The United States, of course, would not wish to initiate any steps which would interfere with the Secretary General’s efforts to pacify the situation in the Middle East. Nevertheless, conscious of the primary responsibility of the Security Council for maintenance of international peace, we shall continue to give the closest attention to developments and will be consulting further with other Council members to review what other constructive steps may be required in the interest of maintaining peace.

We wish you Godspeed and you carry with you our hopes that you will return with positive and constructive proposals to report to the Security Council, the organ with primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. Should you not make satisfactory progress, we believe that the present state of tension in the area would make it imperative for you to call a meeting of the Security Council in accordance with Article 99 of the Charter.

With best wishes for a successful mission in the interest of peace.

Sincerely yours,

Arthur J. Goldberg

[Omitted here is the text of the memorandum cited in footnote 4.]

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL ARAB–ISR. Confidential; Priority; Exdis. Repeated Priority to Cairo, and to Tel Aviv. Received at 7:33 p.m.
  2. For information concerning the exchanges under reference, see Public Papers of the Secretaries-General of the United Nations, Vol. III, Dag Hammarskjold, 1956–1957, p. 369.
  3. The aide-mémoire on the basis for the UNEF presence in Egypt, annexed to Secretary-General Hammarskjold’s report to the General Assembly of November 20, 1956, is printed ibid., pp. 375–376. It was noted with approval by the General Assembly in resolution 1121 (XI), November 24, 1956; see ibid., pp. 396–397.
  4. The text of the memorandum given to Secretary-General Hammarskjold on March 15, 1957, prior to his visit to Cairo is printed in Foreign Relations, 1955–1957, vol. XVII, pp. 422423.
  5. Reference is apparently to the May 18 conversation reported in Document 11.
  6. For the complete text of Lodge’s statement before the General Assembly on March 1, 1957, see Department of State Bulletin, March 18, 1957, pp. 431–434. The quoted paragraphs are from the published version of an aide-mémoire that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles gave Israeli Ambassador Abba Eban on February 11, 1957, which was made public in slightly revised form on February 17, 1957. For text of the published version of the aide-mémoire, see ibid., March 11, 1957, pp. 392–393. The text of the aide-mémoire as given to Eban on February 11, 1957, is printed in Foreign Relations, 1955–1957, vol. XVII, pp. 132134.
  7. Secretary-General Thant made these statements in response to a question at a luncheon of the United Nations Correspondents Association on May 11; for text, see Public Papers of the Secretaries-General of the United Nations, Vol. VII, U Thant, 1965–1967, p. 414.