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343. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • Foreign Minister Eban
  • Ambassador Harman
  • McGeorge Bundy

I met with Foreign Minister Eban at my suggestion in order to have an informal discussion of the situation as we both saw it after the General Assembly vote, and on the eve of his departure for Israel. (In the course of the conversation it appeared that he had not yet definitely decided when he would return to Israel because of residual uncertainties about maneuvering in the General Assembly.)

After an exchange of gossip about the General Assembly vote (centered mainly on an agreed view of the Soviet and French performances), we turned to the future. I said to the Foreign Minister that I thought there were great lessons for both our countries in the recent experience. I said that while I had not been in Washington in May, I could well believe that he would have found our position disconcerting, in that we could not give assurances of the breadth and precision which Israel wanted at a critical hour. I said that in my judgment the President was absolutely right not to give such assurances, but that the experience must be instructive to both sides as to the limits on the meaning of the executive assurances which have been given to Israel over the years. I said that on our side a major conclusion from this experience was that both of us would have been in really terrible trouble (for Israel obviously a matter of life and death) if our common assessment of the real military balance in the Middle East had not been right. I said that to me this moment of crisis had revealed more clearly than ever what I had slowly learned in 1961–66, namely that there is a very high American interest in insuring effective defensive strength to Israel as against her Middle Eastern neighbors. If and only if Israel can defend herself, we can avoid a truly agonizing choice. I said that I believed that the real policy of the United States for several years had been to accept this responsibility and that the events of May and June 1967 simply made it a more compelling necessity for us, in that our interest in Israel's self–defense was even greater than before the crisis, while her ability to rely on others was less. Eban seemed to accept this proposition, although he indicated that the Israelis have not given up hope of reestablishing military supply channels in Western Europe.

I said that while I had not talked to President Johnson in precisely these terms, I thought I could predict that he would agree to what I had just said, but that he would surely add a most important proviso: namely, that if we were to have continuing and effective understanding on a matter as important as the basic defensive strength of Israel, we would also have to have a parallel degree of understanding on other issues. I named four as examples:

  • the future of Jerusalem;
  • the future of the Arabs now under Israel's military control;
  • the continuing desirability of avoiding Soviet arms supply to Jordan;
  • and the nuclear problem.

I said that if I knew President Johnson at all, I could predict that he would insist on candid and effective discussion of these issues as well as the military issues and that I did not think any major arms deal could be handled satisfactorily in isolation.

In his response Eban made no comment on nuclear matters, and my guess is that we'll have to poke very hard to get what we need on this question.

On my other 3 examples Eban was more helpful. He said that in the light of the June battles, U.S. arms for Jordan would be a matter of real emotional difficulty, but he agreed that they were certainly preferable to Soviet arms. He also agreed on the importance of framing an effective policy toward Arabs now within the Israeli military lines, and he was quite frank in saying that no such policy yet exists. I think that his own personal judgment is beginning to lean against any solution that would [Page 614]involve an end of Jordanian sovereignty over the West Bank—he spoke of the attractions of such a new Palestinian entity, but he also spoke with feeling of the danger that it would simply become for Israel what Algeria became for France. Eban also dissociated himself firmly from Dayan's reputed remarks about Gaza being a part of Israel, though both he and Harman emphasized their view that it was not part of Egypt either.

On Jerusalem, Eban was quite forthcoming and seemed to agree that it was important to work out agreed arrangements for the Holy Places which might well include some form of sovereignty for representatives of Christians and Moslems over their Holy Places. He seemed to agree that in the case of the Moslem Holy Places the Jordanians might be the appropriate custodians.

Indeed I found Eban more forthcoming on the subject of Jordan than I had expected. He recognizes the economic difficulties of Jordan and the importance of tourism. He and Harman argued that in conditions of peace Jordan could have more tourist revenue than ever, even without administrative jurisdiction over the old city. They both spoke warmly of the possibilities of economic cooperation between Jordan and Israel, including access to the Mediterranean for Amman.

I then said to Eban that of course in the long run the relation of Israel to the UAR was the central question and he agreed. He said they had always hoped that some day there would be ways and means of settlement with Egypt. Eban said that he was going home to think about ways and means of establishing some contact with Nasser (parenthetically we agreed that while the political situation in Cairo is obscure, the record of the last fifteen years would suggest that Nasser was not a man to bet against in any Egyptian political struggles). Eban emphasized as he has before that the Israelis want very little from Egypt except peace and free passage, but both he and Harman quite firmly included the right of passage through Suez as one of their requirements.

Eban also speculated on the possibility that there might be a relatively early solution with the Syrians simply because the Israeli demands there are minimal and the Soviets might press their clients to be the first to achieve Israeli withdrawal.

I used the occasion of Eban's remarks on Egypt to remind him that there is very little the United States can do to help anyone with the UAR. I said that our bargaining in the past with Nasser had always included a heavy element of U.S. economic assistance, and that I could see no prospect whatever of any such assistance in the near future. The Congress and the public would not stand for it, even if, against all our current expectations, there should be a good case in terms of the situation on the ground. I also pressed Eban gently on the question of the [Page 615]Israeli troops at Suez. If it were a necessary condition for an early opening of the Canal, would the Israelis consider a limited withdrawal? He gave me no direct answer but suggested that it might depend on whether the Egyptians would stay where they now are or would plan to follow the Israelis back across the desert.

I also exchanged informal thoughts with Eban on the “modalities” of reaching agreement with the Arabs. I said that we thought there might be virtue in a three–act play, in which the first act would be private negotiations, the second an Israeli withdrawal, and the third a public peacemaking on the basis agreed on in the first act. The advantage of such an arrangement would be that it would protect Arab pride. Eban did not seem to find this a difficult proposition. He said that a variant might be to get half way to agreement and then half way to withdrawal, but that in either case the Israelis would not be taking any unacceptable risk because if the Arabs did not keep to their private bargains or half–bargains, it would be easy in the current situation for Israeli forces to reoccupy their present positions.

I ended the meeting as I had begun it with renewed emphasis upon the importance of working in parallel on all these issues together. Harman had earlier emphasized the importance of aircraft, and I told him that while we understood the problem, we did not think it needed settlement in the weeks immediately ahead, and that once we had made a decision we would be able if necessary to supply the aircraft rapidly. I repeated my view that the President would certainly not wish to separate this issue from the others and that we should keep in touch on all of them together. Eban referred to the most recent exchange between the President and Eshkol and said he thought his Government fully understood this point.

I then said a few words to Eban about my private feelings, as one citizen, about the quality of Israelis soldiers and orators, and we parted friends.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Middle East Crisis, Vol. VII. Confidential. The meeting was held at the Plaza Hotel. Rostow initialed the top of page 1.