41. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State1

5078. Refs: State 199710, 199746.2

I saw Gromyko at 2:30 today and after informing him of note verbale (State 199710) sent to Israel and Arab states, I carried out instructions contained in State 199746.

In reply Gromyko noted that President Johnson’s message to Kosygin3 had referred to the Middle East problem and said that this message was under consideration by the Soviet Govt. With reference to the statement I had just made, he said the Soviet Union considers war in this area was not needed by anyone. It would cause damage to the countries in that area and increase tension in the world as a whole. This was not needed by the United States or any other country. The Soviet Union’s position was in accordance with its general political line which was that peace should reign in that part of the world. All powers, and particularly the big ones, should prevent the development of a situation leading toward war. The Soviet Union had reached the conclusion that the reason for the current tension was the policy of Israel, and certain circles or groups in Israel which had determined this policy.

“The increasing harassment of Israel by elements based in Syria, with attendant reactions within Israel and within the Arab world, has brought the area close to major violence. Your and our ties to nations of the area could bring us into difficulties which I am confident neither of us seeks. It would appear a time for each of us to use our influence to the full in the cause of moderation, including our influence over action by the United Nations.”

This message was transmitted in telegram 198583 to Moscow, May 19; for text, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XIV, Document 215.

It was difficult to say what reasons they had. Possibly these groups were counting on success in their ventures. All statements that Israel was allegedly threatened and that other countries, and particularly Syria, were following policies to the detriment of Israel, were groundless. From the first days of its existence, Israel had followed an unfriendly policy toward the Arab states. Circles in Israel claimed that there was subversive activity against Israel and that they would counter this by their own actions. Such charges were groundless, and the [Page 69] Soviets did not believe them. This was nonsense. There was a certain analogy between these charges and those that were traditionally made about Soviet activities against the West. The Soviet Union considered these charges as a pretext for Israeli actions. The Soviets had good relations with Syria and the Syrians categorically rejected the Israeli charges and said they were only a pretext. The Soviet Union thought that certain nations including the US could exert a restraining influence in greater degree than it had up to now. We had special relations with Israel and would best know how to go about this. It was not up to the Soviet Union to tell us what to do. We were aware of the demarche which the Soviet Govt had made to the Israeli Govt. Gromyko said that of course his remarks today did not predetermine the answer which might be made to the President’s message to Kosygin.

I said he was doubtless aware of the fact that the Soviet Charge in Washington had been informed of rumors which were apparently put out by the Syrians to the effect that they had the full backing of the Soviet Union. I said I thought it would be pointless at this time for us to argue the general question of Israeli-Arab relations and would only refer to the fact that at the time of the Suez crisis, we had shown our good faith. I thought the important thing was to address ourselves to the immediate problem that was made particularly acute by the Egyptian action with respect to shipping in the Gulf of Aqaba. I pointed out that Nasser’s actions had been taken after the statement of the Israeli Govt that it could not tolerate a blockade of the Gulf and a few hours after the statement of the US Govt that it considered these to be international waters.
I was struck by the fact that Gromyko did not pursue either of these statements further. He said many cables were coming in on this subject, and [I] concluded the conversation by thanking him for receiving me promptly.
Would appreciate knowing if anything is to be said to the press.
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 ARAB–ISR. Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Received at 10:53 a.m. and passed to the White House at 11:20 a.m.
  2. Documents 35 and 38.
  3. The portion of Johnson’s May 22 message to Kosygin concerning the Middle East reads as follows: