482. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Abba Eban, Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs
  • Avraham Harman, Ambassador of Israel
  • Ephraim Evron, Minister of Israel
  • W. W. Rostow
  • Harold H. Saunders

Mr. Eban began by alluding to the sinking of the Israeli destroyer over the weekend.2 In his view, it raised the questions of both Egyptian motivation and Egyptian technological proficiency. He said the Israeli Government found itself asking some of the same questions which had been faced after 23 May: What is the extent of Soviet involvement? Do the Egyptians feel they are operating under the cover of Soviet protection?

Eban said the Israelis had felt the Egyptians were pursuing a “conservative policy” on the cease-fire. However, there could be no question that the sinking was a “classic act of war.” Israel would prefer to deal with this incident as a matter between them and the Egyptians.

Mr. Rostow reminded Mr. Eban that this was not the first Egyptian-Israeli military engagement since the cease-fire and that there had even been a previous naval engagement. Mr. Rostow said that our intelligence suggests that the Israeli destroyer was within ten miles of the Egyptian coast. Mr. Eban said his information was that it was more like 13.5 or 14 miles away. Mr. Evron, who had been called out to the phone momentarily, returned with the word that the Soviet Deputy Defense Minister had just arrived in Cairo. Mr. Rostow concluded this part of the conversation by saying he hoped that the Foreign Minister’s discussion with the President would range more widely than the weekend’s naval engagement.

Moving on to Soviet intentions, policy and position, Mr. Rostow said we had some intelligence reports which suggest that the Soviets have urged the Arabs to try for a political settlement but have said the Arabs could count on some unidentified Soviet support if the Israelis made a political settlement impossible.

[Page 929]

Mr. Eban characterized Soviet policy as follows: The USSR is not looking for peace, although it is not looking for war either. It uses the Middle East as an arena for pursuing its global interests, many of which relate to the U.S. Its objectives are to make the Arab-Socialist countries more Socialist, to draw other Arabs away from their Western ties and to divide the Western allies.

Speaking on the Soviet position in the Middle East, he felt that the Soviets have lost ground in the last few months. They did not come through on their commitments in June. The Arabs are now more interested in the U.S. (and the UK) than before because they see the West as essential to their own development and to their ability to arrive at a settlement with Israel. The total result has been a weakening of the Soviet position, despite all the superficial difficulties that the West suffers. Mr. Rostow agreed in general except for the weakening of the British pound. Mr. Eban said that even the British Foreign Minister tended to down-play this. Mr. Rostow agreed that in general we had been drifting in a positive direction.

With that, the conversation shifted to the question of who gains from the passage of time. Mr. Rostow agreed that some time had been on the side of a basic settlement but that our Government differs with the Israelis in feeling that the continued passage of time is not in a linear sense on the side of permanent peace. Mr. Eban felt that time “in the sense of weeks and months—not in the sense of years—is on the side of a realistic settlement.”

Mr. Eban, commenting on how time’s passing had affected Egyptian attitudes, said he believed that Egyptian Foreign Minister Riad now understands the need for a stable peace structure, is prepared to distinguish between Gaza and Egyptian territory and feels that the range of problems between Israel and the UAR is relatively limited and boils down to the question of an Israeli flag through the Suez Canal. One question he said the Israelis are not quite sure of is whether the UAR could conceive of a bilateral settlement with Israel or whether it would have to link its settlement with others this time.

Mr. Eban said he hoped we could soon move from the “tactical to the strategic plane.” He saw the discussions in New York as a “watershed to be got over without prejudice or damage to future positions.” He felt that if the Arabs could see that no one else would make a settlement for them, they would be face to face with a sharp picture of their alternatives: (1) to accept the present situation with a vague vision of one day being able to eliminate Israel; or (2) to settle down and find out what terms are available to them. If they chose the second course, the UAR “has reason to know” that they could get back Egyptian territory under the right circumstances.

[Page 930]

Mr. Rostow felt that the Arabs at Khartoum had moved broadly in the direction of political settlement and were mainly struggling for modalities. Mr. Eban said he was certain that what we and the Israelis meant by “political settlement” was somewhat different from what the Arabs meant.

Speaking of settlement terms, Mr. Eban said that, while the Israelis were not unanimous on the way the map should look after a settlement, they were unanimous on two points:

Juridically, this settlement must move from the impermanent arrangements of the past twenty years to a permanent basis.
Since they hoped to draw the map “with finality” this time, they must be sure that it is drawn to “maximize territorial security.”

“We can not go back to June 5 lines in peace or war,” Eban said. Israel has not decided how different the new lines should be. That will depend on how arrangements on the West Bank work out. Israelis are sure, however, that they can not tolerate a “divided jurisdiction” in Jerusalem, although they can go a long way toward accommodating non-Jewish interests there. Israel would hope to eliminate Egyptian influence in Gaza.

When Mr. Rostow said our Government feels there is a great difference between “minor and major modifications” in the lines, Mr. Eban came back with, “What your Government may consider minor may seem major to us.” He spoke of the Syrian Heights and Gaza as “major.”

On the West Bank, he said that Israel still had not decided what the proper relationship between “security and demography” should be. They had not decided whether to deal with the Palestinian Arabs “from within or from without.” If Hussein presented himself for a settlement, Israel would have to decide. The nature of the settlement will depend on whether there is a context of negotiation and peace. The longer Hussein stays away, the greater will be the pressure in Israel to explore with the leaders of the West Bank the possibility of a separate Palestinian existence. He cited the example of Cypriot leaders who have given up their interest in enosis now that they have tasted independence. He said the same forces operate on the West Bank, but before West Bank leaders aspire to an independent existence, they insist on knowing whether Israel feels Hussein will be coming back or not.

Mr. Rostow asked whether the dialogue with Hussein had continued. Mr. Eban said the main discussion had been over whether and when to meet. Israel would like to discuss such things as the benefit of long-term economic relationships but found this impossible until the two sides could talk.

[Page 931]

When Mr. Rostow asked how the Israelis view the situation in Cairo, Mr. Eban described it as the characteristic Middle Eastern one of “stable instability.” However, whereas he had thought earlier in the summer that Jordan’s position was worse, now he felt that the UAR is suffering more heavily than Jordan, both politically and economically.

Mr. Eban said we should not forget that things are not standing still in Israel There are numerous “wildcat committees” studying the “integrity of the homeland.” He mentioned a convention beginning tomorrow and consisting of a good portion of the Weizmann Institute and Hebrew University. These groups are suggesting to the Israeli Government that it should not discard lightly the possibility of retaining all of Palestine and working out some dignified relationship with the West Bank Arabs. Taking the long view, they felt this would be more to Israel’s advantage than any agreement calculated to improve the short-term atmosphere. When he was asked whether this would not mean that some time is working against the Israeli Government, he concluded by saying that, despite these pressures, if Hussein were to present himself for a settlement today, the Government of Israel would probably decide to give the West Bank back.

The discussion turned to King Hussein’s intentions. Ambassador Harman interjected that Hussein’s posture had been one of “active belligerency.” When Mr. Rostow asked him how Israel viewed Hussein’s position on infiltration, Harman said that either Hussein knows what is going on and does not stop it, or he can not. He says Israel has evidence that infiltrators have “wandered around openly in Jordan and have received help from Jordanian soldiers.” Mr. Evron said that even the Jordanian Director of Military Intelligence had been involved. In the same vein, Ambassador Harman said that King Hussein must know what his representative in New York is doing.

Mr. Eban said that “Hussein no longer evokes the same feeling from Israelis” as he did before the war. Israelis blamed the Jordanians for three serious developments: (1) It was Jordanian gibes that provoked the Egyptians to move into Sharm-el-Sheik; (2) it was the defense pact of 30 May that “made the war inexorable”, (3) it was Jordan’s actions on June 5 that killed all faith in him.

There is in Israel what Mr. Eban described as “casualty psychology.” The Israelis, having suffered, are not about to let their sacrifices be in vain. Mr. Rostow cautioned against Israel’s letting itself be lured by the false short-run stability that hard-headedness might bring. Too hard a policy might in the long run make Israel’s objective of achieving peace impossible. Mr. Rostow asked, for instance, why Israeli [Page 932] forces were on Tiran Island.3 Mr. Eban answered that “nature abhors a vacuum.” The Egyptians had been on Tiran Island as far back as 1950 and Israel had a memorandum from the USG conveying Cairo’s assurance that this would not prejudice Israeli freedom of passage through the Straits.4 More important, however, Mr. Eban said that if the Israelis moved out, the Saudis would probably move in. It is central to Israel’s position that it can not leave its right to free passage on such a “fragile lease.” Arrangements for free passage there must be “concrete.”

Mr. Rostow spoke of his anxiety about the Israeli feeling-conveyed in the aide-mémoire given to Ambassador Goldberg 5—that they had learned in June the importance of being self-sufficient. Mr. Rostow said he felt it was dangerous to ignore that the US had held back the USSR and continued responsible for maintaining a Middle East policy that would limit the Soviet position. He said bluntly that, although he does not know whether the Secretary of State or President would agree with his view, he objected to an Israeli position which said that whether we give arms to moderate Arabs or not is our business, not theirs. Our recent discussions on ending the military aid freeze left him “troubled” because of the seeming failure to recognize Israel’s interest in our maintaining a position with the Arabs.

Mr. Eban said that his only concern in the recent discussions over our military aid freeze was that his government not be put in a position of endorsing American military shipments to governments like that of Saudi Arabia which we might consider moderate but which had just called for the destruction of Israel.

On the broader point, Mr. Eban noted the “harsh facts” Israel faced in May and June. He acknowledged “fully and gratefully” the US ability to “neutralize the USSR.” But Israel found that, on questions involving Israel and the Arab states, the US operated under certain inhibitions, both domestic and international. He felt he was only [Page 933] expressing a US interest in Israel’s ability to defend itself so the US would not have to answer the question of what to do if Israel were overrun.

Mr. Rostow asked about plans for the refugees. Mr. Eban said that his government hoped to have a “blueprint” in November and hoped to consult with us on it. He said Israel had found out that the numbers of refugees were not so great as had originally been imagined. Also, resettlement was not just an agricultural matter because many of the refugees envisioned themselves as moving into an industrial job. Nevertheless, he said the problem is so vast that it would require an international and regional solution in which Israel would participate. He felt it would be essential to involve a consortium of interested countries to supplement UNWRA. He noted the irony that this year’s UNWRA report had for the time “confessed” that many of the refugees had already been integrated into Arab economies.

Mr. Rostow suggested that the refugee problem offered a focus for regional cooperation. He mentioned that the financial arrangements made at Khartoum were a start on regional Arab economic cooperation and said he felt it was important to link this somehow to the refugees as a stepping stone to more permanent regional development cooperation.

In concluding, Mr. Eban stressed the importance of our making a decision on Israel’s aircraft requests soon because the production line for the peculiar configuration of Skyhawk Israel is interested in closes down early in November.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. XII. Secret. Drafted by Saunders. The meeting was held in Rostow’s office at the White House. Rostow sent the memorandum to the President on October 24 with a brief covering memorandum. A handwritten “L” indicates the President saw it.
  2. The Israeli destroyer Eilat was sunk on October 21 off the Sinai coast by UAR missile-equipped patrol craft.
  3. The Saudi Government had complained to the Embassy in Jidda on August 19 that an Israeli detachment had occupied Tiran Island, an island in the Red Sea at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. (Telegram 675 from Jidda, August 20; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 ARAB–ISR) Documentation concerning discussions with the Israelis and the Saudis concerning Tiran Island is ibid., POL 32–6 TIRAN and POL 27 ARAB–ISR.
  4. For information concerning the Egyptian aide-mémoire of January 30, 1950, containing the Egyptian assurances, see Foreign Relations, 1950, vol. V, p. 711. Evron told Saunders on November 2 that the U.S. Ambassador had passed the aide-mémoire to the Israeli Government. (Memorandum for the record by Saunders, November 2; Johnson Library, National Security File, Saunders Files, Israel)
  5. For information concerning Eban’s August 30 aide-mémoire, see footnote 5, Document 430.