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69. Memorandum of Conversation1

I–35592/67

SUBJECT

  • Dangers of Arab-Israeli War

PARTICIPANTS

  • Israeli Side
  • Foreign Minister Abba Eban
  • Ambassador Avraham Harman
  • Brigadier General Joseph Geva, Defense Attaché
  • United States Side
  • Secretary of Defense—Robert S. McNamara
  • Deputy Secretary of Defense—Cyrus Vance
  • Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff—General Earle G. Wheeler
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary of State (NEA)—Rodger Davies
  • Director, Near East and South Asia Region, OASD/ISACol. Amos Jordan

Mr. Eban said there were three key elements in the situation as it has developed over the past week or so. First, the Syrian terrorist attacks, second, the Egyptian troop concentration in the Sinai and the precipitate withdrawal of the UNEF and third, the blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba. Mr. Eban said, as an aside, that the withdrawal of UNEF would prove a historic tragic blunder. The immediate danger now is the Gulf of Aqaba situation which fundamentally alters the geo-political dimensions of the Arab-Israeli dispute and threatens the very existence of Israel. It is far more serious than terrorist attacks or troop deployments, for its consequences would be to cut Israel off from one-half of the world and leave it crippled.

Mr. Eban felt this was the strongest possible issue to draw a line on, since the Israeli position was not only juridically sound but had been “consecrated” by thousands of sailings under dozens of flags over a period of ten years. Nasser had tried to cancel this right in one brief speech. Closure of the Gulf is cause for war; it is as if the U.S. were to continue its Pacific maritime activities but to have all its Atlantic ports and trade closed off.

Mr. Eban said the Israeli Cabinet had met just before his trip and the decision was made to fight rather than to surrender to a blockade in [Page 119]Aqaba; Israel would not try to live on one lung. It had delayed thus far in striking because of President Johnson's urgings and because Ambassador Barbour had spoken of another alternative to surrender or war, namely, that the maritime nations would keep the Straits open. His (Eban's) mission to the U.S. was to find out if this was a real alternative and what steps the U.S., the UK, and others were prepared to take regarding it. Israel believed that the U.S. could open the Straits easily and with virtually no risk. It would only take a few U.S. escort vessels.

Mr. Eban turned to the theme of American commitments to Israel and read from a document which he called an “Agreed Minute” of February 26, 19572 (it was brought to him in the middle of the meeting). He said that he and Secretary Dulles had worked it out together, as they had Mrs. Meir's speech to the UN on the same topic on 1 March.3 In effect the document stated that the U.S. asserted the right to free passage of the Gulf and that it would act to defend this right. Mr. Eban said this was probably the least ambiguous and the easiest executed commitment the U.S. had.

Secretary McNamara asked how long Israel envisaged that the U.S. would have to escort merchant ships through the Gulf if it adopted Israel's plan. Minister Eban did not answer directly but said that [Page 120]it was important for the U.S. to begin escorting immediately and not to let the present situation jell as had occurred with respect to the Suez Canal. In time Egypt would find its interests served by a removal of whatever US–UK naval presence would be necessary in the area for escort duty and therefore would relieve the blockade. Egypt would find it too humiliating to have indefinitely to “submit to force.”

Mr. McNamara questioned whether the situation would move in this way inasmuch as Egypt really would not be submitting to force and the continuance of its posture would cost it nothing. Mr. Eban's response was only that we were all faced with an immediate problem and he could not see very far into the future in this matter. He then went on to say he thought the “balloon would go up” next week unless he could take back with him definite American assurances of ultimate action to keep the Straits open. Such assurances should not be conditional on others joining; if the U.S. left it conditional, others would not join. On the other hand, if the U.S. made clear its determination to support free passage, unilaterally if necessary, then other nations would join. He said he needed to take back to the Prime Minister a clear idea of the “logistics” of necessary action to assemble forces and to push ships through the Gulf.

Again reverting to the scope and firmness of prior U.S. commitments he said Aqaba would be a test of whether the U.S. keeps its commitments. Mr. McNamara replied that there should be no question in anybody's mind about the U.S. willingness to honor its commitments; we had demonstrated that in many ways. Mr. Eban suggested that there was question in some minds about whether the U.S. could both carry on in Vietnam and honor its commitments in the Middle East. Mr. McNamara said he hoped there was no doubt in Minister Eban's mind for there certainly was no question of our military capabilities.

Mr. McNamara went on then to say, however, that Israel should realize that an Israeli attack under present circumstances would have most serious consequences. We cannot undertake to support Israel if Israel launches an attack. He said that the U.S. agreed with the Israeli view that Israel would prevail in a conflict, even if hostilities were initiated by Egypt, and that the issue before us should not be a preemptive attack by Israel but how to prevent hostilities. He read the pertinent passage from the President's speech of May 24 and said that he thought this made clear our continuing commitments. We must, however, exhaust the UN route and secure Congressional and public support for necessary measures.

Mr. Eban observed that action through the UN could not amount to anything in view of Russian intransigence. He said that Mr. Johnson [Page 121]had tried fruitlessly with his 4-power approach and Foreign Minister Brown had been equally unsuccessful in Moscow. The UN phase of the action should be very short for that route is a cul-de-sac.

Mr. McNamara asked how General Johnson saw the situation. Mr. Eban responded that he had seen Mr. DeGaulle early on in the crisis when he still had his fixation about the 4-power approach. Now that that approach had foundered Mr. DeGaulle should be approached again since in 1957 the French had been the strongest supporter of Israel's rights in the Gulf.

At this point in the meeting Ambassador Harman was called to the telephone urgently and he reappeared in a couple of minutes with a note which said that a recheck of Israel's intelligence had confirmed Prime Minister Eshkol's flash warning of yesterday that a UAR-Syrian attack was imminent. Mr. Eban said this is not just an evaluation of intelligence but is “information”, a word he later changed to “knowledge.” Mr. McNamara said that our intelligence differed on some of the facts Prime Minister Eshkol had relied upon; but, more importantly, our appraisal of the facts was different. We thought the Egyptian deployments were defensive in character and anticipatory of a possible Israeli attack.

General Wheeler asked if Minister Eban's reference to the reaffirmed intelligence of an imminent attack as “knowledge” meant that Israel knew with certainty the Egyptians' intent, for example through an agent, as well as their troop dispositions. Mr. Eban reaffirmed the statement that this was knowledge.

General Wheeler restated the American view of Israel's military superiority and said that, although we recognize that casualties would be greater than in 1948 and 1956, Israel would prevail. He went on to observe that as far as the ground situation was concerned, if the Egyptians came out of their prepared positions to attack they would be at a further disadvantage. He added that an attack against Israel would also importantly change the political picture.

Mr. Eban's rejoinder was that Israel believed its forces would win and he agreed that the balance of power had not been shifted by deployment of the last few days. He added that he assumed the American commitment to Israel was not, however, restricted only to the circumstances in which Israel was losing. Under the best of circumstances casualties would be great and Israel's urban areas were open to devastation. Shouldn't there now be a plan for joint action if hostilities break out? Surely the U.S. does not intend to stand by and merely watch. The Foreign Minister said that if Prime Minister Eshkol's suggested formula for an American statement (in essence, “An attack on Israel is an attack on the U.S.”) was not a feasible way to proceed, surely [Page 122]another way could be found. The Prime Minister wants to know what the U.S. is prepared to say and do.

Mr. McNamara said that the President would respond on these points. He felt that there had been inadequate exchanges of intelligence and supply information between us and he hoped that we could improve these. He said that he now understood the Israelis' problem better and that he felt the conversation had been very useful to him.

  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330 77–0075, Memoranda of Conversations between Secretary of Defense McNamara and Heads of State (other than NATO). Top Secret. Drafted by Jordan and approved on June 5 by Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Townsend Hoopes. The meeting was held in McNamara's office at the Pentagon.
  2. Ambassador Harman delivered a copy of this document, unsigned and untitled, dated February 26, 1957, to Eugene Rostow with a covering letter of May 26. It states that at a meeting on February 24, 1957, the Israeli Ambassador sought clarification on U.S. attitudes and intent on matters discussed in the U.S. memorandum of February 11, 1957. It continues with side-by-side summaries of questions asked by Ambassador Eban and replies given by Secretary Dulles. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–2 ARAB–ISR) The U.S. record of the meeting on February 24, 1957, between Dulles and Eban is in Foreign Relations, 1955–1957, vol. XVII, pp. 254267. The next day Reuven Shiloah, Minister of the Israeli Embassy, gave Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern, South Asian, and African Affairs William M. Rountree an Israeli working paper, unsigned and undated, summarizing Eban's queries and Dulles' comments. According to the U.S. memorandum of the conversation, Shiloah emphasized that the paper had no status as a document. (Ibid., pp. 270–271) No record has been found in Department of State records showing U.S. acceptance of the Israeli paper as an agreed minute.
  3. A second document delivered to Rostow by Harman on May 26, headed “Summary of Conversation, Secretary Dulles' Residence, Washington, D.C., 24 February 1957,” quotes paragraph 13 of a speech given by Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir before the UN General Assembly on March 1, 1957. It states that the quoted passage was drafted by Eban and Dulles and that Eban had in his possession in Jerusalem a draft with the words “by armed force” added in Dulles' handwriting. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27–2 ARAB–ISR) An extract of the paragraph is quoted in footnote 2, Document 131. Dulles and Eban discussed the statement to be made by Meir in two meetings on February 28, 1957. Memoranda of the conversations are in Foreign Relations, 1955–1957, vol. XVII, pp. 311313 and 325326. The text of the Israeli draft declaration, as revised after Dulles' meeting with Eban, is ibid., pp. 313317. The complete text of Meir's statement is in UN document A/PV.666; also printed in American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1957, pp. 936–940.