90. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in the Soviet Union 1

204027. Please transmit the following message from the Secretary to the Foreign Minister.

Dear Mr. Gromyko,

Following the exchange of letters yesterday between Chairman Kosygin and President Johnson,2 and our further communication with Prime Minister Eshkol, I am encouraged to believe that there is no basis for your report that Israel will soon initiate hostilities.

You will already have seen the press statement of Prime Minister Eshkol 3 which indicates that our vigorous representations in Israel have indeed had the effect we both hoped for. On the other hand, we have been dismayed by the almost simultaneous press conference of President Nasser 4 committing himself again to the closing of the Strait of Tiran. This is the central point and it is about this that I wish to write you as a supplement to the President’s letter to Chairman Kosygin of last night.

I should like to add some thoughts to the President’s letter of yesterday, in further response to Mr. Kosygin’s welcome appeal for cooperation in preventing an outbreak of military conflict in the Middle East.

Your Chairman states that you are convinced that “however complicated the situation may be in the region of the boundaries of Israel, Syria, and the United Arab Republic, means must be found to liquidate this conflict as a military one”. We completely agree.

We are concerned that your and our separate appeals for restraint will be to no avail unless we act during the next few days to liquidate what we regard as the primary point of danger in the situation, President Nasser’s announced policy of blockade against Israeli shipping and what the government of the United Arab Republic considers [Page 170] “strategic” cargoes bound for Israel through the Strait of Tiran. All other aspects of the controversy should be soluble by the usual procedures of negotiation. On this one point, we think it is indispensable that you and we reach an understanding as soon as possible.

As you know, we take the view that the Gulf of Aqaba comprehends international waters, and that no nation has the right to prevent passage in the Gulf or through the Strait. And we agree with earlier statements by the Secretary General of the United Nations and others that belligerent rights cannot be considered to exist between Israel and the United Arab Republic.

As a maritime nation, we and you both regard the preservation of the principles of international law regarding freedom of navigation on international waterways as a vital interest of the international community. Beyond that, we are persuaded that Israel considers its right of transit through the Strait of Tiran so fundamental to her national interest that she can be forced to take action to preserve it. Israel has made it clear to us that she would consider any interference by armed force with Israeli vessels or with Israel-bound cargo an act of aggression justifying action on her part as a matter of self-defense. We do not believe that Israel will back down on this point, nor that she should be asked to do so.

I have noted that the government of the United Arab Republic has not yet taken armed action to carry out its policy of closing the Strait.

Our governments should favor through a Security Council Resolution or in some other appropriate manner a moratorium for at least two weeks on the execution of the United Arab Republic’s policy of closing the Strait. Such a moratorium would preserve the position as it was before President Nasser announced his policy, and give us and others a chance to mediate in this situation. I earnestly appeal to you to support this position, which in my judgment offers us both the best basis on which to achieve the goal we both seek in the Middle East—the avoidance of hostilities, and the resolution of its complex problems by peaceful means.

I would welcome your thoughts on the points raised in this letter, and above all on how the issue of the Straits can be dealt with consistently with its character as an international waterway. I should be happy to accept any procedure you deem wise for the further examination of these points by our two governments through consultations here, in Moscow, or through our permanent representatives to the UN.

Sincerely yours,

Dean Rusk

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL ARAB–ISR. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Drafted by Eugene Rostow, cleared by Walt Rostow, and approved by Rusk. Repeated to London, USUN, Paris, and Tel Aviv.
  2. Documents 84 and 88.
  3. Reference is apparently to a May 28 radio broadcast by Eshkol; for text, see Israel’s Foreign Relations: Selected Documents, 1947–1974, pp. 773–774.
  4. A situation report sent to President Johnson at the LBJ Ranch in CAP 67472, May 28, stated that Nasser’s press conference that day showed Nasser “still supremely confident on a possible military outcome, and unyielding on transit of the Strait of Tiran.” (Johnson Library, National Security File, NSC Histories, Middle East Crisis) The text of the press conference was sent to Johnson in WH 70283, May 28. (Ibid.)