182. Information Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs (Battle) to Secretary of State Rusk 1

SUBJECT

  • Israeli Actions and Motives with Respect to Tiran and Senafir

In view of your interest in the Tiran/Senafir issue, you may find of interest the following comments which indicate both how Israeli actions have evolved over the past year and what may lie behind Israel’s keen interest in this question.

Israeli Actions

Information from both the Saudis and Israelis suggests the following chain of events with respect to Tiran and Senafir since the June War:

  • —During, or immediately after, the fighting the Israelis landed on Tiran. They either captured members of a small Egyptian contingent which had recently occupied the island or confirmed that the contingent had fled. We believe the Israelis then withdrew. When Ambassador Barbour toured the channel in a launch from Sharm al-Shaykh early in July, he saw no evidence of the occupation of Tiran by the Israelis or anyone else.
  • —In late July or early August, 1967, the Israelis seem to have reoccupied Tiran. The Saudis so reported to us, expressing deep concern. We therefore approached Israel. On several occasions in our discussions of this subject during October, 1967, senior Israeli officials themselves confirmed that their troops were occupying Tiran. One top official used the term “garrison” (Tel Aviv’s 1290, 1311 and 1370 of October, 1967).2
  • USG efforts to encourage the Israelis quietly to withdraw were countered by GOI attempts to extract maximum specific concessions, through us, from the Saudis. Ambassador Eilts was eventually successful [Page 360]in inducing King Faisal to assure us privately that he has no plans to militarize Tiran or to use it to impede freedom of navigation into Tiran Strait. You conveyed this information to Foreign Minister Eban by letter dated January 17, 1968.3
  • —The Israelis responded negatively, seeking further binding written undertakings from SAG which would be underwritten by the USG. You expressed disappointment over the Israeli position to Ambassador Harman on February 8 and again pressed for Israeli withdrawal.4 Harman promised to report your concern to Eban.
  • —There has so far been no formal reply from Eban either to your letter of January 17 or your oral comments of February 8.
  • —The Saudis complained to us in April about possible Israeli occupation of neighboring Senafir. We took this up in Tel Aviv on May 7. On May 17, our Embassy was told that regular patrolling has been carried out on Senafir island as a matter of routine since the six day war by small units as on Tiran island. Following publicity on this issue in Israel on May 19 (State 167501),5 I called in the Israeli Charge on May 24 to express our continuing concern. He provided an identical response to that given us in Tel Aviv (State 170918).6 I pressed the Charge as to whether the islands were in fact occupied, but he said he would have to request guidance from his government.

Possible Explanations for Israeli Action

Probably there is no single guaranteed explanation for the increasing interest which Israel has shown since last summer in these two fly-blown islands. But we may speculate with some precision as to what may lie behind their actions. Israel has for a decade attached even greater importance to free passage through Tiran than through the Canal. The Aqaba route is vital for Israeli trade with Africa and Asia. More importantly, it is Israel’s lifeline to oil.

This vulnerability was early recognized by Egypt. In 1955, Egyptian boycott regulations on Suez and Tiran traffic laid down that transit would be refused only to Israeli flag vessels and petroleum cargoes destined for Eilat. When the Egyptians reoccupied Sharm al-Shaykh in May, 1967, it was Nasser’s suggestion that petroleum shipments would again be stopped that most threatened the Israeli economy.

Some years ago Israel constructed a small 16” pipeline to move its crude imports (which originated in Iran) to the Haifa refinery. Little of [Page 361]this crude was re-exported. However, preliminary construction has now begun on a 42” transit line from Eilat to Asqalon. We believe that this decision, which seems to have been taken last summer, has greatly increased Israeli interest in the absolute security of the Tiran channel.

The pipeline is to have an initial capacity of 20 million tons a year to be increased to 50 million a year (one million barrels/day) in a second stage which would provide additional pumping facilities. Such quantities could originate only in Iran. In fact, at present, they could originate only with the Consortium, but all major Consortium companies have extensive interests in the Arab world and have told us privately they would not use the Israeli line. They could sell some oil at the export terminals to independent companies who could use the Israeli line but such sales are only a small portion of total Consortium sales and they could not fill the line, unless, of course, additional markets west of Israel were to be developed.

There remains only the National Iranian Oil Company. At present it has access to only a few thousand barrels of oil a day. Theoretically the NIOC could take royalty oil in lieu of payments but the net return to Iran would be much less than at present and this seems an unlikely development. However, Iran has a barter deal with Rumania (although no oil has yet been shipped) and the Shah has told Ambassador Meyer of his plans to embark on large scale trading with other Eastern European countries. Assuming Eastern Europe is willing to buy oil shipped through Israel (a not entirely warranted assumption), Iran would be able to make profitable sales only by getting oil from the Consortium for prices slightly above cost. And it was this point which all Consortium companies refused to concede to Iran during the negotiations this spring. If Iran intends to proceed with the project, the Consortium will face a very serious new problem with the GOI. Also, it could become difficult for Consortium owner companies to justify to some of their consumers any outright refusal to participate in what could be described as legitimate commercial transactions. There are, in short, many unanswered questions. But Israel is going ahead with the line.

There would seem at least three good reasons why Israel would wish to develop such commerce: (a) hope of profit; (b) desire to replace Suez as an oil artery, thus reducing Egypt’s regional and world importance and increasing Israel’s; and (c) interest in developing closer relations with Eastern Europe and, hopefully, the USSR, insofar as the oil’s destination might be Communist countries. On this latter point, the sole remaining substantial portion of the Diaspora is Russian Jewry. Those Israelis who oppose withdrawal from the present ceasefire lines no doubt see this group as the one sure source of population required to balance the increasing numbers of Arabs within Israel. While this would be a very long-term proposition and is speculative at best, the [Page 362]desire to introduce a note of Communist dependence on Israel could well be an additional factor in Israel’s pipeline project—and hence in its attention to Tiran and Senafir.

Whether or not the last point is valid, there may well be one further reason for Israel’s interest in these islands. Jarring conceivably may work out a settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors which would include Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. But Israel has made public its intention to remain on Tiran and Senafir until a peace settlement is reached. This could well mean a peace settlement with Saudi Arabia. Since no such settlement is even under discussion, the Israelis may well calculate that their chances of a long stay on Tiran are better than at Sharm al-Shaykh.

Conclusion

To sum up, Israel’s renewed interest in Tiran and Senafir seems gradually to have broadened since last summer. Basic security, economic and psychological motives are now involved. In the light of Faisal’s assurance to us, and Saudi military impotence, we continue to believe that withdrawal would be in Israel’s overall interest. Reference to “routine patrolling” rather than to a “garrison” may suggest that some rethinking along these lines is going on. Because of our important interests in, and past assurances to, Saudi Arabia we will continue to do everything we can to accelerate this trend.7

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. IX, Cables and Memos, 3/68-5/68. Secret. Drafted by Brewer and cleared by Atherton, Deputy Director of the Office of Fuels and Energy James E. Atkins, and Davies. Saunders sent an advance copy of this memorandum to Walt Rostow on May 24 under cover of a note that reads in part: “Here’s Bill Brewer’s speculation on what the Israelis are up to on Tiran island.” (Ibid.)
  2. Dated October 24, October 25, and October 28, 1967, respectively. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL 32-6 TIRAN)
  3. See Document 47.
  4. See Document 75.
  5. Dated May 19. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL 32-6 TIRAN)
  6. Dated May 24. (Ibid.)
  7. Telegram 18695 to Jidda, June 19, reported Assistant Secretary Battle’s discussion of Tiran Island with Ambassador Rabin that day. Battle acknowledged Israel’s promise to evacuate Senafir Island and expressed U.S. belief that Israeli occupation of Tiran was unnecessary in view of King Faisal’s assurances that Saudi Arabia would not militarize the island. Rabin responded that Israel was sensitive on the Tiran issue since a hostile presence on Tiran-“even three Fatah with machine guns”-could close the strait. Therefore the Israeli position was that the Tiran issue had to be part of a larger settlement package. (Ibid.)