64. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson1

SUBJECT

  • Israeli Approaches on the Suez Canal

Attached is a memo from Dick Helms saying that the [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] sees a new crisis brewing over the Suez Canal.2

The Israelis agreed via Jarring to allow the Egyptians to clear the southern half of the Canal enough to let 15 trapped ships out. The UN is now pressing Israel to let the Egyptians begin surveying the northern [Page 133] half. This could lead to re-opening the whole Canal. Eban has warned U Thant that Israel will oppose that, and this morning’s firing along the northern portion of the Canal gives credence to [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] statement that they will oppose by force if necessary. They see any Egyptian moves without their approval as a violation of the August cease-fire agreement.

[less than 1 line of source text not declassified]says the UAR is working secretly to clear the whole Canal without Israel’s approval. He suggests that the Egyptians may provide information on the remaining obstacles in the Canal to permit Soviet vessels in Port Said to transit the Canal and present Israel with a “fait accompli.”

He then said he believes Israel and the US have a common interest in keeping the northern part of the Canal blocked to keep the Soviet navy away from Yemen, Aden and the Persian Gulf.

Eppie Evron came in late last evening to state the same case and ask us informally to help relieve the pressure on them from New York to let Egyptian surveying go ahead in the northern part of the Canal.3 I asked him whether he was proposing keeping the Canal closed “forever” to keep the Soviets out of the Red Sea or whether Israel’s desire to keep the Canal closed would end if Egypt offered to let the Israeli flag through. He said he couldn’t answer.

This is serious business, and I am passing Eppie’s request to Secretary Rusk.4 We have to be careful with the way the Israelis [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] and the strategy of containing the USSR with their own bargaining interest in keeping the Canal closed. For the moment, I just want you to have this background against which to read today’s stories of firing on the Canal.

Walt
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. VIII, Cables and Memos, 12/67-2/68. Secret. A handwritten notation indicates the memorandum was received at 1:10 p.m.
  2. Not printed. The attached January 29 memorandum is a covering memorandum forwarding a memorandum prepared in the CIA, also dated January 29, with the subject heading: “Israeli Position on Opening the Suez Canal To Permit the Exit of Trapped Ships.”
  3. A memorandum of this conversation, prepared by Saunders on January 30, is in The Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. III, Cables and Memos, 12/67-2/68.
  4. In his January 30 memorandum to Rusk, Rostow noted that the immediate operational question posed by the Israeli request was whether the United States should approach the UN Secretariat to urge strict adherence to the August 1967 cease-fire agreement relating to the Suez Canal. (Ibid.) On February 3 Battle and Sisco sent a memorandum to Rusk recommending against such an initiative, noting that the UAR had halted all operations connected with the release of the ships, and had indicated, through the semi-official al-Ahram newspaper, that such operations would not be resumed until there was a settlement of the Middle East crisis. (National Archives and Records Administration,RG 59, NEA Files: Lot 72 D 39, UAR-Jan 1 through June 30, 1968)