7. Memorandum From Harold H. Saunders of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow)1


  • Nasser’s November 23 Speech and the Mood of the Arabs

Ten days after Nasser’s November 23 “State of the Union” speech, it’s worth reflecting on where it leaves us.

Speech Consistent with Khartoum

The Israelis see the worst in it. Eshkol described it to Barbour as a “dagger in the back of the cause of peace” (and then went on to stress his need for more aircraft). Foreign Minister officials—some more relaxed than others—see it as bearing out their interpretation of the Khartoum meeting that Nasser’s ultimate aim is war.

Politically conscious Arabs from New York to Saudi Arabia interpret it as a “moderate” speech consistent with Nasser’s effort since Khartoum to keep the initiative away from extremists. They all say it “didn’t slam any doors.” A few lump his harsher statements with Israel’s as a prelude to bargaining.

Everyone (including Federenko) agrees that Nasser soured the atmosphere, but Arabs and Israelis alike agree that the speech did not depart from Nasser’s position at Khartoum as he has interpreted that position to both King Hussein and Robert Anderson.

This is borne out by two subsequent official UAR clarifications which slightly soften the initial hard impact of the speech in our press:

  • —The official text of the passage on “never” allowing Israel to pass through the Canal indicates that the following qualifying sentences were lost in applause: “Passage through the Canal is an indivisible part of the original Palestine question. It is not part of the problem of eliminating the effects of the aggression.” In the official text, the word “never” becomes “will not.” Whatever Nasser actually said, official UAR policy still links the Canal to a refugee settlement.
  • Nasser’s official spokesman on November 26 qualified Nasser’s statement that there could be no “peace” with Israel by saying he had not rejected a peaceful settlement but only a “peace treaty.” The Israelis put no stock in this distinction, but the Egyptians have carefully maintained [Page 16] it since Khartoum and seem to think it increases their flexibility in arriving at a settlement.

Khartoum Position: A Two-phase Strategy?

The main argument over Nasser’s position, then, boils down to interpretation of the position he took at Khartoum, not of the 23 November speech.

The Israelis say their reports on Khartoum show a two-phase strategy: Nasser’s long-run objective remains the destruction of Israel. Their short-run aim is to get Israel out of occupied territories. They can’t push Israel out by force, so they’re ready to make marginal political concessions to get their land back. At the same time, military preparations continue for a future second stage-war against Israel. They quote Hussein at Khartoum: “Once the Israelis withdraw, we will return to our previous ways.”

We agree that Nasser at Khartoum took to the political track because he has neither the military nor the economic power to get the conquered lands back by force. But our transcript of the Khartoum conference reveals no consciously conceived two-phase plan. In fact, the radical leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization tried to force the leaders there to focus on solution of the overall Palestine problem, and they literally shouted him down. They insisted that the only subject they were discussing was how to get the Israelis out. They talked abut rebuilding military strength, but mainly so they don’t have to negotiate flat on their backs and in order to use force eventually if political means fail.

The truth about Khartoum, I think, is that Nasser hasn’t really thought beyond Israeli withdrawal one way or another. There was almost no talk at Khartoum about the “lasting peace” we talk about. And the Israelis are probably right in fearing that leopards don’t change their spot. But for the moment, we don’t think they’re talking about a second phase, if any.

The same, incidentally, is true of the Israelis. Yaacov Herzog, Eshkol’s Chef de Cabinet, told me two weeks ago that Israeli leaders are deeply divided over whether they should risk a political settlement, if the right terms can be negotiated, or sit tight on their expanded boundaries and rely for survival on the added military security they provide. He says he won’t know for sure what Israeli strategy is until the Cabinet votes on a specific proposal (though he thinks “peace” will win).

Operational Significance

There may be small comfort in saying that Nasser for the moment is so preoccupied with Israeli withdrawal that he’s not focusing right [Page 17] now on longer range objectives. But there are two important operational points here:

No one should trust Nasser. He broke his word to us last May. He’s trying to recoup his losses at the lowest cost. His main objective is to be Mr. Big in the Arab world, and anti-Zionism will continue to be his one reliable rallying cry. He honestly believes we’re to knock him off and would happily see us cut down to size—even though he knows he needs our power in the area to push Israel back and to hold the USSR at bay and preserve his freedom.
But no one should assume that Nasser is so irrevocably committed to a two-phase strategy that no reasonable deal is possible.
Some Israelis would like an excuse for not having to face up to the tough decisions they’d have to make to achieve a real settlement.
Some Americans assume that, since the odds seem against a settlement, we shouldn’t invest too much more in pressing the parties—especially Israel in an election year—toward a settlement. They believe realism suggests we wash our hands of the whole process as much as possible now that the UN representative has the ball.

The danger in working exclusively from this assumption is that we would give up an honest effort to build something on the President’s June 19 foundation. It’s one thing to be on our guard against the worst in both the Arabs and the Israelis and to assess our chances realistically. It’s another to decide that we should fold our tents with all the consequences for our interests in the Middle East.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President, Walt W. Rostow, Vol. 53, December 1–10, 1967. Secret.