Memorandum of Conversation
Abba Eban at US Defense Department
May 26, 1967

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Memorandum of Conversation
AAbba Eban at US Defense  Department
May 26, 1967

Introduction

Gamal Abdul Nasser and his fellow officers had taken power in Egypt in order they claimed, to modernize the country and undo the shame of the lost 1948 war. However, in 1956, after Nasser closed the straits of Tiran and Suez canal to Israeli shipping and moved terror squads into the Sinai peninsula, Israel, Egypt and France attacked Egypt. Israel captured the entire Sinai peninsula in 100 hours. Before agreeing to withdraw, Israel got a commitment from the US in the form of an Aide de Memoire, stating that it would support Israel's right to unrestricted access to the straits of Tiran, in accordance with international law, and the UN agreed to station an emergency force in Sinai (UNEF).

Subsequent clarifications by the US apparently confirmed that the US supported the right of Israel to use force to enforce freedom of navigation. In the conversations below, the Israeli side referred to a document of February 26, 1957. The US notes that it was unable to confirm that the US had ever "accepted" that document, even though it included the remarks of Secretary of State Dulles.

The Aide de Memoire and U.S. position became an issue in 1967 when prior to the Six day war Israel insisted that closure of the straits of Tiran was an act of war. The U.S. agreed. but asked Israel to allow the US to open the canal. Between 50,000 (US estimate) and 100,000 (Israeli estimate) Egyptian troops had been moved into Sinai by May 25.

Israel presented an intelligence estimate to the US on May 25th according to which an Egyptian attack in Sinai was imminent. Some sources claim that this was a deliberate exaggeration meant to goad the US into supportive action. The CIA dismissed the estimate as unfounded. In Six Days of War, (Oxford, 2002) Michael Oren, relying primarily on Egyptian sources, details an Egyptian plan to attack Israel, operation fajr (Dawn),  that was supposedly detected by Israel and stopped by US and Soviet intervention a few hours before it was to take place in the early morning of May 27, 1967. It is unclear if Israel had this information on May 25. US sources declassified to date do not give give any indication of this purported attack plan.

A telegram from U.S. Ambassador Barbour of May 25 1967 refers to the earlier Israeli defense estimate and insists that it is based on hard intelligence. It is unclear where this arrived and was considered before or after the CIA estimate of May 25.

On the same day, Ambassador Harman and Foreign Minister Abba Eban met with US Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Israel had asked the US for a statement that "an attack on Israel would be an attack on the United States," in view of the increasingly alarming military situation, and United States' continued insistence that Israel must not attack the Arabs first.  Failure to attack first, Israel felt, was putting Israel at considerable risk of casualties. The prolonged crisis was allowing Arab states to mobilize additional resources, while Israel had no additional resources and its economy was paralyzed. Anxious to prevent Israel from attacking at any cost, the U.S. Secretary of State and other officials discounted the Israeli intelligence and insisted that the CIA estimate was correct, as well as the telegram from  Ambassador Barbour. Dean Rusk brushed off Israeli concerns about an imminent attack, made it clear that the US would oppose Israeli action, and refused the Israeli request for a statement that would deter an imminent attack.

Essentially the same message was repeated by Secretary Defense Robert McNamara in this meeting held on May 26. During 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 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.

Apparently, Israeli intelligence was confirming the reports of operation Fajr (Dawn), which was, according to Oren, to be launched within about 14 hours. This meeting took place at 10:30 AM Washington time, which is 16:30 hours Israel time, May 26. The attack was to have been launched at about 06:00, May 27.   If the US took any action on this intelligence whatever, it is not recorded.

In a lecture he gave in 2002, Michael Oren asserted:

So, H-hour for Operation Dawn was set effectively at dawn for May 27, 1967. Why didn't it happen? The previous day, Foreign Minister of Israel Abba Eban landed in Washington with the goal of ascertaining from the American administration its position in the event of the outbreak of war. As soon as Eban arrived, he was handed an ultra-secret cable directly from the Israeli government, and in it the information that Israel had learned of an Egyptian and Syrian plan to launch a war of annihilation against Israel within the next 48 hours. Eban met with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Defense Secretary McNamara, finally with the president himself. The Americans said their intelligence sources could not corroborate the claim; that Egyptian alignment in Sinai
remained defensive.

Eban left the White House distraught. Johnson sat around with his advisors and said, What if their intelligence sources are better than ours? Johnson decided to fire off a hotline message to his counterpart in the Kremlin, Alexei Kosygin, in which he said, We've heard from the Israelis, but we can't corroborate it, that your proxies in the Middle East, the Egyptians, plan to launch an attack against Israel in the next 48 hours. If you don't want to start a global crisis, prevent them from doing that. At 2:30 a.m. on May 27, Soviet Ambassador to Egypt Dimitri Pojidaev knocked on Nasser's door and read him a personal letter from Kosygin in  which he said, We don't want Egypt to be blamed for starting a war in the Middle East. If you launch that attack, we cannot support you. 'Amer consulted his sources in the Kremlin, and they corroborated the substance of Kosygin's message. Despondent, 'Amer told the commander of Egypt's air force, Major General Mahmud Sidqi, that the operation was cancelled.

02:30 hours Egyptian time would be about 8:30 PM May 26, Washington time. If the above is correct, the telephone call to Kosygin would have taken place on the evening of May 26 immediately before the meeting of Eban with President Johnson or even simultaneous with the meeting.

Source http://dti.commonwealthclub.org/archive/02/02-06oren-speech.html
 

Copyright

The introduction above is copyright 2007 by Ami Isseroff. The document below is in the public domain. Please cite the sources. This document was declassified under the U.S. Freedom of Information act. The source is at   http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/johnsonlb/xix/28053.htm.


69. Memorandum of Conversation/1/

I-35592/67

Washington, May 26, 1967, 10:30 a.m.

/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.

SUBJECT
Dangers of Arab-Israeli War

PARTICIPANTS

Israeli Side
Foreign Minister Abba Eban
Ambassador Avraham Harman
Brigadier General Joseph Geva, Defense Attach×™

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/ISA--Col. 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 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, 1957/2/ (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.

/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. 254-267. 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. 311-313 and 325-326. The text of the Israeli draft declaration, as revised after Dulles' meeting with Eban, is ibid., pp. 313-317. 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.

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 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. deGaulle 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 deGaulle 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 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.

 

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