1967 Israeli-Arab 6 Day war,:
 Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's letter to President Lyndon Johnson

May 30, 1967

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1967 Israeli-Arab 6 Day war,:
 Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol's letter to President Lyndon Johnson

May 30, 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. Israeli passage in Aqaba became a sore point for Nasser, and he was taunted by other Arab states for permitting it. 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 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.

Israeli foreign Minister Eban had implored the United States for some guarantee against an Egyptian attack and some firm action to break the blockade of the straits of Tiran. He was turned down by Secretary of State Dean Rusk  He was turned down by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and he was turned down, essentially by President Johnson. The US could not commit itself to the defense of Israel for constitutional reasons, according to the administration. The US could not establish any intelligence or military liaison with Israel. The US could not open the straits of Tiran alone without first attempting to do so through a multilateral force or the UN. Israel must not attack the Arabs. These same messages were contained in a written statement that President Johnson handed Eban at their meeting on May 26, and reiterated in this letter.

Eban returned to Israel virtually empty handed. The government of Levi Eshkol, under severe pressure, had been expanded June 1 to include Moshe Dayan as Defense Minister and the right wing Herut party of Mr. Begin. Intelligence chief Meir Amit had been dispatched to Washington and had returned, with an assessment that the US would not stand in the way. Israeli PM Levi Eshkol sent a letter May 30 via Ambassador Harman, stating that Israel would be will bound to attack Egypt if the crisis remained unresolved for long:

Such resistance would encounter, we believe, broad international understanding, and would encourage those forces in the Middle East which you and we regard as basically peace-loving and dedicated to stability. If present trends continue unchecked, there will be further erosion of the Western position in the Middle East. President Nasser's rising prestige has already had serious effects in Jordan, as proved by the agreement between President Nasser and King Hussein in Cairo./5/ The time is ripe for confronting Nasser with a more intense and effective policy of resistance. The people of Israel is the remnant of a nation which suffered tragic blows in the Hitler era. It is determined to defend its rights and its integrity with the utmost resolution. In this hour of destiny I appeal to you, Mr. President, to give effective response to what I have here written.

What Eshkol was asking for, in the absence of a public US guarantee of solidarity, was a green light from the US to attack. Johnson's response, delayed until June 3 and arriving apparently on Sunday June 4, was anything but "effective." It simply reiterated the same litany about the Regatta to open the straits of Tiran and the same request of Israel to refrain from attacking. A National Security Estimate of June 1 noted that any such Regatta would be viewed by Arabs as a US creation.

Copyright

The introduction above is copyright 2007 by Ami Isseroff. The document below is in the public domain. It was declassified by the United States government under the Freedom of Information act and is posted at: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/johnsonlb/xix/28055.htm Please cite the sources.


 102. Diplomatic Note From the Israeli Ambassador (Harman) to Secretary of State Rusk/1/

Washington, May 30, 1967.

/1/Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Middle East Crisis, Vol. II. Secret; Nodis. Sent to the President with a covering note from Walt Rostow: "Mr. President: Herewith a somber letter from Prime Minister Eshkol, foreshadowed this afternoon by Evron."

The Ambassador of Israel presents his compliments to the Honorable the Secretary of State and has the honor to convey the following message from His Excellency Levi Eshkol, Prime Minster of Israel, to His Excellency Lyndon Baines Johnson, President of the United States of America.

"Dear Mr. President,

"On May 28 I received your message through Ambassador Barbour and his verbal message on behalf of Secretary Rusk./2/ Foreign Minister Eban had also reported fully to me and to the Cabinet on your long and frank conversation with him.

/2/See Document 86.

"Your message and your remarks and assurances to Mr. Eban had an important influence on our decision to await developments for a further limited period before taking measures of our own to meet the challenge of the illegal blockade, the aggressive build-up of Egyptian forces on our southern frontier and the continuation of terrorist incursions into Israel territory. These provocations are further heightened by President Nasser's proclaimed intention to strike at Israel at the first opportunity with a view to bringing about her destruction.

The accumulation of hostile acts and pressures is extraordinarily intense. In the light of these pressures and of the possibility of a concerted Arab assault, a point is being approached at which counsels to Israel will lack any moral or logical basis. I feel I must make it clear in all candour that the continuation of this position for any considerable time is out of the question.

"The sympathy and understanding which you have expressed towards my country encourages me to summarize the steps which need to be taken in order to restore a minimal stability:

"(a) The Straits of Tiran: I welcome the assurance that the United States will take any and all measures to open the Straits of Tiran to international shipping, and that the United States and Britain are proceeding urgently to prepare the military aspects of the international naval escort plan, thus underlining the international determination to make every effort to keep the straits open to the flags of all nations, including Israel. It is crucial that the international naval escort should move through the straits within a week or two. With every further delay, President Nasser will consolidate his illegal policy of a fait accompli. Any hope of getting effective United Nations action for opening the straits is doomed to failure. I rely on your own friendship, your principles of international legality and on your assurances that the United States, if necessary, will open the straits on its own. Without freedom of passage through the Gulf, Israel's vital interests, her national and regional status, her relations with Africa and Asia and her international trade will be gravely undermined. We shall in no circumstances accept such a situation. We reserve our right of self-defense as was agreed with the United States Government in February 1957. Recent history shows that the appeasement of an aggressive dictator in one matter leads to a further escalation of extortionist demands.

"(b) The United Nations: We have conveyed to Secretary General of the United Nations U Thant our view that in the light of the United Nations failure, the very least he can do is to insist that the blockade and troop concentrations be cancelled. There can be no reward for unprovoked aggression, and the idea of President Nasser putting conditions to Secretary General U Thant is unacceptable. We cannot entertain any discussion based on conditions prescribed by President Nasser.

"(c) American-Israel Consultations: On the best intelligence estimates available to me, I am convinced that there continues to hover over my country the danger of an Egyptian-Syrian attack. President Nasser's speeches of May 26, 28 and 29 cannot be ignored. In these circumstances, we have no alternative but to keep our armed forces in a state of the highest alertness and fully mobilized. In the message Foreign Minister Eban conveyed to you on May 26,//3/ I asked urgently for a statement of American solidarity with Israel in case of attack. I also asked that, in addition to the intelligence coordination to which you have agreed, immediate coordination be established between the United States forces in the Middle East and the Israel Defense Forces in order to examine how the United States can help to prevent or halt aggression. Without such concrete measures the American commitment to Israel's security will remain less credible and effective than it should. You may recall that I raised the point with you in 1964./4/ I was moved by what you told Mr. Eban about your fealty to all American commitments to Israel. I have never doubted this. Surely the present situation demands that the commitment should be given its full deterrent effect, both by reaffirmation and by entering a planning stage.

/3/See Document 77 and footnote 1, Document 63.

/4/For documentation concerning Eshkol's visit to Washington in June 1964, see Foreign Relations, 1964-1968, vol. XVIII, Documents 65-67.

"One of the difficulties that I face is that I must call on my people to meet sacrifices and dangers without being able fully to reveal certain compensating factors, such as the United States commitment and the full scope of your determination on the matter of the Straits of Tiran. You may have seen in my public utterances an effort to meet this dilemma. Our nation is passing through some of the heaviest days in its history. It has every legal and moral justification and, indeed, it is in the supreme national interest to resist the aggression of an adversary who has committed one act of war and proclaims his intention to commit others. Such resistance would encounter, we believe, broad international understanding, and would encourage those forces in the Middle East which you and we regard as basically peace-loving and dedicated to stability. If present trends continue unchecked, there will be further erosion of the Western position in the Middle East. President Nasser's rising prestige has already had serious effects in Jordan, as proved by the agreement between President Nasser and King Hussein in Cairo./5/ The time is ripe for confronting Nasser with a more intense and effective policy of resistance. The people of Israel is the remnant of a nation which suffered tragic blows in the Hitler era. It is determined to defend its rights and its integrity with the utmost resolution. In this hour of destiny I appeal to you, Mr. President, to give effective response to what I have here written.

/5/On May 30 King Hussein and President Nasser signed a mutual defense agreement providing that an attack on either party would be considered an attack on both and that any joint operations would be under the command of the chief of staff of the UAR armed forces. The text is printed in The New York Times, May 30, 1967. Iraq adhered to the agreement on June 4.

Respectfully yours,

Levi Eshkol

Prime Minister"

The Ambassador of Israel avails himself of this opportunity to convey to the Honorable the Secretary of State the renewed assurances of his highest consideration.

 

 

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