Memorandum of Conversation
Memorandum of Conversation
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.
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, and 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 stated that
" The information available to us does not really support the belief that an attack by the UAR and Syria is imminent. "
His major concern was to caution Israel, in the name of President Johnson, against attacking Egypt in a preemptive strike:
Rusk assured Eban:
Rusk noted that a US commitment to defend Israel if attacked was more or less out of the question:
The above is undoubtedly true and must always be remembered in connection with perennial announcements of U.S. politicians that the U.S. is committed to Israeli security and would stand by Israel. If Michael Oren's description of the planned Egyptian attack is true, the timing of the above remarks is of special interest.
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
64. Memorandum of Conversation/1/
Washington, May 25, 1967, 8:30 p.m.
/1/Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Middle East Crisis, Vol. II. Secret; Exdis. Drafted by Rusk's Special Assistant C. Arthur Borg. Sent to the President at 11 a.m. on May 26 with a covering note from Walt Rostow.
The Secretary said that the President wanted him to make a number of points: 1) The information available to us does not really support the belief that an attack by the UAR and Syria is imminent. We have looked into the examples cited by the Chief of Israeli Intelligence very carefully throughout the course of the day including the reports of armored brigade movements from Yemen, movement of UAR naval vessels, and the nature of military dispositions in Sinai. With regard to the latter they appear defensive to us (Eban interjected to point out that a defensive alignment in one area may mask an offensive preparation in another). 2) We wish to make available to the Israeli Government, through our Embassy all the information we obtain; it is important that there be a prompt sharing of all information available to each of us in order to permit the fullest possible analysis of the situation. 3) At this juncture we need to know the Secretary General's impressions from his trip to the Middle East. We believe that a UAR attack will be irrational before his report is submitted to the Security Council. Such an attack would impose "enormous political burdens on Nasser." 4) The President particularly wanted Eban to understand that our government did not have the authority to give an assurance along the lines of "an attack on you is an attack on us" without full Congressional association with such an undertaking. Such NATO-type treaty language would be unfortunate because of the tremendous debate it would raise regarding war-making power under the Constitution. (The Secretary commented at this point on the curious reversal of the dove and hawk roles induced by the Middle East situation and noted the unfortunate inference that the United States might be forced to make a choice between the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Eban replied that everyone has his own "favorite part of the world." Eban stressed in a more serious vein, however, that Prime Minister Eshkol should not be held to specific language with regard to his request of the President. The important point was that there must be an effective expression of "warning and deterrent".) 5) We wish to make a maximum effort multilaterally. The United Nations should have a chance to find an answer before we consider other initiatives. At the same time the UK initiative regarding a declaration by Maritime countries is a good one and we are working urgently on this. The more countries that could be associated with the British proposal the better. We consider the situation in the Tiran Strait a grave matter: for Israel, for us and because of principles that have a worldwide effect. 6) The President asked that it be particularly emphasized that preemptive action by Israel would cause extreme difficulty for the United States. In our position of world leadership, the American people would do what has to be done if "the fault is on the other side and there is no other alternative". Therefore, the question of responsibility for the initiation of hostilities is a major problem for us. Of course if we had information that the other side was moving this would be a matter of great concern.
In response to the Secretary's query, Eban confirmed that Eshkol had sent messages to the British and the French similar to the message to the President. With regard to the question of possible preemptive action he wished to comment that during the past two weeks "the reality has been consistently worse than the projections". The Secretary interjected that this was behind our desire for more intensive mutual consultation. We wish to keep very urgently in close touch on all aspects of the situation. It is essential that we share our information in order that we can evaluate it together.
The Secretary stated that the President was not taking Prime Minister Eshkol's message or the Middle East situation lightly. Eban then said that he wished to discuss the Strait situation although he would talk in greater detail at the working dinner./2/ He described the attitude in Israel as "apocalyptic" and that Israel could not take much more if it were a question of surrender or action. He said that when he returned to Tel Aviv it was important that he be able to state that something concrete was being done about the Strait situation. If there was nothing concrete to say Israel would feel alone. If on the other hand, international action were instituted, Israel would "harmonize" its effort with the others. The Secretary replied that we are urgently ascertaining what can be said before the Foreign Minister leaves. There is the problem of the time factor but we hope to isolate the Strait problem and keep it localized. Eban responded that the United States commitment to Israel is the most localized specific commitment we have and that it seems to him important that the United States meets this "easy commitment" in the light of its over-all position. The Secretary observed that we must take our Constitutional problem into account and that the President and the Congress must move with solidarity in dealing with the problem. The Secretary commented for Eban's private information that Prime Minister Pearson had told the President he could probably furnish a couple of ships to a multilateral effort in the Strait.
/2/Eban, Harman, Rafael, Evron, and Israeli Attachי Brigadier General Joseph Geva met with Eugene Rostow, Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Foy D. Kohler, Battle, Sisco, Legal Adviser Leonard C. Meeker, and Walsh for a working dinner after Eban's meeting with Rusk. A memorandum of the conversation is in the National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL ISR-US. After the dinner Eban met privately with Eugene Rostow. A memorandum of that conversation, which Walt Rostow sent to the President along with the memorandum of the conversation with Rusk, is in the Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Middle East Crisis, Vol. II.
The Secretary asked what the key element was in Israel's withdrawing from the general armistice arrangements. Eban stated that two elements are vital: an effective cease-fire and frontiers which are respected. The machinery utilized is not the essence and UNEF was effective from 1956 to 1967 because the two vital elements were present. Ambassador Harman also noted that the Suez blockade against Israeli ships was not compatible with the armistice agreement.
With regard to the Secretary's query about the Israeli attitude toward foreign forces on its territory, Eban replied that the key question is one of function. UNEF, for example, has been tied to a specific geographical situation; if UN forces were moved from Gaza to Israel they would lose their deterrence.
Eban emphasized that his government was interested in any possible action related to the Strait problem. It would be most useful, for example, if the President were to send Prime Minister Eshkol a message commencing with the statement that "we are going to open the Straits" and then proceeding with discussion of detail. The Secretary replied that it was important to find out what the various alternatives can yield. He noted, for example, that the President had decided that we should complain to the non-permanent members of the Security Council (except Bulgaria) about their "soggy attitude" on the Middle East situation. This was in line with our view that members are entitled to act in support of the United Nations Charter despite the possibility of a veto. With regard to action in the Security Council Eban replied that Israel wants a verdict for something it is already entitled to do. He cited Secretary Dulles as thinking that the onus should be put on others. It was therefore important to take effective action with regard to the Strait and then let others come to the Council with a complaint if they wished.
The Secretary returned to the vital importance of more intensive mutual consultation and stated that we would start this tonight. He commented that our Embassy in Tel Aviv had been worried about "an arm's length attitude" on the part of the host government and we hoped this could be corrected.
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