At the same time, it has been proven that international bodies are not prepared to forcefully compel Egypt to abide by her international obligations. These are basic facts, to which one can add that, at the same time, it is clear that we are not able to force our way through the Canal
Of course, a proposal can be advanced – indeed it was advanced – that we react by sabotaging the Canal. The government totally rejects this idea. It does not think that it would be wise to enter into an open conflict with a physical clash with the entire world. It also does not think that Israel is placed in such a desperate situation to the extent of having no other option but to sink a ship in the Suez Canal, an act I define as “a noble political suicide.”
We also do not see any sense in repeating the act of sending a ship through the Canal, as we did with the “Bat-Galim”, because it would only be a repeat of the same affair. Second, we do not see any point in continuing our campaign in the Security Council. This can be done, of course, but it would only be a verbal game. In order to be consistent, we formally asked the President of the Security Council to appeal to Egypt and demand its acceptance of the Council’s decision, but obviously this step would not change Egypt’s position. An additional discussion at the Security Council would not necessarily end with stronger condemnation, and I do not believe that we need a demonstration of this impotence of the Security Council.
Sooner or later we believe that Egypt should be made to release “Bat-Galim” and to let her sail southwards only [i.e., not to Haifa through the Canal.] If this happens, the sailing of the ship to Eilat would be possible. Politically we are in favor of taking such a step, but militarily this step still involves several unknowns.
At the time when we were still at the start of the operation, after we decided to purchase a ship, bring it over to Massawa and put her under an Israeli flag, there were two options open before us: directing the ship to the Suez Canal or to Eilat. Both options were discussed and the decision fell on the Suez option. The reasoning was that the problem of Eilat is hardly known in the outside world, while everybody knows what the Suez Canal is, that it is an international maritime passage, guaranteed for all to use. It was also almost certain that the sailing to Eilat would involve a military conflict. And we were not certain that it would occur against a favorable international background.
On the other hand, it stood to reason that if we chose the Suez option then, even if the Egyptians stopped the ship, we would by no means use force, for this kind of behavior would have no chance of winning world public opinion and of censuring the Egyptians; but at the same time, if the Egyptians were censured for blockading the Canal, this could justify our breaking through to Eilat later , even forcefully. We also assumed that each operation – the Suez and the Eilat ones – could take a few months and that in between these two there could be a lull of several months. Still, because the argument between the proponents of the two options ended by the Suez supporters having the upper hand, the option of breaking through to Eilat was not thoroughly explored militarily. This matter is only now under examination and I still do not have the Army’s final word in this respect; but I do foresee here a very serious problem, not at all as simple as it looked time and again in hasty discussions held around this table. As I said, the Eilat operation is now being examined and when conclusions are reached I will present them here. Meanwhile, we are planning other possibilities, untried yet, of moving cargoes through the Suez Canal.
Indeed, I cannot say that the government has already decided to carry out a breakthrough to Eilat, but I would say that at present I am favoring this action even if it requires the use of force. No opposition was heard in the government against the taking of such a step, but this does not mean that I am prepared to carry it out tomorrow. Politically I am all for it, but what is the meaning of "politically"? I am not in favor of a war erupting between us and Egypt. I am in favor of a certain operation even it involves the use of force, but if it turns out that this operation may lead to war, I would then reconsider the matter anew. There is also the question of the efficacy of the use of force if we aim at achieving a positive result. After all, our aim is not hitting the Egyptians but getting our ship through to Eilat. The question is: can this be militarily secured? This is the uppermost consideration.
Meanwhile, we are looking for other possibilities of transporting cargoes through the Suez Canal, not under Israeli flag. Some of these we have not tried yet, but they are very vital for us. It is quite possible that the political setback of Egypt in the Security Council regarding the “Bat-Galim” issue and her declarations that she would not interfere with other aspects of free passage in the Canal will work in favor of our possibilities. Here there are two plans. One is operating a direct line from Israel to the Far East, which does not yet exist. At present, when we want to transport a cargo to Burma, we move it to Antwerp and, from there, we use another ship sailing to the Far East, and the same goes for cargoes transported to us from the Far East. A similar problem exists in our commerce with East Africa. Here ships are reluctant to transport cargoes directly to Haifa through the Canal, fearing that they would be added to the “black list” of the Arab boycott.[n]
NOTE: The Arab economic boycott, coordinated through an Arab League office created in Damascus in 1951, not only prohibited Arab companies from trading with the Jewish state but sought to punish “foreign companies and institutions acting in support of the economy of Israel” by blacklisting them. Examples of blacklisted companies and entertainers included Coca-Cola, Danny Kaye and Frank Sinatra.
A plan is now being worked out of sending cargoes directly from Haifa to Rangoon and Tokyo and back in ships which would not sail under our flag. These ships would stop at East African ports too. In this way our interests would be greatly enhanced. So far there has not been even one instance of a ship sailing under non-Israeli flag directly from Haifa to the far East through the Canal.
Another plan in this sphere is transporting oil through the Canal in various camouflaged ways. This plan especially is secret, and if it succeeds it could be developed further.
The first attempt would be the sailing of a ship carrying cement produced in Israel, and more than 100 jeeps, from Haifa to Rangoon. It will carry back to Haifa a cargo of rice. There are favorable prospects of commerce with Japan and South Korea which is now receiving huge American aid and is willing to purchase every other item.
I will now move to a different subject: We are now facing a new stage of the American plan of organizing a Middle East defense system. At first it was assumed that it would be possible to include at once all the Arab states in a defense plan either by utilizing the mutual defense pact of the [League of] Arab States, which exists at least on paper, or by conducting negotiations with the Arab states [individually]. While the Americans favored the second option, the British opted for the first.
However that plan has not materialized, in part because of the unforeseen prolongation of the Anglo-Egyptian negotiations regarding the Canal Zone evacuation. The Americans agreed with Britain that as long as her dispute with Egypt is not settled, Egypt would not be included in the defense organization, and would not be granted American arms. Strong neutralist attitudes which appeared then in the Arab world and the campaign we conducted mainly in the United States against the arming of the Arab countries led the Americans reconsider the whole matter. Thus, at a certain stage after Dulles’ visit to the Middle East [in spring 1953], they decided to give up the wholesale inclusion of the Arab states in their defense plan, and to act instead in a gradual, piecemeal way, as well as to work for it not from the center to the circumference but in the opposite direction. The idea was to advance outside the narrow framework of the Arab countries which would involve a clash with Israel and with Arab neutralist tendencies, and build a foundation for a defense organization in an area free of neutralism and of clashes with Israel, and not get involved at all with Egypt. This is how the initiative of connecting Turkey and Pakistan in a defense pact, called The Northern Tier, was born with the aim of its being the first defense line against a possible Soviet invasion in case of an eruption of a world war.
It can be assumed that, right in the beginning, when this defense line was established, its founders planned that in the next stage Iraq would be co-opted to it as a buttressing factor. Presumably, had it been possible, Iran, not Iraq, would have been the preferred third party of the pact, but owing to the complicated internal situation in Iran Iraq came first, and the initiative towards it had two prongs: one was the American willingness to arm this state, the other was Iraq’s entering into a mutual defense treaty with Turkey. This plan is being implemented step by step. It seems that our public and diplomatic activity in America has somewhat slowed it down, for there were already two American consignments of military equipment to Iraq, but these two did not include arms. However this military aid is not given to Iraq as a member of the defense pact. The task of including Iraq in the pact was given over to Turkey, and indeed Turkey has started negotiating with Iraq and Egypt regarding their joining the defense treaty. As it turned out, Turkey was not as successful in her approaches to Egypt as it was with Iraq. Menderes planned visits to both Baghdad and Cairo, but he went only to Baghdad. Nuri al-Sa’id, the Iraqi Premier, tried to get Egypt to agree to joining the pact. He failed and then tried at least to gain her consent to his country’s joining it. According to Iraqi sources he succeeded in his second attempt. It seems he was told by Cairo: “OK, we cannot go along with you, we’ll need a year and a half to do that.” It is said that, at their last meeting, Gamal Abd al-Nasser told Nuri al-Sa’id that his country’s joining the pact was only a matter of time; it could not do that before the evacuation of the British Army is completed; the presence of British soldiers on his soil makes all the difference. As we have gathered from Iraqi sources, Nasser supposedly added: “If you are in haste, then go ahead, but I shall not.” He did not oppose the Iraqi step. But later on the Iraqis said they were deceived by the Egyptians, for now Nasser was following a contrary line by orchestrating a fierce campaign within the Arab League against Iraq’s joining the pact.
I would like to say something regarding Sa’id’s motives. When dealing with Sa’id, the British praise him, saying he is a statesman holding a Western worldview. In fact it is difficult to accept this without a grain of salt even though there is some truth in that. First of all, Sa’id is faced with a Communist threat from within and he feels a need to be buttressed against it from without. There is indeed quite a strong Communist movement in Iraq. It was already there, as I remember, when he escaped to Jerusalem during World War II, at the time of the [April 1941 Rashid Ali] al-Gaylani revolt [i.e., anti-British coup d’état]. He then sent a Kurdish minister to us in order to maintain contact. At the time he thought that he was lost, that he was abandoned by the British, and hence he looked for any possible support. I also well remember their ambassador in London whom I met there in the days of the "Blitz", telling me how deeply anxious he was because of the Iraqi young generation’s tendency to join the Communists. He asked me if we too were facing the same phenomenon in Palestine and wanted to know how we were grappling with it.[n]
NOTE: See, e.g., Moshe Sharett, Yoman Medini, vol. V (1940-1942) (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1979 – in Hebrew), 235-27.
Sa’id is also worried about his own position. At present he completely dominates the political arena – he has shut down newspapers, invalidated the last general elections, imprisoned several opposition leaders – but he needs support, economic support, military support, and he just cannot disregard any proposal of a possible financial help, even minimal one, or disregard possible Turkish help. I will not deny the possibility of his thinking that it would also benefit Iraq if it can be safeguarded against Syria by accepting American help. This does not mean that he decided that Iraq should fight side by side with the Americans; he can avoid such fighting in the future, but meanwhile he is benefitted. He can also present Iraq’s integration into the defense pact and its receiving military aid as an important step in the war against Israel and thereby win Arab public opinion.
I assume members of this committee remember that in the joint communiqué of Turkey and Iraq it was said that the two governments had agreed on the signing of a mutual defense pact, and that the internal stability of the Middle East should be based on the principles on the UN Charter and on the decisions of the UN based on these principles. We, in our talks with the Turks, the Americans and the British, claimed that this reliance on the UN decisions means the dismantling of Israel in accordance with the UN 1947 [partition] decision; it means the exploding of Israel from within by the introducing into it of tens of thousands refugees and its decapitation by the internationalizing of Jerusalem according to the UN decision of 1949.
In our talks with the Turks about the proposed pact with Iraq we claimed that it would lead to a further arming of [Iraq], thereby endangering Israel's security. We pointed to potential anti-Israeli elements in the text of the proposed pact and also warned them that they were entering into an alliance with an untrustworthy partner. We asked them whether this pact did not undermine Turkish-Israeli friendship and whether it was not in contradiction with past Turkish promises to us that no Turkish-Iraqi friendship would be detrimental to Israel.
In his talk with Maurice Fischer, our Minister in Ankara, Menderes said: “By guaranteeing to Iraq, in the proposed pact, that if it is attacked we would come to her aid, we thereby secure Iraq’s inability to be an aggressor, for if she attacks first, we would be freed from our obligations towards her.” Fischer retorted that this was only a deduced interpretation, and Menderes admitted it was so, but said that this deduction is very clear.
In a public reception in Rome held for Menderes, he took aside our Minister Eliyahu Sasson and referred to my speech in the Knesset in which I said that the basing of the Turkish-Iraqi pact on UN decisions meant, as far as Israel was concerned, its breakup, imploding and decapitation. Menderes expressed his sorrow at my interpretation of the pact’s text. The Turks, he said, have never had such intentions, and then asked Sasson to keep their talk secret.
We have outlined our policy as follows. Generally, we should not avoid a disagreement with Turkey, but we do no want to quarrel with her. We shall gain nothing from a quarrel, but we can gain something from an argument. We shall not be able to prevent the signing of the pact; true, if there were chances to achieve this, we would have done everything towards this end.
From the point of view of our security, the undermining of the Arab League is not of much importance. First of all, the League is not a solid body; it is quite a flimsy one. Precisely because it is not a rigid organization, it does not fall apart in the face of shocks. What we are saying to America and Britain, as well as to Turkey, is that the root of Arab animosity towards us is not to be found in the League; it is in Arab consciousness. The League is only expressing it vehemently, but this animosity would continue even if the League disappears. Thus the arming of each Arab state separately is no less dangerous than arming all of them within the League’s or any other framework.
As to the Turkish-Iraqi pact, we are demanding first that in its preamble its two parties should state their obligation to refrain from aggression. We do not say what we are demanding this from Iraq; we say what we are demanding it from Turkey. An obligation to refrain from aggression is a regular item in such treaties; you find it the Balkan Security Pact of which Turkey is a member. Second, we are demanding that the preamble should not state “to avoid internal aggression,” but rather that the parties oppose aggression whatever its source. Third, we are demanding the striking out from the pact any reference to UN decisions.
We have some knowledge of the draft of the pact as proposed by Turkey. We know that there is no obligation there regarding non-aggression. It is said more superficially that the two states strive for a state of security and peace in the region. The Turkish draft mentions the UN Charter; it does not mention any UN decision. On this subject, Menderes has fulfilled his promises to us quite completely. Still, what we have is the draft. We have no idea about the Iraqi draft.
At the same time we are strongly demanding that the Americans intervene in this matter. We say: “It’s your responsibility; the pact is your baby, it’s a result of your policy, and it is only increasing Israel’s isolation and aggravating the dangers with which she is faced both politically and militarily.
American policy aims at joining Syria and Lebanon first, and Egypt later, to the pact. The Americans regard Egypt as the strongest concentration of neutralism within the Arab world. They thus want to isolate Egypt and thereby prove to her that it does not pay to remain outside. As for Britain, in view of her treaty with Egypt, it seems that her interest is to have her join the pact first, but she would not start a fight with America over this issue. America is now trying her hand with Syria, while obviously one on the aims of Eden’s visit to Egypt is to have her join the pact.
Egypt is, for the time being, strongly refusing to join the Western pact, and accordingly she is enlisting other Arab states to side with her. In Syria there are conflicting tendencies over this issue. It seems that in Lebanon the faction favoring joining would have the upper hand, but I wonder if she would take such a step before Syria does. At the same time, it is possible that Iraq’s becoming the leading Arab state at the expense of Egypt would whet her appetite to swallow up Syria, and thus Lebanon could find herself joining the treaty with Turkey as a bulwark guaranteeing her borders against Syrian designs.
I would like to add in this context that both we and France are aware of the possibility of Iraq’s reviving the dream of the “Fertile Crescent,” and consequently we told the Americans, British and Turks that if such a plan is implemented, we would consider ourselves free from being bound by the Armistice Agreements. We have an Armistice Agreement with Syria, as it is; we have no armistice agreement with Iraq. If Iraq and Syria become united, a totally different situation is created.
Our pressure on the United States is expressed in our warnings that all these possible alignments are fraught with danger to us. We are being left out of any regional arrangements. Our security is threatened by the arming of the Arab states, etc. Secretary of State Dulles keeps telling us that he is aware of this problem. He told us that the American government would propose some guarantees. Clearly, the Americans find themselves between the hammer and the anvil. On the one hand, they are bound by their international interests [to contain the Soviet Union] and thus fear that any pro-Israeli step they take would undermine their present Middle East policy. On the other hand, they feel the pressure we constantly bring to bear through American Jewish and non-Jewish public opinion, and through the appeals to the Administration by members of the two Houses [of Congress] in Washington.
Our pressure is unrelenting. There are those who say that certainly, after the pact is signed, America would propose something to us. But what? It may be a security guarantee. This is no small matter, but it can also be dangerous, for it may serve as cover for unlimited arming of the Arabs. When we say to the Americans: “You are arming the Arabs one-sidedly, leaving us out, and thereby you are increasing the danger we are facing,” they tell us that they have already promised us to come to our help if we are attacked: “If Iraq receives American jets, you don’t have to worry, because our jets would protect you.” To this we say that we are first and foremost relying on ourselves, while vigorously demanding that they fulfill their obligation to the principle of military balance as stated in the Tripartite Declaration.
Obviously, after the Turkish-Iraqi pact is signed, we shall mount a new wave of demands and criticisms vis-à-vis the United States government in view of its abandonment of Israel. If some of our suggested amendments to the draft of the pact are accepted, our attack would be lessened but nevertheless, we shall point to the one-sidedness of the whole process which puts Israel in an indefensible position.
In Ambassador Elath’s last meeting with Eden, Eden explained that they had to clinch the Turkish-Iraqi pact and that an effort had to be made to include Egypt in it. He said the time would come when negotiations could be conducted with Israel; meanwhile we could rely on the fact that they are our friends, and as such they would not abandon us. In their opinion, our position would not be worsened as a result of Turkey’s and Britain’s involvement in the region’s defense. He also said that they would maintain a balanced supply of arms. Elath reminded him that they had already sold Centurion tanks and planes to Egypt while our proposal to purchase Centurions has not yet been approved. Eden promised him that they would do that.
There were two meetings with Nehru. One of the reasons was to thank him for his intervention on behalf of the [Egyptian Jews] condemned [to death and other sentences for espionage] in Egypt. In this case he had acted swiftly. On the very day of his arrival in London I cabled to Elath and instructed him to try enlisting Nehru. Nehru was not to be found, and so Elath contacted his sister, who called him up late that night and he then immediately cabled his Ambassador in Cairo. To no avail. After the hanging[s] Nehru expressed his sorrow and said that Nasser had probably succumbed to internal pressures. He was asked to talk with Nasser [with an appeal] to ameliorating the situation of those who were not sentenced to death. He very much praised Nasser and generally spoke against involving the Middle East in Western defense schemes.
At this point Prime Minister Sharett was asked for information regarding the four IDF soldiers detained by the Syrians.
This subject is top secret and every word I shall say now must remain within the walls of this room. The Syrians said that although, in their opinion, the soldiers could be put on trial according to the Geneva Convention, they would not do so. They inquired how many Syrians were in our hands and proposed a prisoner exchange. It turned out that among the Syrians who are in our hands there are three deserters, one of whom converted to Judaism and married a Jewess. We said we were willing to bring the deserters over to the border and there, in the presence of UN observers, they would declare whether they wished to cross over into Syria or remain in Israel. There are also three Syrian civilians in our hands, two infiltrators and one suspected of spying. We said we were willing to release these three. Meanwhile, we have detained a few Syrian fishermen whose boat was captured by us, and the Syrians are demanding their return as well. Burns is now dealing with the additional fishermen’s problem and while I am not in a position to declare that the soldiers would be released, it seems that things are heading in this direction.
At this point a general discussion ensued in which several members of the committee participated. Sharett replied as follows:
The subject of the worth of an American security guarantee to Israel was raised in the discussion. I am not convinced that the idea of such a guarantee is worthless. We have never given up our demand for arms, but if a security guarantee accompanies our arming, I would regard it as important. Anyway, we cannot hold the rope by both ends at once – we cannot claim that any security guarantee given to an Arab state means a change of the balance of forces to our detriment, and at the same time claim that a guarantee given to us is insignificant. If a guarantee given to us is insignificant, so is that given to the other side.
I was somewhat astonished upon hearing the opinion here that we should endeavor to obtain a joint Soviet-American security guarantee. The very appealing in this matter to the Soviets would immediately undermine any serious negotiations between us and the United States. There can be no other result. I think it is about time that we see clearly our position in the international arena: on which power are we more dependent, and on which less dependent? Who is able to extend more help to Israel, and who less? Who can do us more harm, and who less? Here, as far as we are concerned, there is a huge difference between the United States and the Soviet Union on three accounts: (a) The actual ability of each of these two powers to control events; (b) The ability of each to extend to us economic aid which we need as we need air to breathe; (c) The position of the largest Jewish [diaspora] community and our obligation to support it. All these criteria favor the United States. Had these facts been different, perhaps we would have reached different conclusions, but they are not. It is not we who created this reality; it is a result of historical developments, and we cannot avoid taking it into consideration when dealing with our international relations. Of course, within this framework there is a certain freedom of maneuvering. We did establish relations with Soviet bloc states. We sent a mission to communist China, and perhaps one day we would establish diplomatic relations with her.
While nobody know what would happen if a world war erupts, I believe, as one member said here, that then no pact would be of any use. Indeed, this is what we are saying to the Americans. But a statesman, if he is realist, cannot ignore facts which are meanwhile being created as a result of this or that pact. The very process of preparing for a world war – even if it is, in itself, mistaken – has been creating political and military facts. Consequently, a question arises: Is America’s friendship important or unimportant to us? Can we be indifferent to America and to the fact that her friendship with the Arabs is expressed in pacts? Is it not in our interest to endeavor to obtain something similar with her? This is a most serious matter for Israel’s foreign policy. Our interest in joining a security pact is not for its own sake, not for becoming a participant in a world war which we abhor, but for the purpose of buttressing ourselves against dangers which can arise within our region. Our interest is to tie the hands of the Arab states joining a regional security pact so that they commit themselves to refrain from aggressive acts against us. Our interest is to oblige America to grant us arms, and we should endeavor to attain these arms, inasmuch as possible, in conditions favorable to us. This is the very essence of our foreign policy.
A question was raised here regarding France’s position towards the Turkish-Iraqi pact. Well, we are talking with the French openly and straightforwardly. We say: “You are claiming you are against this pact. What does this mean in concrete terms? Is this just an academic position uttered for self-satisfaction, or are you envisaging a real possibility of undermining it? If so, we would join you to the very end. However, we do not know what your relations with Turkey are, and what your political line is. We know very well where our relations with Turkey stand. For us they carry great importance, for they were the first to have extricated us from absolute isolation in the Middle East. This is not a simple matter. The Turks are talking with us in Ankara, Rome and Paris. When did they talk like this with representatives of the Jewish people? This was not attained easily. I have earlier pointed out that they refrained from including a sentence about the UN resolutions in the draft of their pact with Iraq. So if we enter into an adventurous operation with France against the Turkish-Iraqi pact, we can lose something, we can completely burn our relations with Turkey. France can somehow overcome such an eventuality, but I do not know if she would compensate us for our losses in Turkey – would she purchase our exports to Turkey? Can France be a substitute for Turkey in the Middle East for us?