I assume you all well remember that, following the series of Egyptian attacks and our complaints, the UN proposed a high-level meeting between us and the Egyptians. In fact it was we who proposed this to the UN, and we said the same to the powers, that we are prepared to clarify matters in a high-level meeting in order to reach pacification in the Gaza Strip, for if there is no tranquility we would have to draw the conclusions. The UN then took an initiative and we did not mind, because we thought that it’s better that the meeting be proposed by the UN, since then the Egyptians would find it more difficult to refuse. General Burns not only proposed the meeting; he also proposed the agenda. The Egyptians made haste to accept the proposals, but we saw immediately that there was one proposal we couldn’t accept, and that was establishing joint patrols in participation with the UN. We rejected this proposal and said that we could discuss the other three proposals, but to this one we were opposed in principle. Thus an unequal situation to our detriment occurred in the world public opinion. Long negotiations ensued on the question of the high-level meeting. First, the Egyptians did not give a clear reply, then they said they were prepared to meet, but not at the level prop0sed by the UN because, if so, an impression would be created that they were entering peace negotiations, or at least negotiations not within the framework of the Armistice Agreement.
Meanwhile, it seems Nasser felt he should buttress his international standing and he threw out a far-reaching proposal regarding a demilitarized zone. Earlier he had not talked clearly about a demilitarized zone; he only said that the armies would retreat and an empty territory would be created by which clashes would be prevented. We felt compelled to respond negatively to this proposal, albeit not officially, because if we had accepted it Nasser then could compel us to retreat and give up pieces of our territory by laying mines and opening fire. His proposal meant opening the gate to infiltration.
As a result an uncomfortable situation was created. For on two occasions we had to respond in the negative to proposals which, on the face of it, were intended to alleviate the situation, and thus we had to balance the account and improve our position. We now took the initiative and said what our proposals would be if the negotiations took place. We forwarded four proposals which were intended both to concretely repair the situation and diplomatically open a door for reaching a common language between us and the UN, thus preventing a situation whereby the UN and the Egyptians would find themselves on the same front against us.
Our stratagem proved successful. Burns immediately accepted our proposals. He said they were reasonable and added that, when he had forwarded his proposals, he had not meant that they are unchangeable; he only put up ideas, a certain direction according which a solution could be found. He said he absolutely accepted our phrasing that was intended to correct his.
At long last the meeting became possible, indeed not on the level first intended by the UN. We made this public and demanded that the UN announce that, in fact, Egypt had rejected the UN proposal of a high-level meeting. This was officially announced by the UN. Since we always expressed readiness to meet either within the framework of the Armistice Agreement or otherwise, we did not shirk this meeting.
You could learn from the press that two long meetings were spent, indeed were wasted, on discussing the agenda and, as it happened, the frontal clash occurred between Egypt and the UN, that is between Gohar and Burns. This happened because Burns agreed with our position and defended it; the Egyptians claimed that it was agreed by Nasser and Burns that the agenda of the meeting would include only Burns’ four proposals and Nasser’s proposal for demilitarization, but Burns included as well in the agenda Israel’s proposals on an equal basis.
However, I must be precise on one point. We agreed that our proposals would be seen as opposing Burns’, and saw this as a positive achievement; for by agreeing to see our proposals as contrary to his, Burns accepted the fact that his proposals are not absolute but are a general framework within which a solution is to be sought. In other words, his phrasing could be accepted, but ours could as well. We thus opened the road to agreement between ourselves and Burns, to a negation of the absolute and decisive nature of his proposals. The Egyptians opposed mentioning our proposals on equal level with the others. They said: The agenda is the agenda. When we deal with each item, Israel could then bring up her proposals.
This caused a crisis between Cairo and Burns and a standstill in the work of the committee, and it prompted the powers to intervene in Cairo. Ambassador Lawson came to me and informed me on behalf of the American government of its positive appreciation of our proposals and steps, and its criticism of the Egyptian steps. He was instructed to inform us that they were saying the same to the Egyptians and that they demanded that they agree to Burns’ demands. Nasser responded with a retreat. The Egyptians said to Burns: Fine, let your proposals serve as a starting point for the agenda without mentioning explicitly either the Egyptian of the Israeli proposals. Let it be mentioned only that both sides would forward proposals. Thus, instead of a positive equilibrium a negative one was created. However the Egyptians wanted that it would be said both sides would be permitted to forward proposals only after Burns’ ones were discussed. Their stratagem here was that, since they knew that one of his proposals would be joint patrols, which we oppose, it would be put down that Israel opposes his proposal accepted by them and thus destroys the desired harmony.
We said to Burns: One, the proposals should be put forward by him, not by the Egyptians. Two, we shall not agree that the discussion of the two sides’ proposals be held after his proposals are discussed; on the contrary, both Burns’ and the two sides’ proposals should be discussed at the same time. Three, that Burns himself would announce that he doesn’t see his proposals as absolute but as delineating a framework for the discussion; both sides can propose changing them.
I don’t know if the haverim are cognizant of the seriousness of the matter, since it may sound technical and Talmudic, but if one delves deeper into it one can understand its importance.
Burns accepted all our three conditions. And I would like you to know – this is confidential – that he accepted them in spite of one of his advisers, who tried during our meeting with him to argue with him, saying he was going too far.
The negotiations began against this background then, and right from the beginning we could feel the positive results of our agreement with Burns, reached earlier. The first item discussed at the meeting was Burns’ proposal regarding joint patrols. The Egyptians said immediately that they accepted it. We said that our negative position is known, but we suggest that Burns first formulate his proposal in a detailed military and technical form and only then would we discuss it. For the time being we could discuss the other items. The Egyptians, despite our apprehensions, did not insist on a discussion and moved to the second item, local commanders’ cooperation, in the discussion of which we had the upper hand. Then the subject up of the fence came up and here, too, we proposed that we first let Burns formulate a practical plan, which he did.
As a result, the meeting was faced simultaneously with three issues which became interwoven due to the various positions advanced. For instance, while Burns proposed joint patrols, we claimed the main issue was a fence and proposed that not one but two be erected side by side, while the strip between them would be mined or be used for joint Israeli-Egyptian patrols, not necessarily accompanied by the UN.
True, we once proposed to Burns that if a fence is erected on both sides, each party could send patrols on his side. Now he proposed a solution according to our proposal: the erecting of two fences, 10 meters distant from each other and the strip in between to be mined. Israeli and Egyptian patrols would move along these two fences and these could be called joint patrols, although they would not be mixed but remain each on its side.
Had the discussion dealt separately with each proposal, we would have been compelled to pronounce our position regarding Burns’ first, original proposal for joint patrols together with the UN, and couldn’t but say no. But since Burns agreed in advance that his proposals are not absolute but geared to suggest a direction, it became possible to deal with them simultaneously.
On the other hand, it is possible that we will face difficulties regarding the issue of a local commanders’ agreement. Here there is already a precedent established on our borders with Jordan. There a direct contact was created between local commanders on both sides of the border so that, in case of an incident, they can immediately contact each other and establish who was responsible for it. The Egyptians are wary lest an agreement would mean direct Israeli-Egyptian contact, a situation not necessarily deriving from the Armistice Agreement. They want to distance themselves inasmuch as possible from any direct arrangement between us.
At the beginning they would not talk about direct telephone contact. They said: you telephone the UN and then the UN will contact us. We answered that this would not work. We also reasoned that this would create a new UN authority. Now it seems that the Egyptians will propose that the UN function as a switchboard so that it couldn’t be said that they are maintaining a direct contact with Israel: The Egyptian side would call the UN observer and ask him to make a connection with the other side, and then the two parties could converse directly. We can insist on our position and probably they will not accept it, and there would be no agreement. In a consultation I had with the defense minister we established what our strategy should be. My position is that if it is possible to reach an arrangement, and only this issue spoils it, we should not insist on this point. After all, such a procedure has been going on between us and the Lebanese.
This is the situation right now. Let me say that in these last meetings with the Egyptians the atmosphere was more comfortable [between ourselves and the Egyptians] than that between them and the UN. These meetings make it possible to exchange views directly, and I foresee a certain evolution in this direction. While it is still too early to talk about it, I think they do have merit as they are opening doors.
Summing up, I would say that a positive change of atmosphere has occurred. At the beginning Israel was seen as obstinate and a rejecter on basic issues, while Egypt showed itself as cooperating. But we have succeeded in tearing the mask from her face, in reviving a good contact with Burns and in regaining the initiative, and all this was achieved without any detriment to any Israeli defense issue or to any political right.
At this point a discussion ensued, in which several ministers participated. Ben-Gurion expressed his satisfaction in view of the great progress achieved internally and externally since the Foreign Ministry has again been dealing with Armistice Affairs. But he added that he opposed the signing of any agreement that would grant new authority to the UN; they should not become a new mediator, to which Sharett replied:
I find it hard to accept Ben-Gurion’s position. There is a question here of proportion. To say “Only direct contact, no UN mediation” is very logical, perhaps, but it is contrary to reality as long as the UN is constantly mediating and we are sending Burns time and again to Arab capitals and he is constantly mediating. It may be that, as Ben-Gurion said, that this is not written in the Armistice Agreements, but international law is not only an outcome of written agreements, but an outcome of procedures, of accepted principles. There can be no comparing between the role of the UN as a mediator in serious matters and the only technical role of a fellow UN observer operating a switchboard.
One word more – Suppose it is possible to establish such an arrangement and suppose it is foiled only because we refuse to have a UN observer act as a telephone operator, and then this is publicized all over? I wonder who among us would venture to explain this position of ours, and if he does, I wonder who can assure us that such an explanation is accepted. Can we allow ourselves to appear in this way regarding such a practical matter? I don’t think this would enhance our position, I don’t think the gain we would achieve here would outweigh the damage.