At Prime Minister’s request I met with him and Foreign Minister yesterday for an hour. Difficult to assess reason for this high-level meeting but believe it primarily to make strong and impassioned plea for US favorable and quick action on arms request and Mystere order as soon as Security Council debate concluded. Significant elements of Ben-Gurion’s comment and approach to subject as follows: he obviously deeply concerned over Israel’s indefensible position especially against Egypt’s jet air power. He spoke with fire and emotion and with obvious effort to impress with his seriousness and alarm. Said Egypt has presently tremendous air advantage with MIGs and jet bombers which could destroy Israel’s cities, settlements and waterworks without which Israel ruined. He spent some time on performance features of Egyptian jets and said they could drop their loads and return to Egypt before Israel could spread alarm. Israel needed something to fight with not same quantity but same quality. Even if Israel received Mysteres and F-86’s now it would be at serious disadvantage in pilot training.
I scouted idea Nasser would [not?] start air attack without being prepared for large-scale balanced military operation unless he felt forced into such action before prepared. But Ben-Gurion thought Nasser would strike at any time using foreign pilots if necessary.
He described at some length his feeling about Nasser’s intention. Visitors from Egypt had told him Nasser spoke of wanting peace but did not act in that spirit; Nasser’s technique danger to world peace; at Ben-Gurion’s request General Burns endeavored but unable to obtain Nasser’s agreement to abide by GAA or at least order ceasefire; Egypt’s action against Israel stepped up over past two or three years with 192 of total of 259 Israeli casualties in 1955 being charged to Egypt whereas only 26 of 160 recorded 1953; Nasser ambitious become great leader of Arab States and African Continent therefore thinks it better for his objective if he defeats Israel; desires link across Negev with Jordan as part of leadership drive; Nasser back of trouble in Jordan and is subversively active in Iraq ail to disadvantage of West.
He said Nasser had two possibilities: either attack Israel or build up military potential to give him strength to dictate, Israel would never accept dictation from Nasser; there can only be peace between equals; some people think Eden’s speech encourages Nasser to believe he can dictate from strength of arms. Nasser knows Israel will not attack him as it did not do so or even consider possibilities when he was weak, having his troubles with British and with other Arab States. But now with Nasser receiving arms and Israel confronted with arms embargo and even France not meeting its contract “Israel in mortal danger.” He feels keenly what he called “sanctions” in form of arms embargo while Egypt receives arms from both Soviets and UK.
He then said “if balance of arms is not restored (in terms of quality of arms not quantity) then we in desperate danger. Can citizens of this little country not live in peace and security? I ask you in ail frankness what would be reaction of governments of US and UK and France to danger and to attacks on their frontier people? All we want to do is bring in our people, develop land and live”. United Nations has proven helpless with Security Council resolutions ignored in particular Suez resolution unenforced, Red Sea blockade in defiance of international law. “If we don’t get quality arms in time it may be too late—there may be an explosion consequences of which cannot be foreseen.
I then asked Ben-Gurion if he did not share our conviction that answer to problem of war or no war lay in starting peace negotiations—starting them before deadline is reached or before serious trouble started. He agreed enthusiastically saying that what he favored all along and said so publicly many times but Nasser will not agree to do so. He said he would reply favorably to such proposal if called to do so “in middle of the night”. He repeated much of what he said to Streibert when I asked if that meant he would agree to discussions without any preconditions and not necessarily require face to face talks with Nasser.
I expressed some doubt Nasser would attack although superior in arms and asked Ben Gurion “if arms imbalance were to continue if in his opinion war inevitable.” He replied “not necessarily inevitable but very probable.” He then added ambiguously I thought, “you cannot expect even people of small country to commit suicide.”
I then asked “how strong is your evidence Nasser will strike when he prepared to use his few arms?” He said it clearly logical Nasser would do so in view of his known techniques and intentions as already described—he not spending all that money for nothing— Cairo Radio has said Egypt will attack and defeat Israel and so has Syria. In reply to my question as to when Nasser would be ready to strike Ben Gurion said within 6-8 months.
I replied it seemed to me illogical for Nasser to attack Israel at early date as time working his favor, be needed more time to acquire facility of use of his arms, his position in military potential outstripping Israel [garble] and great monument of Nasser’s life—Aswan Dam—would be threatened and would require all Egypt’s resources. These seemed to me to be effective deterrents. He made no comment.
In effort to gain some impression as to whether there bad been some fairly firm GOI thinking as to future action at Bnat Yaacov I pointed out Israeli work at that point could start military action by Egypt before 6-8 months. I wondered what would happen if it became evident Nasser unwilling or unable to bring about Arab States acceptance of Eric Johnston’s Jordan River Plan—was it likely following sequence of events would occur in spring i.e., Israel would start digging. Syria would start shooting and Egypt would come to support of Syria when fighting started. Neither Ben Gurion nor Sharett would give any reply probably not wishing to be on record suggesting such possibility and later being charged with being aggressors. They made no comment despite fact GOI pretty well committed to start digging in circumstances.
Ben Gurion apparently realizes seriousness of error with regard Tiberias raid and unfavorable effect on US Government attitude toward GOI arms request. I felt he desired to create feeling of reassurance he will not resort to such ill-considered and untimely acts in future. Although be made no reference to event be took opportunity on at least three occasions to underscore necessity for Israel to take into consideration “wider political factors” of Arab-Israel problem and “Israel must not be indifferent to wider interests of humanity and must not consider her relations with her neighbors only but broader interests of humanity. He then remarked “we may have made mistakes but we are all human” and asked when wider political factors considered that elements of Israel’s position be taken into account. He said Israel cast her lot with democracies as she is democracy. “Speaking frankly” he said, “we have no better friends than US and I ask that US understand our position.”
Comment: I did not at any time gain impression Ben Gurion threatening action by Israel in event she received no arms and noted bow carefully be avoided linking Israeli action with failure to receive arms. I felt he making dramatic plea for understanding in a way regretting his hasty ill-timed Tiberias raid action and implying in future he would be more cautious and regardful of effect on US policy bath global and area-wise. I believe it significant of his reaction to strong and widespread criticism heaped on him since raid and his indefensible action in placing Sharett in his unfavorable position by raid that he had Sharett present when he discussed these important matters with me. However Ben Gurion most careful to keep control of conversation and Sharett had little opportunity to comment except to discuss Security Council resolution.
SOURCE: Lawson to State Department, January 10, 1956, FRUS 1955-1957 XV: doc.13. Cf. DFPI 11, doc.15.