Friday, August 12, 2016

102 - PM Ben-Gurion to President Eisenhower, March 16, 1956


I am deeply grateful for your reply dated 27 February to my letter of 14 February.

I feel an obligation to my people and to you, Sir, to set on record my appreciation for your noble and imaginative initiative to probe the possibility of a settlement between Israel and Egypt and for your having sent Mr. Anderson twice to the area as your personal envoy. If this mission has not produced the desired results, it should by no means be regretted for it may yet bear fruit sometime in the future.

The refusal by the head of the Egyptian Government to sustain his oft-repeated intimations that he was willing to work towards a settlement with Israel confirms—I am sorry to say—our presentiment from the outset, that he would merely utilise Mr. Anderson’s mission to gain time for the absorption of Soviet arms by his army. He has made good use of the past months also to cement his aggressive pact with Syria and Saudi Arabia, to intimidate Jordan and to increase disturbances in North Africa. Soviet arms have built up Col. Nasser’s prestige throughout the area. In return, he has opened to Soviet penetration the gates of the Arab world and, more dangerous still, of the African continent. The very existence of his regime is now closely tied up with the growing Soviet influence in this part of the world. Our apprehensions at this grave development have been frequently transmitted to your government during the past five months.

It would be presumptuous on our part to suggest to the U.S.A. how to safeguard the vital interests of world democracy in the Middle East and Africa. It is however our compelling duty to ensure our capacity to defend our land and our national revival. Most reliable information indicates that within the next few months the rulers of Egypt will feel in a position to strike at Israel. Even should Col. Nasser personally hesitate to take the plunge, it is difficult to see how he will be able to withstand the pressure of his colleagues within Egypt and of certain ruling circles in other Arab countries that he should use his overwhelming superiority of arms to fulfill the oft-declared objective of crushing Israel out of existence. I am duty-bound to repeat our deepest conviction that only the immediate acquisition by Israel of defensive weapons—planes and tanks—of equal quality to those in the hands of Egypt, even if they be in a minimum number, can deter an Egyptian attack, save Israel from untold sacrifice and damage and the Middle East from a war pregnant with danger to mankind.

The disparity of population between Israel and the Arab States is and will remain for some years irrelevant to our capacity to face up to an Arab onslaught. The respective numbers capable of handling modern arms stand in no proportion to the population figures. The vastly diverse standards of education, health and skilled training in Israel, on the one hand, and in the Arab States, on the other, have created a balance of actual and potential fighting manpower between the two sides which cannot be easily upset in the next few years to Israel’s detriment. While Egypt for a long time to come can hardly absorb planes in greater number than those for which she has already contracted under the Czech-Egyptian deal of last September, Israel is yet far from the saturation point, being in a position to man and handle as many planes as Egypt has absorbed and can absorb. In 1948, with 600,000 inhabitants, Israel, having the essential minimum of arms, withstood successfully the combined forces of five Arab States.

An arms race is already in full swing in the area but it is one-sided. Egypt is receiving arms from the U.S.S.R. and Great Britain, Saudi Arabia and Iraq from the U.S., and Iraq and Jordan again from Great Britain. Israel alone is denied the essential means for self-defence. This denial is contrary to the principles of international justice and morality and incompatible with the intent of the Tripartite Declaration, with your statement of 9 November and with Mr. Dulles’ statement to Mr. Sharett in Geneva in October last.

We cannot rest our safety, indeed our very existence, merely on outside intervention. Egyptian planes may wreak havoc on our cities well before such intervention can become effective. Moreover, at the crucial moment intervention may have to be abandoned in view of the risk of counter Soviet intervention. Arms to Israel will not only not increase the danger of war but will considerably lessen it. Egypt may become convinced of the futility of its present course and a psychological climate may develop in which your efforts for peace could be pursued with a better hope of eventual fulfillment.

From November to January we were informed that our arms request was being considered. From January till now we have been told that a decision on our arms request had to be deferred pending the outcome of Mr. Anderson’s mission. During this entire period peace has not been brought nearer but Egypt has been perfecting her war machine and the danger to our existence has heavily increased. I deeply appreciate your assurance in your letter that our request is being given the most careful consideration but time is running out.

We are now entering upon a phase of crisis and decision. At this fateful juncture it is in your hands, Mr. President, by swift response to our urgent appeal, to avert the tragedy of war.

With heartfelt wishes for your health and strength for many years to come,
Yours sincerely,
D. Ben-Gurion

SOURCE: FRUS 1955-1957 XV, doc.201; also in DFPI 11, doc.152.