Thursday, August 4, 2016

98 - Ambassador Lawson Reports of Meeting with PM Ben-Gurion and FM Sharett, February 29, 1956

(A) Lawson’s account of meeting with Ben-Gurion and Sharett

            Spent over hour with Ben Gurion and Sharett today in conversation on Israel’s need for yes or no decision on arms question; Secretary’s testimony and what conclusions Israel must draw from it. I have never seen Ben Gurion so emphatic, forceful or so emotionally upset and, on several occasions, so near to tears. Sharett was less dramatic but for first time in my experience was unsmiling throughout interview, displaying attitude of undisguised cold bitterness and foreboding criticisms.
            Ben Gurion spoke from his own rough notes and what appeared to be Her[ald] Trib[une] report of Secretary’s testimony. He was obviously most impatient to begin and dismissed amenities in matter of seconds.
            He described Secretary’s testimony as “very bitter disappointment” he could accept suggestion that peace should not rest on arms alone if it didn’t exclude arms to Israel at time when its neighbors and Saudi Arabia and Iraq were supplied with arms.
            He was scathing in rejection to suggestions Israel should rely on UN and tripartite declaration. “None of us would be living” he said, “if Israel had relied on UN in 1948. As for tripartite declaration, Great Britain is signatory but its shipment of offensive arms to Egypt and not to Israel bears no relationship to what I think is spirit of tripartite declaration. Israel does not rely on it nor does it intend to”.
            He professed great worry over Secretary’s suggestion Israel’s frontiers could not be guaranteed until they were defined by agreement. In his view modification of frontiers implicit in testimony did not mean Secretary favored Israel moving into Sinai or expanding into Syria or to Jordan River. It was obvious he had in mind just the contrary. Pounding on table for emphasis he said Secretary obviously meant—from Israel’s standpoint—change for the worse or diminishment of Israeli territory. This would not happen as long as “we are alive. Our girls and boys will fight to the death”. He said Secretary had right to opinions on Israel’s requirements but whatever they were Israel was entitled to “yes or no answer. If the answer is to be no, please let it be said now. It was question of life or death. We are in mortal danger. Every week arms are pouring into Egypt. If war is declared there will be one military commander able to move all the forces of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria against Israel. Chances of attack are greater than ever before. I know how Nasser will read the Secretary’s statement. If US letting Israel down he would regard it as an invitation to attack”. He spoke bitterly of his conviction that in same circumstances which prevailed for Israel, if Belgium were to ask for arms it would not have been answered as Israel was—”Certainly not England nor even West Germany.”
            Ben Gurion brushed aside my suggestion he was probably having to resist tremendous pressure both within his government, his political party and from the public. He declared only pressures on him were pressures of events. It was obvious, and confirmed later by Herzog who was present, that Ben Gurion meant that really effective pressures are those coming from the very heavy personal and official responsibilities he bears—responsibilities the weight of which he has been feeling with progressive consciousness during the past few weeks. This personal responsibility aspect of this attitude is significant of his dangerous attitude for making quick personal policy decisions in his capacity of Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. Although he denied the influence of other pressures it is believed that he is under heavy and continuous pressures from the IDF, the mobilization of Egyptian and Syrian armed forces on Israel’s border, the GOI, party members and the opposition.
            He stressed requirement which time placing on him. Israel could not rely on UN or tripartite declaration. In such grave circumstances they could only rely on themselves. If Israel were given arms he was sure there would be no attack. Without them Israel would have to reorganize its life. This was their land. Their frontiers were as sacred to them as those of America to the US. They would have to reorganize under the pressure of knowing they had been let down by the US on their request while arms were pouring into Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
            Ben Gurion said that he would be obliged to tell Knesset very soon what dangers were and what measures were necessary for preservation of Israel. In absence of assistance from US, Israelis must assume enormous burdens and make great sacrifices.
            They were not going to rely on Secretary’s advice when their very lives were at stake. He said he proposed to tell Selwyn Lloyd the same on his forthcoming visit.
            Sharett reviewed his personal experiences in pressing Israel’s arms request stating that despite various encouraging indications contained in statements by Secretary and President many months have passed. Delay was undignified both to US and Israel. “For you it is undignified to have to demonstrate inability to make up your mind on this burning issue and there is no dignity for Israel in continuing to beg for arms. However, it is not only undignified but dangerous to feed our people for so many months on false hopes”.
            Sharett said there was inexplicable inconsistency “in the US advising Israel to rely for its security on international rule of law and establishment of peaceful relations with its neighbors whereas for itself and its favored friends in NATO the essential element had been reliance on armed strength”. Sharett referred to Secretary’s statement to effect that he did not exclude possibility of delivering arms to Israel at time when such deliveries might contribute to peace. He described this as “far-reaching qualification opening way for indefinite delay in same manner that indefinite delay was inherent in suggestion that frontiers could not be guaranteed until their definition was mutually agreed.”
            Both Sharett and Ben Gurion repeated again and again that delayed US decision was same as negative one. At least twice Ben Gurion said if no decision on arms request was received, “we will have to make the decision ourselves”.
            Comment: I believe from emotional restraint which Ben Gurion exercised in conversation which, given its content, might have been very melodramatic had he been staging show, that he is very near decision that will set Israel’s foreign policy direction, if not action, for some time.
            He—and Sharett—are genuinely astonished at apparent US intention to ignore for time being Israel’s arms request and provide no indication of ultimate decision. They are resentful and nursing sense of personal grievance.
            Ben Gurion has too great feeling personal destiny and responsibility for Israelis to permit events themselves to shape Israel’s future. To this sense of personal responsibility for providing solution to all problems confronting country must be added pressures, which he professes to ignore, but which nevertheless weigh heavily on him such as IDF desires for solution by action; government’s public declarations that question of war or peace hinge]s[ upon US decision on arms, and growing strength of Arab forces on its borders. Taken together I am sure they will impel him to decide soon.
            His summons to me is probably a last effort to induce an affirmative reply. If it fails—and I think he is sincere in saying that was ]if?[ answer much longer delayed will be considered here as negative answer, decisions he feels obliged to take will follow very shortly.
            Furthermore, I think we would have only very short time in which to meet his request if that were our desire. Indefinite answers by US will not win additional time.
            While I am persuaded that he is perhaps nearer to policy decision of the scope now confronting him than at any time since establishment of state, they will not necessarily include determination date which they will be put into motion. Decision could range from request Knesset for legislation increasing degree mobilization, for curtailing civilian consumption, etc. to decision to impose settlement upon Arabs by military action.
            If we reject this last-minute appeal for favorable reply on arms or an undertaking in future, I am convinced we may have no further opportunity to influence course of events by diplomatic action aimed at Israel alone.

SOURCE: FRUS 1955-1957 XV,  doc.140.

(B) Lawson subsequently provided the following personal assessment of this and other recent talks with Ben-Gurion and Sharett:

            Secretary’s February 24 testimony coupled with Allen’s interpretation [- - -] and retardation decision French Mysteres leaves Israel Government with no foreign policy and no defense program. For four months orientation here has been on development adequate defense posture, primarily through procurement minimum number of interceptor jets. Relatively speaking this was policy of moderation.
            Sharett’s untypical sternness and bitterness reflected his reaction to collapse of his pro-western orientation and of foreign policy which place reliance on US. He finds in ashes his basic approach to problem of Soviet arms to Arabs which was one of maintaining workable defense posture through acquisition of minimal number of high quality defense arms from US and its allies. Sharett is now defenseless against accusations of his opponents within and without Cabinet who, since October last, have argued that Sharett’s moderate approach and trust in US would be betrayed.
            Ben Gurion’s demeanor suggests typical behavior pattern noted by his close associates in periods when he is intensely occupied with some major problem during which he gives evidence of uncertainty and emotional strain. Once he has made his decision he reportedly relaxes, puts his uncertainties behind him and pursues with equanimity the execution of his formulation. Both Prime Minister and Foreign Minister must be haunted with thought that had they adopted different policy October last [- - -] the Egyptian military threat might have been removed with much smaller loss of Jewish lives than may now prove to be case.
            From their conversation with me yesterday it apparent that Ben Gurion and Sharett making one last effort to obtain affirmative US reply and failing that they must assume their policy has failed and new approach developed forthwith. Logic that this is time of decision must appear inescapable to GOI for following reasons: Increment large Egyptian and Syrian military units along Israeli borders is preview of progressively greater future pressures as Arab equipment and ability to utilize expands. With its military manpower on civilian reservist basis, Israeli could not indefinitely meet this challenge except at exorbitant price of progressively larger disruption of its economy and way of life. Furthermore, IDF appears [- - -] to have advised Ben Gurion that only very short time remains before balance of power shifts to Arab side and is urging action before too long delay. It is at this point that there appears to be vital divergence in interpretation of subsequent events as between Israelis and some US observers. Israelis are convinced that given capability the Egyptians aided by other Arab States will attack Israel unless they can achieve same objective through progressive weakening of Israel by forced negotiations. This conclusion which may be correct or incorrect is based on Israel’s past experience in dealing with Arabs, statements and actions of Arab leaders and information reaching IDF through its comprehensive Intelligence Services in Arab States. While IDF Intelligence may come up with its full share of false reports on occasion it has proved accurate. [- - -] In any event Israelis have firm conviction about Arabs intentions and US arms policy appears to have undermined their ability to meet this threat through balance of power approach and to have provided no satisfactory substitute.
            While Ben Gurion made it clear to me yesterday that he considers the forthcoming vital decision his personal responsibility, it is apparent that in arriving at his conclusion he will weigh carefully the advice of “his boys” in the IDF that the only remaining alternative to assure Israel’s survival is a military showdown. Their views have the support of Achdut Avoda, the militant wing of Mapai within the government and of Herut and many General Zionists in the opposition. While it is known that the progressive and Mapam leadership, as well as the Mapai moderate (Sharett) wing, are most reluctant adopt a policy which may lead to general hostilities, they are unable at moment to present workable alternative. Ben Gurion, while no longer dominant on many questions of domestic policy, still retains the confidence of Israel public in security matters. They will follow his leadership at this decisive moment in Israel’s history.
            From information available to it from various sources including comments made by Ben Gurion and Sharett to me today. coupled with their grim and determined manner, I believe it is possible to forecast the minimum and maximum ranges of Israel’s new formulation of policy and program to replace those which it is now in process of abandoning. At minimum, Israel’s economy would be placed on an emergency basis with partial mobilization of reservists. In the Embassy’s judgment, once this basic step is taken it will set in motion trend of public attitudes which would make it almost impossible for the GOI to avoid adoption of a militant policy toward specific Arab-Israel issues. This could be accompanied by determination to assure, by military measures if necessary, absolute sovereignty and strict observance of armistice agreements including decision to proceed with Banat Yaacov, to retaliate for any continuation of Egyptian firing across the border which is now daily occurrence, enforcement of transit rights Gulf of Aqaba or Suez. One or more of these measures could be taken with full knowledge that they might lead to wider hostilities but with willingness to accept such risks. As maximum, the IDF might be authorized by Ben Gurion to take off on an offensive against the Egyptian troops in the Sinai with no more pretext than one of the many recurring incidents on frontier. In view of Tiberias action experience, however, it is believed that Ben Gurion’s Cabinet colleagues would counsel him that widespread hostilities should develop only over major issue with which world opinion is already acquainted.
            Embassy concurs in Ben Gurion’s thesis that the Israelis would fight rather than acquiesce to truncation Israel’s territory. This is not so much question of loss of so many square miles of territory as it is reflection of firm belief that it would constitute the first of series of weakening measures designed culminate in Israel’s eventual extermination.
            Embassy does not exclude possibility that at this juncture GOI may make some approach to the Soviet Government to explore possibility obtaining arms. It is known, however, that many Israel leaders believe such an approach would prove abortive and Embassy considers it doubtful whether, even if such step is taken, Israel Government would delay placement its country on war footing pending a reply.
            While Embassy may not be fully informed all aspects of the evolution of American policy on arms question, it appears to us that the imminent shift in Israel security policy which will greatly increase possibilities general hostilities in area could still be avoided by supply of minimal number of modern jet fighters. Ben Gurion has been quoted by several associates as saying that he believed Israel could maintain adequate defense posture with 25 percent of the new jets in possession Egypt. This appears to us a legitimate approach in defense terms, and one which, if adopted, might stabilize the situation here so as to make possible progress with the Israelis toward settlement along the lines set forth in Secretary’s August 26 address.

SOURCE: FRUS 1955-1957 XV, doc.147.