Israel Studies 4.2 (1999) 221-236
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Lyndon Johnson's Meeting with Abba Eban, 26 May 1967: An Introduction
[Israel Foreign Ministry Memo, HZ 5937/30]
As a military parade was marching through the streets of Jerusalem on 15 May 1967 during the celebration of the State of Israel's nineteenth Independence Day, Israeli intelligence authorities received information about a massive Egyptian troop movement into the Sinai Peninsula. According to Egyptian spokesmen, the deployment was a tactical necessity in order to deter Israel from attacking Egypt's chief ally, Syria. At this stage, Israeli officials still believed that Nasser's maneuvering was merely a smokescreen to mask his primary goal: boosting his stature in the Arab world. They assumed he would then march his troops back into Egypt. However, in a matter of days, the crisis escalated ominously when the Egyptian government suddenly demanded the withdrawal of United Nations Emergency Forces (UNEF) which had been stationed in Sinai as a buffer between Israel and Egypt since 1957. This resulted in a precarious standoff between the troops of the two sides.
Under these circumstances, Israel's assessment of Nasser's intentions took a dramatic volte-face on May 19. The realization now hit the Israelis that the Egyptian President was seriously considering the feasibility of war with Israel even if he himself was not yet convinced that Egypt should be committed to hostilities. Four days later, on May 23, the crisis reached a boiling point with Nasser's announcement that the Straits of Tiran (at the southern entrance to the Gulf of Eilat) would be closed to Israeli shipping. Egypt harbored no doubts that Israel would regard this declaration as an act of war. Over the years, Israel had made it clear that free navigation through the Straits was in her vital interest and any obstruction of her maritime rights would be viewed as a casus belli. 1
On that same fateful day, under darkening war clouds, the Israeli cabinet convened to weigh the gravity of their response to the rapidly [End Page 221] unfolding events. Some Ministers believed that sooner or later a military operation against Egypt was unavoidable, while the majority retained hope in a diplomatic solution. The majority was also apprehensive of incurring a severe American response to any Israeli act of aggression. When the crisis broke, the United States urged Israel to demonstrate restraint in the face of Egyptian provocation. In his May 17 message to Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, President Johnson had made it clear that he could "not accept responsibility for situations which arise as the result of actions on which we are not consulted." 2
While the Israeli cabinet was in the midst of choosing which course of action to take, the U.S. ambassador, Walworth Barbour, delivered a message to Eshkol pledging that the United States and other nations would make moves to guarantee unimpeded Israeli shipping through the Straits of Tiran. This message arrived none too late. Although it did not specify how the U.S. would ensure Israeli navigation rights, most Ministers interpreted the dispatch to mean that Israel could refrain from a military strike against Egypt without losing face. The Cabinet decided that the American "proposal" should be explored in depth by sending the Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, on a short visit to the United States to examine the feasibility of the U.S. pledge.
At the same time, however, the Cabinet was aware that great risks were involved in the Eban mission to Washington, and the decision was not an easy one. In the first place, Israel's wide degree of freedom of action could be drastically reduced. There was also the possibility that Eban would learn that Johnson's proposals were not feasible in the immediate future and that the American President would continue to urge Israel to exhibit restraint. In this scenario, Israel would be faced with a serious dilemma: to launch a preemptive strike and risk incurring a major crisis with its most important ally, the United States, or refrain...