Excerpt from the Conversation:
THE PRESIDENT. If I can turn to the Middle East briefly, because I think we should spend a moment on it, if you other gentlemen would like. I think, and I say this respectfully, that some of the columnists and commentators-and I read them and listen to them both with respect--and some of us in political life have a tendency to look at the Middle East too much in terms of the Israeli-Arab struggle. We look at Israel, a strong free nation in the Middle East, and we look at its neighbors, its aggressive neighbors, the U.A.R. and Syria, and we see this struggle and we say, "Are we going to give planes to Israel and are the Russians going to give them to the U.A.R.? And how are we going to have a settlement between Israel and the Arab states?"
If that is all there was to it, it would not be as difficult a problem as I am going to put it. I think the Middle East now is terribly dangerous. It is like the Balkans before World War I, where the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, could be drawn into a confrontation that neither of them wants because of the differences there.
MR. SEVAREID. Mr. President, I believe the Russians today at the U.N. are circulating some new ideas about approaching peace negotiations in the Mideast. Is there anything you can tell us about this?
THE PRESIDENT. I haven't had a chance to study them yet, but I will say this, that any propositions that the Russians or anybody else circulate that would offer a chance to cool it in the Middle East would be helpful, because when you look at the Middle East, it is not just a case of, as I say, Israel versus the Arab states, but the Soviet Union is now moving into the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Mideast is important. We all know that 80 percent of Europe's oil and 90 percent of Japan's oil comes from the Mideast. We know that the Mideast, this area, this is the gateway to Africa; it's the gateway to the Mediterranean; it's the hinge of NATO; and it is also the gateway through the Suez Canal down into the Indian Ocean.
Now, under these circumstances, when we then look at it in terms of Israelis versus Arabs, moderate Arabs versus radical Arabs, and whoever would think that there would be somebody more radical than the Syrians, within the radical Arab states, fedayeen that are more radical, the super-radicals--when we think of all these factors, we can see what a very difficult situation it is. Now what should U.S. policy be? I'll summarize it in a word. One, our interest is peace and the integrity of every country in the area.
Two, we recognize that Israel is not desirous of driving any of the other countries into the sea. The other countries do want to drive Israel into the sea.
Three, then, once the balance of power shifts where Israel is weaker than its neighbors, there will be a war. Therefore, it is in U.S. interests to maintain the balance of power, and we will maintain that balance of power. That is why as the Soviet Union moves in to support the U.A.R., it makes it necessary for the United States to evaluate what the Soviet Union does, and once that balance of power is upset, we will do what is necessary to maintain Israel's strength vis-a-vis its neighbors, not because we want Israel to be in a position to wage war--that is not it but because that is what will deter its neighbors from attacking it.
And then we get to the diplomacy. The diplomacy is terribly difficult, because Israel's neighbors, of course, have to recognize Israel's right to exist.
Israel must withdraw to borders, borders that are defensible, and when we consider all those factors and then put into the equation the fact that the Russians seem to have an interest in moving into the Mediterranean, it shows you why this subject is so complex and so difficult.
But we are going to continue to work on it, and I can assure you the fact that we are in Vietnam does not mean that the United States is not going to give every bit of its diplomatic and other energies to this subject as well.
Sources: Public Papers of the President