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David Ben-Gurion: Second Exchange with Soviet Premier Bulganin Regarding Threat Situation in Sinai

(November 17, 1956)

On November 15, 1956, Premier Bulganin addressed a second Note to Prime Minister BenGurion, in reply to the latter's Note to him of 8 November. Bulganin demanded the immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Egyptian territory, return of Egyptian property and compensation for war damages. On 17 November, the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, replied to the Soviet Premier giving in detail the reasons which led to the Sinai war:

Mr. Bulganin to Mr. Ben-Gurion:

Mr. Prime Minister:

I have received your letter of 8 November. In addition, we have at our disposal the texts of official statements by leaders of the Israeli Government during the past few days which enable us to judge Israel's position on the present situation in the region of the Near and Middle East. The position of the Soviet Government on the situation in this region was stated in my letter to you of 5 November.

Since in your answer you attempt to defend the actions of Israel against Egypt, I am compelled briefly to reply to you concerning your conclusions.

Your letter maintains that the incursion of Israel's armed forces into Egyptian territory was necessitated by considerations of self-defence, justifying this by the existence of some threat to Israel from Egypt. Actually, as is borne out by a series of Resolutions of the Security Council, it was not the Arab Governments but precisely Israel that has been guilty of many armed attacks on the territory of neighbouring Arab States. The Security Council has expressed grave concern with regard to the non-fulfilment by the Israeli Government of its obligations under the armistice agreements, and has called on the Israeli Government to carry out these obligations in the future under threat of suitable sanctions against Israel, as provided by the UN Charter.

Your very contention that Israel undertook an armed attack against Egypt, allegedly because of the danger threatening from Egypt, means that the Israeli Government has no desire to abide by the provisions of the UN Charter which forbid member-States to resort to force and which demand the settlement of disputes between them by peaceful means.

The Soviet Government cannot disregard the fact that the Israeli Government has not only failed to comply with the General Assembly's call for an immediate cease-fire and the withdrawal of troops that had invaded Egypt, but has openly announced its annexationist claims with regard to Egypt, its plans to seize and attach to Israel the Gaza region, the Sinai peninsula, and the islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the Gulf of Aqaba. Your speech in the Israel Parliament on 7 November also mentioned the "nullification" of the armistice agreements concluded by Israel with Arab States.

It is worth noting that, even when compelled to decide on withdrawal of its troops from Egyptian territory, the Israeli Government still attempts to make compliance with this demand provisional on a "satisfactory agreement with the UN with respect to the entry of the international force into the Suez Canal Zone," which, as is known, is an inalienable part of the sovereign Egyptian State.

All this is in glaring contradiction with the contention in your letter that the policy of the Israeli Government is dictated by a "thirst for peace" and by Israel's "vital needs." The Soviet Government is convinced that Israel's present policy, directed at fanning hostility toward the Arab Governments and at crushing them, is in fact dangerous to the cause of general peace and fatal for Israel. Actually, as has been borne out by recent events, such a policy serves only the interests of outside forces seeking to reestablish a colonial order in this region; but we are fully convinced that it is foreign to the interests of all peoples of the Near and Middle East, without exception.

The Soviet Government has cautioned the Israeli Government about the dangerous consequences for Israel should aggressive armed actions be launched against the Arab States. We regret that you did not heed this. As a result of the aggression launched against Egypt by Israel, Egyptian towns and inhabited localities have been destroyed, thousands of innocent people have been killed and maimed, and damage has been inflicted on Egyptian communications, trade, and economy. But what has Israel achieved? Only the blind can fail to see that aggression has brought nothing good to Israel either. Without doubt aggression against Egypt has undermined Israel's international position, aroused profound hatred towards it on the part of the Arab and other peoples of the East; worsened Israel's relations with many States, and given rise to new economic and other difficulties within the country.

The Soviet Government takes into consideration that the Israeli Government has ceased fire and subsequently announced the forthcoming withdrawal of Israeli troops from Egyptian territory. It is self-evident that Israeli troops must be withdrawn from Egyptian territory without delay. At the same time, in order to stabilize the situation in the Near East and to liquidate the consequence of the aggression against Egypt, the Soviet Government considers it essential that measures be taken to remove the possibilities of new provocations by Israel against neighbouring States and to ensure a durable peace and tranquillity in the region.

Justice also demands that Egypt, as the victim of unprovoked aggression, should be compensated by Israel, as well as by Britain and France, for the losses inflicted through the destruction of Egyptian towns and inhabited localities, and as a result of interruption in the operation of the Suez Canal and the destruction of its installations. In addition, Israel is obliged to return to Egypt all property that has been removed from Egyptian territory by the Israeli armed forces that invaded it.

The international armed forces of the UN, to whose creation the Egyptian Government has agreed, in accordance with the UN resolutions, must be deployed on both sides of the demarcation line between Israel and Egypt established by the armistice agreements.

I want to express the hope, Mr. Prime Minister, that the Israeli Government will draw the proper conclusions from the lessons which the latest events indicate for Israel.

N. Bulganin

Mr. Ben-Gurion to Mr. Bulganin:

Mr. President of the Council of Ministers:

I have received your letter of 15 November 1956. In view of the statements therein, I feel compelled to draw your attention once more to the true state of affairs in the relations between Egypt and Israel which has produced the present crisis.

The basic fact of the situation is that when the State of Israel was established on 14 May 1948, the Egyptian army, and with it the armies of the other Arab States, invaded our country for the purpose of annihilating us. Upon the termination of these hostilities, armistice agreements were signed between Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria on the one hand, and Israel on the other. Egypt, however, did not honour its obligations under these agreements and has continued its hostile acts against Israel to this day. I cannot but express my surprise at the fact that you do not appear to be aware of these roots of the tension in our area, and I must therefore stress the true background of the situation. The facts are as follows:

(1). When the General Assembly of the United Nations in November 1947 resolved in favour of the establishment of the Jewish State, Egypt at the head of the other Arab States declared publicly that it would not recognize and would oppose this Resolution.

(2). Pursuant to this defiant declaration, the Egyptian army, together with the military forces of the other Arab States, invaded the State of Israel on the night of 15 May 1948, for the purpose of destroying Israel.

(3). In the course of the proceedings of the Security Council after this brutal invasion, the representatives of the USSR, and of the Ukrainian SSR, together with the spokesmen of other States, condemned the action of Egypt and other Arab countries in attacking Israel. At the 309th meeting of the Security Council on 29 May 1948, Mr. Gromyko, representative of the USSR, stated: "Indeed, what is happening in Palestine can only be described as military operations organized by a group of States against the Jewish State," and that "the States whose forces had invaded Palestine have ignored the Security Council Resolutions."

(4). At the 366th meeting of the Security Council on 14 July 1948, Mr. Gromyko, representative of the USSR, declared that "the Arabs dispatched their troops to invade Palestinian territory and made no bones about informing the whole world that it was their firm intention to prevent the creation of independent Arab and Jewish States in Palestine."

(5). In the armistice agreement between Israel and Egypt, signed on 24 February 1949, it was expressly stated that the purpose of the agreement was to "promote the return of permanent peace in Palestine."

(6). In spite of the fact that Egypt signed this agreement, the rulers of that country have maintained ever since that Egypt is in a state of war with Israel.

(7). This declaration of the Egyptian Government is contrary not merely to the terms of the armistice agreement, but also to the Charter of the United Nations, which requires all member-States of the United Nations to live together in peace as good neighbours and to resolve all international disputes by peaceful means.

(8). The Security Council, in its Resolution of 1 September 1951, expressly denied the right of either party to the armistice agreement "to assert that it is actively a belligerent." Egypt defied this decision, as well, and continued to proclaim that it was in a state of war with Israel.

(9). As one of its instruments of war against Israel the Government of Egypt organized an economic boycott of Israel and used intimidation to apply pressure on business undertakings in various countries to break off economic relations with Israel.

(10). In violation of the Constantinople Convention of 1888, which guarantees to all countries freedom of navigation in the Suez Canal in time of peace as in time of war, and in defiance of the Resolution adopted by the Security Council on I September 1951, which prohibited interference with Israel's right of free navigation in the Suez Canal, Egypt has continued to maintain a wartime blockade against the State of Israel in the Canal.

(11). On 13 October 1956, the Security Council unanimously adopted a Resolution prohibiting any overt or covert discrimination against any State in regard to navigation in the Suez Canal. This was immediately followed by a renewed declaration on the part of the Egyptian Government that Israeli shipping would not be allowed to pass through the Canal.

(12). The Egyptian Government did not limit itself to a maritime blockade in the Suez Canal, but throughout the period under consideration extended its blockade also to the Gulf of Aqaba. In violation of international law it prevented Israeli shipping from passing through the Gulf on its way to and from the port of Eilat.

(13). In pursuing its war against Israel, in continuous contravention of the armistice agreement, Egypt did not confine itself to the maintenance of the economic boycott and the maritime blockade designed to bring about the economic collapse of our country. For the past two years the Egyptian Government has organized specially trained gangs of murderers and saboteurs, known as fidayun, and sent them clandestinely from the Gaza Strip and the Sinai desert into our villages and onto our highways. These terrorist gangs have murdered Israeli workers in the fields, travellers on the roads, and children in the schools. They have also blown up irrigation pipes and agricultural installations in our villages.

(14). We have in our possession instructions issued to these murderers by officers of the Egyptian Regular Army; files describing the itineraries and activities of fidayun groups under the direct command of the Egyptian army in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai desert; furthermore, documents showing that these gangs received their arms and equipment from units of the Egyptian army. In my letter to you of 8 November 1956, 1 enclosed photostatic evidence of Egypt's design to destroy Israel. If you so desire, I shall supply you with additional photostatic evidence proving the connection between these gangs of murderers and saboteurs and the commanders of the Egyptian army.

(15). The rulers of Egypt have repeatedly proclaimed throughout the last eight years and these declarations have become more outspoken and more frequent during the past two years that the time was drawing near when the Egyptian army would eliminate Israel by force. Have these declarations never reached your ears?

In recent months matters have come to a head. A series of developments has brought home to us the imminent danger to our very existence.

(a) A few weeks ago Egypt signed aggressive military pacts with Syria and Jordan, the purpose of which was the destruction of Israel.

(b) During the period of the Suez crisis, when the Security Council was considering the problem of the Canal, the activities of the fidayun ceased. As soon, however, as the Security Council had completed its deliberations on the subject, on 13 October 1956, Egypt intensified the murderous activities of these bands. Hundreds of these trained murderers were sent by the Egyptian military command to the other Arab countries Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon to step up their activities from bases against Israel's citizens and border villages all along our frontiers in the north, east, and south. Almost every day peaceful Israeli citizens were murdered by the terror squads sent out by the Egyptian military dictator.

(c) In the Gaza Strip and all along our borders with the Sinai Peninsula, enormous Egyptian military forces were concentrated, equipped with tremendous quantities of aggressive weapons, poised to attack and destroy Israel.

These facts are known to the entire world. I would add that the vast quantities of Egyptian weapons and military equipment that were destroyed by our forces in the Sinai desert clearly indicate the intentions and the preparations of the Egyptian dictator. It was, therefore, the elementary duty of our Government to take defensive measures in accordance with the right assured to every State under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter to protect the lives of its citizens and defend the existence of the State by destroying the fidayun nests and the Egyptian military bases that directed their activities. Any other people similarly placed would have been compelled to do the same.

You say in your letter that, in my address to the Israeli Parliament on 7 November 1956, I stated that the Armistice Agreements signed by Israel with the Arab States were no longer valid. This is not correct. If you examine the text of my speech you will find that I said in that address that Israel on its part will observe the Armistice Agreements with the other Arab countries even though the latter are not prepared for permanent peace as long as they, on their part, are prepared to observe these Agreements.

What I said in the Knesset was that the Armistice Agreement with Egypt and only that with Egypt, not those with the other Arab States is dead and buried and will not return to life. For years the Egyptian dictator has treated the Agreement with contempt, has violated its principles and purposes, has defied the Charter of the United Nations and the resolutions of the Security Council. By his repeated declarations that 4 state of war existed between Egypt and Israel he distorted the nature and aim of the Armistice Agreement, whose first and fundamental article states that it was signed with a view to promoting the return of permanent peace.

In my address I stated further that "the Egyptian dictator has throughout been exploiting the Agreement as a smokescreen for his murderous attacks against Israeli citizens, and as a cover for his relentless blockade of Israel on land, at sea, and in the air. Colonel Nasser did not content himself with the fidayun gangs, which he organized in the territory under his control; he also directed and activated these gangs against Israel from the other Arab countries. In this way the Armistice Agreement became a harmful and a dangerous fiction, serving only the destructive plans of the Egyptian dictator. Any return to the Armistice Agreement means a return to murder, blockade, and boycott, directed against Israel, aimed at its ultimate destruction."

As for the recent resolutions of the General Assembly of the United Nations, we have announced that we are prepared to withdraw our forces from Egypt when satisfactory arrangements have been made with the United Nations in connection with the international Force mentioned in the resolution. This declaration remains fully valid.

From the mass flight and surrender of the Egyptian soldiers, peasants torn from their homes in Egypt and sent against their will to do battle in a remote desert, it is clear that these soldiers were not prepared to fight for the Fascist dictator of Cairo. The first to flee were officers of the Egyptian army. This is conclusive proof that many people in Egypt have come to understand the true character of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who at the beginning pretended that he was concerned to improve the conditions of his people in health, education, and economic development but who since then has shown himself to be consumed by the lust for power and the ambition to impose his rule on all the Islamic peoples. He has squandered his country's resources to increase his military power and armaments to carry through his expansionist ambitions and make himself master of the Moslem world.

I have to point out that your statements about our military operations are not accurate. We have not destroyed a single Egyptian town, nor have we caused harm to any civilian centre. We have not damaged the Suez Canal; as far as we know, the Canal has been blocked by the Egyptians themselves. Our forces were given strict instructions not to injure civilians, and these instructions were faithfully observed. The transport that did suffer and this for years was that of Israel, in the air, on land, and at sea, as a result of Egypt's illegal blockade.

If there is a case for claiming compensation, it is we who are entitled to compensation for the Egyptian invasion of our country in 1948, for the deaths of thousands of our sons and daughters as a result of this aggression, for the economic boycott and the maritime blockade maintained in defiance of the UN Charter and the Security Council's resolutions, for the hundreds of Israeli Jews and Arabs murdered by the fidayun, and for all the damage caused to our economy, running into millions of pounds. However, if peace is established between Egypt and ourselves, we shall be ready to forgive all past transgressions of the Egyptian rulers.

In closing, I would repeat my statement that, in accordance with Article 33 of the Charter, Israel is prepared for a settlement of its dispute with Egypt, as well as with the other Arab states, by peaceful means. It is with regret that I have to point out that several of the expressions about Israel used in your letter are not likely to be interpreted by the Arab rulers as encouragement to the achievement of peace in our region. Nor would they appear appropriate to the accepted relations between member-States of the United Nations.

I am confident that, if the USSR will lend its support to bring about direct peace negotiations between Israel and its neighbours, this will be a real and significant contribution to the strengthening of peace in the Middle East and throughout the world.

David Ben-Gurion

Sources: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs