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John F. Kennedy Administration: Memorandum on Concern With Potential Backlash From Israel's Reprisal Raid on Lake Tiberias

(March 20, 1962)

This memorandum relates to Israeli-Syrian clashes, the grievous impact the Israeli actions could have on maintaining tranquility in the region, and the U.S.'s hope to forestall further tensions and/or a counterattack.

Israel's Reprisal Raid on Syrian Positions Overlooking Lake Tiberias

Ambassador Avraham Harman of Israel
Mr. Shaul Bar-Haim, Counselor, Embassy of Israel
NEA--Assistant Secretary Phillips Talbot
NEA--Mr. James M. Ludlow, United Nations Adviser
NEA/NE--Acting Director Nicholas G. Thacher
NEA/NE--William L. Hamilton

Assistant Secretary Talbot told Ambassador Harman that we had watched with increasing dismay the recent Israel-Syrian clashes on Lake Tiberias culminating in Israel's retaliatory raid on Syrian gun positions March 16-17./2/ He reminded the Ambassador that in a recent conversation the latter had asked Mr. Talbot what effect uneasiness and tensions in Syria might have on the IBRD mission to Jordan and Dr. Joseph Johnson's forthcoming visit to the Middle East as Special Representative of the PCC. He said he is convinced that events of the past weekend have probably hurt the prospects of the two missions a great deal more than anything that may have gone before. While not yet informed of UNTSO findings in the conflict, Mr. Talbot said, he is aware that the Israel Government considered itself under considerable provocation. For the first time in several years Israel has crossed international frontiers and applied force of much greater magnitude than that directed against Israel. He said he is certain the Israelis are aware that regardless of the provocation under which Israel acted, the United States continues very much opposed to the employment of such raids.

The raid might not chasten the Syrians. In view of the Syrian Government's uncertainty as to its strength, it might react unpredictably in a very violent manner. Hoping to forestall this possibility, the U.S. has already spoken to the Syrians at the highest level, urging them to consider the military phase of the dispute as closed, and to cooperate fully with UNTSO.

Mr. Talbot said he did not want to over-emphasize the importance of the situation, but nevertheless believes it has the seeds of very serious disturbances. The modus vivendi of the past few years is threatened, and it is difficult not to recall the tragedies of 1956 and 1958 and the problems they created for all principles.

Ambassador Harman expressed gratitude for Mr. Talbot's views, but said he wished to react immediately, which he did with vigor. He said that at least ten days ago the Department had been apprised of the gravity with which Israel regarded the worsening situation on the lake, which he described as 100% in Israel's territory--the whole lake and its shore.

Mr. Ludlow interposed an objection, informing the Ambassador that the United States does not accept this Israel assumption of unlimited sovereignty.

Remarking that he would return to this question later, Ambassador Harman said the Syrians had broken the peace repeatedly from the beginning of February molesting Israel fishermen pursuing their tasks on the lake. Each time, he said, the Israelis had gone to UNTSO, suggesting that it should arrange for additional U.N. observation posts in the troubled area for better surveillance and control of the problem. He enumerated a number of violations: February 1 and 7--rifle fire directed at Israel fishermen; February 10--machine gun and rifle fire; February 15--machine gun fire against fishermen; February 25--machine gun fire directed at Israel police patrol; and February 27 and March 7--machine gun fire.

On March 8, according to the Ambassador, the Syrians made use for the first time of recoilless rifles, bringing a turning point in Israel's appraisal of its security problem. In any rational military establishment, according to Ambassador Harman, a recoilless rifle is fired only on order from a military command. The Israelis could only infer either that anarchy prevails in the Syrian units situated above the lake or the recoilless rifles were put into play by direction of the Government of Syria. At that time, the Israelis summoned UNTSO representatives and asked that they convey to the Syrian Government in Damascus Israel's opinion that the Syrians were playing with fire.

Mr. Talbot suggested that instead of using UNTSO to send messages the MAC machinery might have been brought into use.

Ambassador Harman said that for weeks the Israelis had watched the Syrians strengthening their positions overlooking Tiberias. The situation remained very serious. United States concern is shared by the Government of Israel. A special meeting of the cabinet "this morning" had considered the implications of another artillery attack on an Israel police boat 1,000 meters out on the lake in which two policemen had been wounded.

Turning to the defense of Israel's use of reprisal raids, Ambassador Harman said that in quality and implication there is no difference between shooting or walking across a border. Israel can only regard gunfire as an act of aggression or war, and its defense against such acts is dictated by the military logic of Israel's situation. Israel's repeated appeals to the United Nations and the Secretary General have not produced a solution. Israel is as reluctant as anyone else to see the circumstances of 1956 reproduced, but for Israel to have its citizens and settlements under fire is an intolerable situation which the United Nations had been unable to correct.

Mr. Talbot commented that corrective efforts had been begun. The United States has been in close touch with the United Nations and had appealed to the Syrians to make full use of MAC facilities, which are in the locality for the express purpose of correcting violations of the Armistice Agreements. The United States is very much afraid that the Near East may be trembling on the brink of a return to 1956 and the misfortune which it brought to all parties.

Mr. Talbot added that the Israelis undoubtedly have labored under serious provocations. However, experience does not establish that this kind of reprisal is the way to deal with the problem. Similar efforts in the past have not always turned out as planned. Violence invites violent responses and greater violence still.

Ambassador Harman said that if Israel is put into a situation in which it is obliged to deal directly with a threat to its security, the problems of defense become objective and technical. Syrian guns commanded the entire lake and adjoining settlements. When it was decided to clean them out, the troops could not be sent out without the tools required.

Mr. Talbot asked rhetorically if the Israelis, should the shooting continue, be tempted to take and occupy the high ground, which might produce a united Arab reaction?

Ambassador Harman said all that is necessary is for the Syrians to stop shooting. He attempted to draw an analogy between Israel's retaliation and U.S. involvement in South Viet-Nam, where the U.S. is steadily "escalating" its involvement. Mr. Talbot pointed out there is considerable difference in the two controversies. No frontiers have been crossed in Viet-Nam. As in Malaya, it is a matter of subduing guerrillas within a state.

Nevertheless, according to Ambassador Harman, the Syrians have got to be persuaded to stop shooting. The Israelis can live with threats and taunts and also can live with the fact that Arab doctrine still considers that a state of war prevails. Israel has long ceased to hope for an early relaxation of Arab attitudes but it is not prepared to tolerate being made a target.

Mr. Talbot agreed that the fighting must be brought to a stop, but he could not accept Israel's use of retaliatory raids.

The conversation concluded with Ambassador Harman repeating that he would report the Department's views to his Government but make clear he did not accept the Department's thesis, nor expect his Government to./3/

/1/Source: Department of State, Central Files, 683.84A/3-2062. Confidential. Drafted by Hamilton on March 21.

/2/For a report on the raid, see Document 226. Reports from the Embassies in Tel Aviv and Damascus concerning the incidents are in Department of State, Central File 683.84A. On March 17, the Department of State instructed the Embassy in Damascus (telegram 383) and the Embassy in Tel Aviv (telegram 547) to seek a meeting at the ministerial-level to counsel restraint and urge full cooperation with the UNTSO. (Ibid., 324.84/3-1762)

/3/The Department of State transmitted a summary of this conversation to the Embassies in Tel Aviv, Damascus, and several other Near Eastern and European posts in circular telegram 1594, March 20. The Department instructed the Embassy in Tel Aviv to seek another meeting with Foreign Minister Meir, "stressing in particular: Our deep concern at revival hostilities in Tiberias area and our conviction Israel's interests best served by determined effort make maximum use UN machinery. USG has been and remains strongly opposed to concept of heavy retaliatory raids. US suggests, for example, Israel position might be materially improved by meeting ISMAC. Decisions latter represent moral deterrent as well as important point reference in case issue eventually given SC consideration." (Ibid., 683.84A/3-2062)

Sources: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963: Near East, 1962-1963, V. XVIII. DC: GPO, 2000.