Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Fourth of July – and Please Give Us Arms: Golda Writes to Dulles, 4 July 1956

On June 20, 1956, Golda Meir replaced Moshe Sharett as Israel's foreign minister, and on the Fourth of July, the 180th anniversary of American independence, she wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, still signing with her old name of Golda Myerson. Israel's leaders usually sent formal greetings for the Fourth of July to the Administration, but this time Golda used the opportunity to approach Dulles on a subject which greatly occupied the minds of the Israeli leaders – the search for arms to counter the major Czech-Egyptian arms deal in September 1955.
Dulles, accompanied by Harold Stassen and Sharett (on the left), inspects an honor guard on his arrival in Israel, May 1953. Photograph: Israel State Archives
In October 1955, Sharett met twice with Dulles to request American arms. Until then, the US government had sold Israel only outmoded or defensive weapons. Dulles was reluctant to change this policy, as he still hoped to win over the Egyptian leader, Col. Nasser, to the side of the West in the Cold War, and to prevent an arms race with the USSR. In March 1956, he decided that France and Italy should supply Israel with arms, with American encouragement. But the process was slow, and in Golda's letter she urged him to approve direct supply of arms to Israel in order to speed it up. The Israeli ambassador to Washington, Abba Eban, met with Dulles to give him the letter, and repeated these arguments. Israel had approached Canada, France and Italy but they were waiting for an American lead.

Sharett's failure in this endeavor, while the Defense Ministry was succeeding in forging direct ties with military circles in France, was one of the reasons Ben-Gurion forced his resignation in June 1956. Another was the fear that Sharett would oppose a war with Egypt initiated by Israel. On July 26, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, and in October, Britain, France and Israel decided to act against him. Golda's letter and Eban's account of his meeting with Dulles can be found in Volume 11 of the ISA's series, "Documents on the Foreign Policy of Israel," which tells the rest of the story of the run-up to the Sinai Campaign. The book has an English companion volume with summaries of the Hebrew documents.
Foreign Minister Golda Meir and former French premier Guy Mollet, 1959. Photograph: Fritz Cohen, Government Press Office
Golda's approach too was unsuccessful. The US administration continued in its refusal to sell modern weapons to Israel until the 1960s, while France remained Israel's main source of arms.

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