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White House Reaffirms Commitment to Maintain Peace in Middle East; Warns on Tiran

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The White House today reaffirmed the commitment of the United States to maintaining peace in the Middle East. In response to reporters’ questions on whether President Johnson sees a commitment of the United States to maintain peace on the borders, White House spokesman George Christian said: “This country is, of course, committed to the principle of maintaining peace in the Middle East. This has been our position over the years. It is still our position.”

Mr. Christian said the United States was in touch with all governments concerned in the present crisis. But he would neither confirm nor deny that the President had sent a personal appeal to Moscow for joint action to protect the Israel-Arab peace.

Top-level official sources of the United States, close to President Johnson, said today that the U.S.A. considers the Straits of Tiran an international waterway and would regard it as a very serious matter if anyone were to try to close passage to Israel’s port of Eilat. The Straits of Tiran is a narrow waterway through which all shipping must pass on the way to the Red Sea or from the Red Sea to Eilat. Prior to the 1956-57 war between Israel and Egypt, Egypt barred access of ships to or from Eilat by having artillery atop Sharm el-Sheikh, a promontory in the Sinai Peninsula, overlooking the straits. Since 1957, Sharm el-Sheikh had been occupied by the United Nations Emergency Force, and the Egyptian guns there had been dismantled. Now the UNEF has evacuated Sharm el-Sheikh, and the Egyptians are again in control there.

An official spokesman for the State Department later in the day declined to express publicly the position on freedom of navigation through the Straits of Tiran that had been voiced earlier in the day by a top official in private at the U.S. national foreign policy conference for editors and broadcasters. Officials said they were prevented from going on public record before more carefully considering the matter and the wording.

Washington sees the crisis as extremely tense at present. It also sees terrorist provocations against Israel as a long-term problem. Highly-placed authorities voiced hope that United Nations Secretary-General U Thant’s visit to Cairo will produce a solution. The U.S. Government hopes that all governments in the Near East will remain cool and not be led by any particular incident to retaliatory actions. The United States evaluation today is that no government wants war in the Near East. But Washington fears the hazards of irresponsible elements triggering actions leading to a chain reaction.

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