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Mintoff shows off his ‘non-aligned manhood’ and threatens to break relations with Israel

In the midst of the National Bank crisis, Mintoff takes exception to the presence of two Israeli warships which cross into territorial waters, and orders the British navy to use force. The build-up to this flare-up is however Mintoff’s aggressive language towards Israel.

Malta’s ‘peppery and persuasive socialist prime minister’, as he was once described by anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain, was the big man of Maltese politics thanks to his redoubtable persona, deft negotiating skills, and political brinkmanship.
At the same time, the leader of the small island was putting Malta on the map, using his hard bargaining prowess to extract a satisfactory deal for the continued presence of NATO’s sixth fleet, and carve himself a niche in world politics by bringing the Mediterranean dimension and Middle East conflict to bear on the Helsinki talks of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe.
His stormy relations with Western powers, and his flirting with Soviet satellites and emerging independent states within the Non-Aligned Movement, cemented Mintoff’s position as the cantankerous leader of a ‘juvenile’ democratic state, eager to extract any form of financial support from any country that was willing to give it to Malta. But at the same time, as seen in some of these telegrams sent from the US embassy to the Department of State and to the US mission to NATO in Brussels, Mintoff’s antics and boisterousness also nurtured a sense of ridicule.
While many of the telegrams in the run-up to Helsinki’s final act of 1975 talk of Mintoff’s delaying tactics, they also reveal how the Labour prime minister used his role in European politics to strengthen his relations with other Arab states.
The telegrams themselves are peppered with sardonic observations of Mintoff and his personal staff or his ‘terrorised’ civil service. The observations of US ambassador John Getz show Mintoff to be a man who enjoys working late at night, refuses to go by the rules, and is always angling for recognition of Malta’s problems as an emerging independent country in development.

Reading the telegrams
The telegrams were sent on a near-daily basis to the US Department of State, where they sometimes received the attention of the office of Henry Kissinger, the US Secretary of State, or else that of Donald Rumsfeld, then the US permanent representative to NATO in Brussels. Every telegram bears the surname of their author, some of them embassy attaches, who would give a run-down of daily events. Most of them contain some observation of Mintoff and his closest aides.

14 August, 1973 – Embassy Valletta
Israeli ambassador has confirmed to us rumours around town that Israel has formally protested to Mintoff over his unbalanced and pejorative remarks about Israel and Israelis in foreign policy debate July 11 (a parliamentary debate in which Mintoff said Palestinian terrorism was justified in view of the Israeli occupation). Ben Yacov (Drora Ben Yacov, Israeli ambassador) told us that foreign ministry in Jerusalem at first tended to downplay his report on Mintoff’s remarks. Second thoughts however, resulted in instruction to Ben Yacov to deliver note to Prime Minister’s office expressing consternation over remarks and asking clarification. Ben Yacov said he had great difficulty arranging an appointment with Mintoff’s private secretary Camilleri (with whom he normally has a very good personal relationship). When Ben Yacov presented notes, Camilleri’s reaction was bluster and accusation Mintoff being quoted out of context. Ben Yacov said he was firm in rejecting Camilleri’s assertions. Note was delivered July 27, shortly before Mintoff and Camilleri departed for Commonwealth Prime Minister’s meeting in Ottawa. Ben Yacov said he did not expect early answer.
COMMENT: […] As we have reported, Mintoff has become increasingly unbalanced on Arab-Israeli issues, in fact, while still professing a neutral position. He will now undoubtedly feel justified in having characterised Dayan as “madman” in parliamentary debate. John GETZ US Ambassador to Malta

20 August, 1973 – Embassy Valletta
International news service reports from Tel Aviv that Mrs Meir (Golda, Israeli prime minister) will not attend Socialist international meeting Nov 2-4 if it is held in Malta… reason for her decision is parliamentary statement by Mintoff on his support for Algeria and Tunisia being heard at CSCE and his anti-Israeli remarks and statement that if he were a Palestinian, he would join in hijacking and other terrorist activities. If Mrs Meir’s stand results in decision to hold Socialist International meeting elsewhere, Mintoff’s prestige would suffer serious blow and Nationalists could hardly fail make much of this after parliament resumes October 1. GETZ

25 August, 1973 – Embassy Valletta
In conversation with Israeli ambassador Ben Yacov evening August 23, he claimed that Mintoff has not responded to his request for clarification of remarks on Arabs and Israel in parliament July 11. Ben Yacov did confirm however that Mrs Meir had indeed requested change of venue from Malta for Socialist International meeting in October. He expected that executive committee, or whatever body handles this matter, would make decision next week. Either way, he expects that Israeli-Maltese relations will become even more tense.
Ben Yacov incidentally is becoming fairly tense and nervous himself. He reports that in the last two days he has noted pairs of young Arabs sauntering past his combined Chancery-Residence as if they were doing reconnaissance. Although he has full-time guard of at least two or three Maltese police, plus CID squad in automobile, as well as his own full-time security guard within premises, he plans to emphasise this concern with police authorities. Unfortunately, Israeli Chancery-Residence is located only a few hundred yards from Gzira area which is principal centre for 500 to 800 Libyans who arrive every month as tourists.
On August 24, Italian ambassador Massa Bernucci stated categorically that Mintoff had replied to Israeli protest 2 or 3 days ago. He did not reveal source of his information but agreed that reply might have gone directly to Tel Aviv rather than through Israeli embassy.
COMMENT: While Mintoff rarely objects to being at the centre of controversy, if Socialist International backs up Mrs Meir, he will find himself in somewhat vulnerable position. Such further evidence of Mintoff’s lack of balance in Arab-Israeli issue, which he has seized as principal Maltese foreign policy problem, will not improve his popularity in Malta at large and will offer Opposition a better target. GETZ

11 September, 1973 – Embassy Valletta
DOI announced GOM is officially recognizing Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam. PM had talks at Algiers Non-Aligned Movement conference with vice prime minister of PRG and two agree to issue joint communiqué […]
COMMENT: We assume that PRC has been pushing Mintoff in this direction, and that the Algiers meeting provided a catalyst. Press reports have indicated recognition of PRG was subject of one resolution at Algiers. Given recent recognition of Sihanouk’s government, this step by GOM is not altogether surprising, particularly in view of Malta’s difficulties in gaining acceptance into non-aligned group. Mintoff probably felt he had to prove his non-aligned manhood. GETZ

18 October, 1973 – Embassy Valletta
Italian chargé Lucio Pallotta called today to say Mintoff has requested Luqa control tower provide him with specific information on all aircraft overflying Central Mediterranean en route to Israel. Source of Pallott’s information is Italian major supervising control tower activities under UNDP [United Nations Development Programme) sponsorship. Pallott has advised Italian MINFONAFF [Ministry of Foreign Affairs].
Info supplied from ROME Flight Information Region plus that available locally would provide Mintoff with significant info on US airlift which he may be passing to Arabs, conceivably through Egyptian chargé. GETZ

15 November, 1973 – Embassy Tel Aviv
Mrs Meir told me yesterday that at end of London session (of Socialist International)… someone suggested that résumé should note sympathy had been expressed concerning Israeli fallen soldiers. Mintoff quickly interjected, “and Arab fallen too.”
Mrs Meir told group she had no objection to Mintoff’s amendment, provided note was made that war resulted from Arab attack on Israel. Mintoff strongly objected and added he would insist that Maltese representative be present when press was briefed. Mrs Meir said that Israeli representative in such case should be present too. KENNETH B. KEATING, US AMBASSADOR TO ISRAEL

3 December, 1973 – Embassy Valletta
Royal Navy utility and HMS Devonshire first spotted two unidentified small warships proceeding southwest of Malta and outside territorial waters, afternoon Thursday. November 29, Friday am, HMS Devonshire saw two Israeli craft anchored one mile off Maltese coast. Devonshire was engaged in underway training. At 1:30pm, Friday 1 Dec. Mintoff made his request to UK High Commissioner to bring vessels into harbour. When Moreton asked if Mintoff was requesting Royal Navy to use force if necessary, Mintoff replied yes. Moreton of course referred request to UKG. At 3:30pm, Mintoff informed Moreton that vessels were underway and departing and renewed request that they be brought into harbour. Mintoff informed Moreton that vessels were underway and departing and renewed request that they be brought into harbour.
Mintoff also told Moreton he had heard Israeli vessels had been manoeuvring with NATO ships and had refuelled from “naval sources (implying UK or NATO).
Late evening 1 December, London told Moreton navy could not act. Denied any refuelling of Israeli vessels from UK resources, and said they had no knowledge of any NATO vessels in the area. Mintoff took note of foregoing, then asserted HMS Devonshire has passed within 100 yards of vessels on evening November 29 within Maltese territorial waters. Moreton admitted the encounter, but said it was outside territorial waters.
Moreton told ambassador that UK later embarrassed to learn that GOM had passed law in December 1971 extending territorial waters to six miles, with 12 miles for fisheries. Moreten has 3 December written to Mintoff correcting this point, but confirming no UK vessels manoeuvred had contact with Israelis.
Moreton had just received message from UK NATO delegation stating they had been approached by Italian delegation with report on incident, and saying Italy had also been requested to intervene. Slightly embarrassed, Italian ambassador said he was not aware of this point but knew that Mintoff had telephone Ducci directly in Rome.
Italian ambassador went on to say that Prime Minister had called him in afternoon 1 December, to inform him of incident and said he would have to warn NATO and “do something” to Israel. Italian ambassador now informed by Rome that Israeli patrol craft do operate in mid-Mediterranean and they believe craft were refuelled by Israeli tanker.
Mintoff pointed out to Italian ambassador that he did not have adequate means to patrol his own waters, and needed help. He suggested he might obtain assistance from Libyans.
COMMENT: while Mintoff is understandably concerned at presence of Israeli naval vessels in his waters, almost only tool he has to strike back is diplomatic relations, which would obviously please Libyans. On the other hand, such act would have repercussions within Socialist International, and possibility on Common Market which Mintoff is wooing. And it would also undermine his self-proclaimed neutral and balanced posture on Middle East question.
Threat to seek Libyan assistance typically made Italians’ toes curl, but we think this is unlikely. Pro-government press played incident in fairly low key, emphasizing vessels were seeking shelter from heavy weather. If Mintoff should decided to let matter drop, this would be his excuse. Possibility of breaking diplomatic relations, however, cannot be dismissed. GETZ

3 December, 1973 – US Mission NATO
Peck (UK) reported request by Maltese PM Mintoff to UK HICOM (High Commission) in Valletta to have UK Navy intercept two Israeli patrol craft which had anchored in Maltese territorial waters on night on Nov. 29-30. Mintoff asserted on basis of info from Arab sources that Israeli craft had been in NATO exercise and had been refuelled by UK ship operating in vicinity. After seeking instructions, HICOM replied that UK ship had observed Israelis while operating in international waters, but had no contact with them, that there were no NATO operations in the area and that UK had no basis for action to recall departed Israeli craft.
Catalano (Italy) said Mintoff had asked for corroboration of Arab report from GOI (Italy government). Italians had checked with UK and replied along same lines as HICOM. SYG (NATO secretary-general) said he assumed Israelis had exercised international legal right to seek refuge in territorial waters during storm. There was no further discussion. RUMSFELD

4 December, 1973 – Embassy Valletta
PM Mintoff tabled in parliament statement informing Maltese people of incident, and tabled GOM message to Golda Meir in which he said Geneva Convention does not authorize this “barbaric” behaviour and that “unless you wish GOM to severe diplomatic relations, a more credible account of what actually too place on Nov. 29 and 30 must be forthcoming.” He gave no specific deadline.
COMMENT: Mintoff obviously is playing this one to the hilt. He does have a case in that Israeli did not inform GOM that its ships were seeking safe haven… his comment on their denial of existence of vessels however is unfair. Interpretation of Israeli ambassador’s plea of ignorance when first contacted, it is likely that Mintoff’s actions reflect what he believes to be legitimate anger, but a desire to please Libya and other Arabs by breaking relations with Israel, and to take advantage of situation for domestic political reasons cannot be discounted. GETZ

6 December, 1973 – Embassy Valletta
Israeli ambassador Ben Yacov told us today he has not yet received further instructions from Tel Aviv, although he hopes to receive it before Maltese parliament meets this evening.
Ben Yacov claims he still does not know what Israeli boats were doing in this area. However, he understands Israeli navy does carry out patrols near “hostile” shores, mentioning all of the Arab states of North Africa as well, as those in Middle East bordering Mediterranean.
He explained failure of Israeli craft to communicate with Maltese authorities as resulting from fear that Libyans would intercept radio communication and possibly send planes to attack. Ben Yacov also referred to presence of ships in Maltese waters as early as afternoon of November 29, and said that possibly Israeli navy shared his ignorance of the fact that Maltese had extended territorial waters from 3 to 6 miles, in December 1971.
Addressing another Maltese complaint, he said that when officials in the Prime Minister’s office telephoned him to provide names of the two vessels concerned, names were badly garbled and made no sense in Hebrew. At that point he denied any ships by those names were in Israeli inventory.
Ben Yacov is uncertain as we as to whether Mintoff will actually break relations with Israel. He feels there may be some counter pressures from Socialist International as well as from some members of Maltese Cabinet. On other hand, pro government press now making a major issue of the incident, and Maltese News carried tendentious and inaccurate editorial Dec. 5 titled “A Time To Be Tough”. GETZ

17 December, 1973 – Embassy Valletta
At lunch December 15, Italian ambassador Massa Bernucci provided his NATO-country colleagues some additional background to recent Mintoff row with Israel over patrol craft incident. Massa Bernucci claims that Mintoff originally wanted to break relations with Israel, but was restrained by someone in his Cabinet, possibly Albert Hyzler. Latter’s argument was that a more careful examination should be made of the effects of such action on Malta’s international position.
Massa Bernucci added that Mintoff intended to follow break with Israel with signature of a mutual defence pact with Libya, This idea resulted from Mintoff’s appreciation of Malta’s military weakness when he was unable to muster any military muscle when Israeli boats were discovered in Maltese waters. However, without being explicit, Massa Bernucci indicated that he had heard this point directly Mintoff, and hat it had probably not been raised in Cabinet.
COMMENT: The thought that Mintoff would turn to Libya rather than NATO or UK for defence pact is curious. Even Mintoff’s limited understanding of facts of military power should reveal to him that Libya’s ability to project strength as far as Malta is extremely limited. We are inclined to believe that Mintoff was indulging in one of his favourite games – trying to frighten the Italians. A defence pact with Libya would find few supporters in Malta.
The ill wind of the National Bank blow-up has apparently blown some good by distracting Mintoff and GOM from patrol boat incident. The second Israeli note was delivered December 7, just as the bank crisis was reaching its peak. Since then the GOM has been preoccupied with a damage-limiting exercise, and the Israeli problem has been pushed aside.
The unhappy aspect of the issue is that the Israeli boats were well within their rights in seeking shelter, even if it might have been courteous to communicate their situation to the GOM upon entering territorial waters. TUCKER

21 December, 1973 – Embassy Valletta
British HICOM informs us that RAF spotted two Israeli patrol craft some 60 miles southwest of Malta morning Dec. 21. Two vessels approached Malta to about 7 miles off coast, proceeded northwesterly around Gozo, and then headed northerly toward Sicily.
HICOM had seen Israeli first secretary David Ilan, who said his embassy had no knowledge that patrol craft were in the vicinity of Malta. Ilan also told HICOM there still had been no response to Israel note, and that he believes question of Mintoff breaking relations with Israel probably dropped.
British High Commissioner had briefly considered desirability of informing Mintoff of sighting of Israeli patrol craft, but decided not to inform anyone (including Italian ambassador, who might tell Mintoff) except Israelis and US. TUCKER



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