Johnson Rejects Tank Sale to Israel

(May 15, 1964)


President Johnson instructs his special council to inform Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol that the U.S. is denying Israel's request to buy American tanks to "maintain at least an appearance of balance between Israel and the Arabs."


Memorandum From President Johnson to His Deputy Special Counsel (Feldman)1

Washington, May 15, 1964.

SUBJECT

President's Instruction for Feldman-Sloan Mission

In view of the repeated Israeli pleas for a quick answer on their tank request, I am sending you to explain our position on the matter. You should explain to Prime Minister Eshkol that we are giving him our firm views through you so the tank matter won't get in the way of a constructive visit, to which I am looking forward eagerly. You should then talk with him along the following lines:

I. Context in Which We Considered Tank Request. We've taken a most exhaustive look at the tank matter, as the Israelis well know. Our JCS and intelligence community have assessed the present and prospective military balance. In arriving at our decision we also had to take into account whether the likely gain to Israel and the US outweighed the potential costs. I want you to assure Eshkol, however, that we did so on the basis of the underlying premise that Israel's security must be preserved.

A. In fact the US regards itself, and all the Arabs do too, as consistently the staunchest supporter of Israel. It is primarily the US which is expected by them to come to Israel's defense if attacked. This, of course, is simple truth--since 1950 it has been a fixed tenet of our policy, reiterated by every President, to deter and if necessary cope with military aggression against Israel. We have also, through both public and private means, been Israel's strongest financial backers. I want you to say again that I am as firmly behind this policy as my predecessors.

B. But we have felt it necessary to maintain at least an appearance of balance between Israel and the Arabs, because of our wide interests in the area and desire not to thrust Arabs into arms of Moscow. This policy has always seemed to us as much in Israel's interest as our own--not only does it give us leverage with Arabs but it helps limit Arab receptivity to such obvious Soviet meddling as Khrushchev is up to right now in Egypt.

C. One facet of this policy has been to avoid providing clearly offensive weapons to Israel or to Arab states which could use them against her. Nor has this policy compromised Israel's ability to maintain a substantial deterrent edge. Shrewd purchases from Europe, indirectly subsidized by US aid, have enabled Israel to stay well ahead of Arabs. In fact, our JCS and intelligence people all see Israel retaining a substantial margin of superiority for the next several years.

D. This is also the year of the Jordan Waters crisis, on which the US is already carrying the main burden of backing Israel. To overload the circuit by such a dramatic shift in US policy as a big tank sale, especially at the very time when Moscow is bidding for Arab favor, could simply undermine our relations with the Arabs. We mean here not just the UAR but almost every Arab country:

1. It might jeopardize the position of Jordan, and at the least make it impossible for Hussein to maintain close relations with us.

2. Since Libya has become one of the most fanatical anti-Israel states, we would almost certainly lose our base.

3. Our restraining influence on issues like the Jordan diversion would be thrown away just when it is needed most. Arab frustration over their inability to do much about it could easily be catalyzed by a tank deal into a violent reaction against us.

4. In fact, we see a major risk of Arab counteraction against our oil, already likely to come under fire because of the Jordan Waters crisis. Khrushchev could end up the chief gainer, not Israel.

II. Meeting Israel's Need for Tanks. For all these reasons I do not believe that the US can afford a direct sale of tanks. Nonetheless we are as interested as ever in seeing Israeli deterrent capabilities maintained (though our JCS and intelligence people think Israel more pessimistic than it need be, and we believe Israel discounts far too heavily the added deterrent created by Arab belief the US will intervene).

A. On tanks specifically, we recognize that Israel's armor needs gradual modernization to keep a dangerous imbalance from developing, though here too our JCS see needs as more like 300 than 500 tanks over next 2-3 years. We also note heavy Israeli purchases of advanced AT weapons.

B. We intend to see that Israel gets the tanks it needs, but without exposing the US to unacceptable political risks. We believe, based on recent inquiries, that it can buy enough modern tanks to meet its needs--in quantities, on terms, and with delivery schedules comparable to the best we could do ourselves--from the UK and possibly West Germany. Of course we can't speak for them; Israel will have to talk directly.

C. But we promise US help in paving the way. The one absolute imperative is to avoid publicity, especially surrounding the Eshkol visit here. If the finger is pointed at London or Bonn it would be politically impossible for them to fill such a large order.

D. The US could not justify grant MAP to Israel in any case. Its financial position is such that it can afford to buy tanks. And Centurions from the UK or M-48s from Germany are probably available at similar prices to what we'd charge. Nor, as you told Eshkol before, could we justify giving tanks free while Israel uses its own foreign exchange to buy missiles from France.

III. Israeli Missiles. I want you to assure Eshkol that our concerns over Israeli missile plans in no way influenced our decision. We also recognize we can't make this decision for Israel. But I want Eshkol to know of my worry lest Israel get missiles on a scale which would actually serve to accelerate the arms race rather than damp it down.

You needn't argue this matter, but simply remind Eshkol that it is on our agenda. Tell him our experts are convinced UAR can't develop enough missile capability to present much of a threat. Even advanced missiles are of questionable value without nuclear warheads, which are far beyond the UAR. So we wonder why Israel should spend so much on highly expensive missiles, which are wasteful without nuclear warheads and highly dangerous if the Arabs conclude, as we fear they will, that Israel has nuclear plans in mind.

In sum I want you to make clear that, while we can't sell Israel tanks directly, we intend to see that a comparable alternative is worked out, always provided the matter can be closely held. Thus we are confident that Israel's security concern can be suitably met.

Lyndon B. Johnson

Notes

1 Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Tanks, Vol. I. Secret. Drafts of this memorandum entitled "Feldman Talking Paper, "dated May 13 and 14, apparently drafted by Komer, are ibid. The memorandum was sent to Johnson with a May 15 covering memorandum from Komer, which states, "It tells Mike exactly what we want him to say, so he won't stray off the reservation." (Ibid.) A copy filed with a May 19 covering memorandum from Bromley Smith to Rusk, McNamara, and JCS Chairman Taylor states that the instruction, as amended by Rusk, was approved by the President on May 16. (Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OSD Files: FRC 70 A 1266, Israel 470) See Document 57.


Source: Department of State