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Lyndon Johnson Administration: Background Briefing for Feldman Trip to Israel

(March 23, 1964)

A couple of interesting aspects to this memo. One is the acknowledgment of U.S. security backing for Israel at a far earlier date than generally known. Related to that is the blatant expectation that U.S. aid should give America a voice in Israeli policy and that U.S. policy is sensitive to Arab concerns.

J33. Memorandum From Robert W. Komer of the National Security Council Staff to the President's Deputy Special Counsel (Feldman)1

Washington, March 23, 1964.

Here's an extensive set of State talking, briefing, and background papers for your trip to Israel.2 They seem to me quite in line with the President's views, as put out to the town by Bundy. Here are a few additional thoughts.

I. Missiles. Mac and I hope that you will make a real effort to turn Israelis aside from SSMs. In so urging we are motivated as much by Israeli as by US security interests. We simply do not seem to have gotten across to Israel that, whereas present UAR missiles (even if multiplied) are little if any threat, Israeli acquisition of good missiles will trigger the UAR to get good missiles in return (and the only place to get them is from the Soviets). This has in fact been the history of arms escalation in the Middle East--whenever one side draws ahead, the other must needs follow. We doubt that the Soviets would give Nasser nuclear warheads, but they might just put Soviet missile bases in the UAR. Either of these outcomes would magnify the threat to Israeli security (and incidentally increase the pressures on Israel to go nuclear). Finally, there's the risk of UAR pre-emptive attack, which our Embassy in Cairo takes most seriously. Is it worth incurring such risks for the deterrent advantage of being able to lob a few conventional warheads into Cairo?

If the above argument makes sense, then the corollary financial argument does too. Acquiring a missile capability is hellishly expensive. Why should Israel waste at least a few hundred million bucks on a deterrent of marginal value (without nuclear warheads), when a sum of this size could be far more efficiently used in other ways?

Nor do the Israelis seem to pay much attention to our intelligence estimates, the gist of which we've passed quite freely to them. In fact, Eshkol told Rowen we should not question their intelligence, because knowing what the UAR is up to is a life and death matter to them. It so happens, however, that the Israelis themselves have no evidence that 900-1000 UAR missiles are in the cards. There is a sheer guess, and our guess as you know is only a "few hundred" by 1969-70 with probably fewer. And here is one field where we, with our own vast missile experience and intensive study of the Soviets, are a lot more competent than our Israeli friends. They have very little basis for evaluating program cost or the immense complexity of deploying, controlling and salvoing a 1000 missile force. Israel makes much, for example, of the psychological dislocation if several hundred missiles should land during the crucial 72 hours of mobilization. We flatly doubt that the UAR could achieve any such highly sophisticated salvo capability. We feel that the Israelis have simply closed their ears to our efforts to clue them.

Bear in mind also that even the Israelis contend that the so-called UAR missile threat will not reach full bloom until 1969-70. This gives us room to maneuver. What the Israelis are apparently buying is the first French SSM. If our experience is any guide, it will be very expensive and may not be terribly good. Simple prudence would suggest that Israel could afford to wait a few years under any circumstances before committing itself to a major program. True, Eshkol himself says that it may be another two years before they decide how much of a capability they need, but this date could apply to the beginning of deployment or to a second tranche of purchases.

The simple fact that the Israelis refuse to tell us what they have in mind in itself adds greatly to our suspicions. Indeed, I think you should make quite a point of saying that their evasiveness over Dimona, now repeated with respect to missiles, is precisely what creates uncertainty on our part.

II. Security Assurances. Israelis are constantly, though I think largely for tactical reasons, stressing the tenuous nature of our security commitment. You are in a good position to say categorically, from three years in the White House, that there is absolutely no doubt as to US determination to prevent Israel's destruction. This has been reiterated time and again, publicly and privately. The only real question at issue is whether we should give a formal security guarantee. We are unwilling to do so for reasons which serve Israel's interests as much as ours, i.e. such a guarantee would simply trigger offsetting Arab moves toward Moscow which would actually increase the threat to Israel without at the same time adding an iota to our determination to act.

III. Tanks. You are quite familiar with the tank arguments--pro and con. Since you will want to avoid getting out in front on this issue, why not emphasize that nothing Israel has told us suggests that the armor imbalance has become so immediate and urgent a problem as to deprive us of further time for reflection. The Israelis freely admit that the time when the imbalance will become potentially serious is 2-3 years hence. Why, therefore, are they pressing us so hard? The real answer, of course, is that it's an election year.

IV. US Aid to Israel and the Arabs. It seems to me that you have got to sustain the party line on this issue. Israel is doing magnificently (10% growth rate, estimated $640 million in reserves by end of this year, per capita GNP of $900 plus). We have given Israel through June 1963 approximately $1 billion in aid. True, we have given the UAR $880 million, but this is only $32 per capita (compared to $413 per capita for Israel); much more important, it has been mostly food which goes into the bellies of the fellaheen not the sinews of the state. The UAR has bought Soviet arms with cotton which it couldn't sell to us. Moreover, the UAR bought as many arms in the late 50's when we weren't giving it much aid as it has during our three year PL-480 agreement.

V. Finally, I do hope that you can get across to our Israeli friends that our relationship cannot be so much of a one-way street. Our underwriting of their security necessarily gives us a legitimate voice in their policy. All get and no give is unsatisfactory as a basis for our relationship. Any objective observer looking at the Middle East of the last 16 years would see US policy as being consistently pro-Israeli (aside from Suez, on which I personally think we flubbed). In my opinion the Israelis know this, they do count on us, and their frequent expressions of doubt are far more for bargaining purposes than because of any real question in their minds.

In fact, Mike, Israel seems to have quite deliberately been seeking step-by-step to develop the kind of relationship with us (overt security guarantee, military aid, joint planning) which will compromise our relationship with the Arabs. No doubt the Israelis think that this will be a stronger deterrent to Arab pressures. But in my view it is a most short-sighted policy. The Arabs already regard us as so pro-Israeli that further steps will not add much. What they will do, however, is to force the Arabs to react, by squeezing our base and oil interests, and by moving ever closer to Moscow. This will increase the threat to Israel far more than the reassurance gained from making public what we already do privately. Thus Israeli policy harms rather than serves US-Israeli interests. It is no disservice to Israel to have this out with them, and I hope you will help do so.

R. W. Komer3


1 Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. I. Secret.

2 Filed with a March 20 covering memorandum from Read to Bundy, they included unsigned and undated papers entitled: "Israeli Missile Acquisition" and "Israeli Tank Acquisition" and a suggested talking paper, as well as background papers. (Ibid.)

3 Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature

Sources: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, V. 18, Arab-Israeli Dispute 1964-1967. DC: GPO, 2000.