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Lyndon Johnson Administration: Israeli PM Eshkol Letter Explaining Israeli Views on Peace

(April 30, 1968)

This letter from Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to President Johnson was transmitted by Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin to Secretary of State Rusk. It outlines the threat of terrorism to Israel. It also explains the conflicting interests influencing King Hussein's view toward Israel, as well as how Egyptian leader Gamal Nasser's hostility undermines the Jordanian leader's interest in reaching an agreement with Israel.

Dear Mr. President:

On receiving your letter of April 6, I gave Ambassador Barbour a full explanation of my views on both of the subjects you raised. The activities of terrorist organizations, openly encouraged by Arab Governments, present grave problems for our security. It is axiomatic that the solution does not and cannot lie in giving them free rein or impassively suffering their assaults on life, limb and property in Israel. No government could ever be expected to accept such a course. We are adopting various methods to cope with this terrorist campaign, bearing in mind the considerations which you have explained to me. We are also doing our best to secure international understanding of our dilemma and of the motives and necessities which govern our response. In the last resort our responsibility for the lives and security of our people must be overriding.

In response to your message of April 6, I acted promptly to reassure Jordan in connection with Ambassador Jarring's efforts. My impression is that King Hussein is aware of our attitude on this matter, but is inhibited by Nasser from moving ahead. The fact is that Ambassador Jarring's conference proposal for meetings with our government was accepted by Israel, rejected by the U.A.R. and has not been, accepted by Jordan.

The critical state of the Jarring Mission is thus due to Cairo's attitude. We have made every reasonable attempt to promote a negotiated settlement. We offered a broad agenda for discussion. We agreed negotiate on all the matters included in the Security Council Resolution within the framework of the establishment of a permanent peace. We stated that the boundaries are negotiable in peace talks. We accepted procedure suggested by Ambassador Jarring in the hope that his presidency of a peace conference would give assurance to the U.A.R. and Jordan and ensure an equitable procedure as well as an agreed neutral venue. Nasser's response was to reject all these openings, to insist on our commitment to return to the June 4 situation, for which there is no international authority whatever, and to reiterate that he wished to 'implement' a Security Council resolution while rejecting its central principles-namely, peace, agreement and recognition. His public utterances as well as the views conveyed to Ambassador Jarring make it clear that he is not seeking an honorable and peaceful settlement with Israel.

On April 23, Ambassador Jarring told Foreign Minister Eban that by 'implementation' the U.A.R. means unconditional withdrawal of Israel forces in the first place to the June 4 lines. This is the very proposal which you, Mr. President, through your official spokesman, have described as a prescription for the renewal of hostilities. Nasser's attitude is dictated by the negative principles of the Khartoum Conference: no peace, no agreement, no recognition. His policy is thus to refuse all progress towards peace, to accumulate armed strength, and to bide his time until he is in a position to renew his aggression which he unsuccessfully organized in 1967. This policy is totally opposed to that which you, Mr. President, proposed on June 19, 1967. So long as the U.A.R. policy is so sharply contrary to yours and ours, I doubt if any formulation can bridge the gap. There has to be a will for peace, and the test for such a will is readiness to negotiate.

The question which we are now exploring is whether Jordan is willing, on its own account, to discuss a settlement with us. We are energetically seeking to clarify and promote this prospect. I do not know yet if it is a realistic one. I have myself had several talks with Palestine Arab leaders who wish Jordan to take a positive step. We are also trying every means including the good offices of Ambassador Jarring to bring about meaningful negotiations which, as Secretary Rusk wrote to Minister Eban on February 13, are the crux of our problem. Despite disappointment, it is important that Ambassador Jarring remain available in the coming weeks while efforts are under way to clarify the possibility of a Jordan-Israel negotiation. King Hussein seems to be oscillating between two pressures-that of Cairo and the terrorist movements which desire to escalate the present tension, and that of his own objective interests- He has not always acted in his own true interests, as we all learned last June.

The central cause of the deadlock created by Cairo is Nasser's intention to launch a successful war as soon as he is ready. So long as he believes this, he will not allow any peaceful process to mature. It follows that our principal aim should be to diminish his belief in the Prospect of Israel becoming weak. We come back to the fact that the balance of strength in the coming months is the critical issue. Is it not matter for further action and concern? This issue is immediate. It is

Nasser's conviction that he is in the process of overtaking Israel armed preparedness that leads him to refuse negotiation and to work for the frustration of the Jarring Mission. As we survey the Middle Eastern scene, we cannot forget for a moment the threat to Israel's very existence which developed overnight last May and June against all the prevailing estimates at the time that Nasser would not and could not raise the tension in the area for some years.

The matter which we discussed in your home in Texas last January has thus become very acute. When we spoke of the Phantom aircraft, you said that you would make a decision on the matter, one way or the other, during the course of 1968, in the light of developments, if necessary, even within the next few months. At the same time, you requested a review of the requirements for the training of personnel an( information on the latest date on which you could make a decision to supply Israel with Phantoms and for Israel to be in a position to them in January 1970.

On the broad Middle Eastern level, you told me that you were investigating Nasser's posture and situation, the Soviet role, and French policy on the supply of 50 Mirage aircraft ordered by us.

I hear that these three questions have now been clarified with disturbing results. Nasser has refused peace and opted for war preparations, with his eyes fixed on a growing decline in Israel's deterrent power. The Soviet Union has rejected all approaches designed to induce restraint in arms supplies to Arab states. The U.S.S.R. is certainly not promoting attitudes of peace. The French Government, to our deep regret, has made it clear that we have no reason to expect delivery of the Mirage aircraft. Moreover, they have lately decided to supply Iraq with 50 Mirage aircraft. In these circumstances, Nasser's policy of using peace and preparing for a new round of war derives a certain rationality from the concrete prospect of a changing balance in strength. The postponement of a United States decision on the Phantoms now becomes very grave. The decision is vital on logistical grounds, but it is even more urgent for political and psychological reasons which affect the immediate prospect of a peaceful accommodation.

May I submit, Mr. President, that it is vital your decision be made now. May I urge that the 50 Phantoms be supplied from the middle of 1969, and not from the beginning of 1970, in batches of 8 to 10 a month and not of 4 to 5 a month. Training arrangements should be replanned accordingly. We wish to avoid another war just as ardently as we wanted and tried to avoid the last one. If we are to succeed, our deterrents must be credible, and if deterrence fails, our strength must be adequate. An American decision of this kind, far from disrupting any attempts at peacemaking, would by demonstrating the futility of further war, give the peace effort the stimulus which it is now objectively lacking. I do not believe that we shall get peace unless we move to foreclose the other alternatives.

Mr. President, I write to you on the eve of Israel's 20th anniversary. Israel came into being against the background of the destruction of a third of our people at the hands of the Nazis. In the twenty years of its existence, it had to fight three wars for its survival. Throughout this period only the maintenance of the minimum arms balance has saved it from destruction. I appeal to you on behalf of my people to grant us the weapons necessary to prevent further war and to encourage the process towards peace which though it tarries will--with God's help--surely come.

In conclusion, Mr. President, may I send you my fervent wishes for the success of your statesmanlike effort to bring an honorable peace to Southeast Asia and to the world. History will salute your efforts and bless your toil.

Yours sincerely,
Levi Eshkol
Prime Minister


30 April 1968

Sources: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, V. 20, Arab-Israeli Dispute 1967-1968. DC: GPO, 2001.