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Lyndon Johnson Administration: Komer Reluctantly Recommends Arms for Israel and Jordan

(February 8, 1966)

This memorandum outlines U.S. policy toward Israel vis a vis arms sales to Israel and Jordan. The United States reluctantly agrees to sell 24 aircraft to Israel under limited conditions to minimize Congressional pressure. They also agree to supply Jordan with aircraft to prevent Jordan from turning to the Soviet Union.

Memorandum From the President's Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Komer) to President Johnson/1/

Washington, February 8, 1966, 11:30 a.m.

Planes for Israel and Jordan. We've held off the meeting you wanted till the agencies could sort out this key matter first. As you know, we've stalled Jordan from buying cut-rate MIGs for almost two years now, and stalled the Israelis too for over a year. But King Hussein now pleads that he can't hold off Arab pressures any longer; he may cave momentarily and buy MIGs. Israel is also getting hot under the collar. So we've finally reached the point where we have to fish or cut bait.

There is no good solution, only another painful choice among evils. McNamara and most of the key State people, as well as Bundy and I, have come reluctantly to conclude that controlled sales best serve the US interest. However, Secretary Rusk quite rightly worries lest we're accused of fuelling both sides of an arms race. He wants a discussion before you first.

I. The Argument Against. At first glance, we'd all concede that the US should not get further enmeshed in another dilemma of selling arms to both sides. Much better to get the Soviets and other suppliers to agree that none of us will fuel an Arab/Israeli arms race. More to the point of US domestic criticism, how can the US keep selling arms to Arabs who are sworn to do in Israel? Given the way the United Arab Command is calling for a joint anti-Israeli buildup, it looks as though this is precisely what we're doing. This is the gist of the heavy Congressional--73 Congressmen just wrote Rusk--mail we've been getting (though what they are really saying is that if we sell to Arabs why won't we sell to Israel too?).

II. The Facts of Life. In reality, do we have any better option than to back our friends--Arab as well as Israeli--if we are to prevent a blowup in the Near East? We have managed to prevent one ever since Suez by doing just that, however superficially foolish it may seem.

A. We didn't start the Near East competition--Soviets did. And they've been forcing the pace ever since. Since 1955, Moscow has shipped almost $2 billion in cut-rate arms to the UAR, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. We and our European friends have been forced to respond by providing some deterrent capability to Israel and friendly Arabs, lest they become highly vulnerable. It is generally arms imbalances (not balances) which most directly lead to trouble.

B. Isn't arms control a better solution? Amen. The US/UK have tried for years to get a Soviet response. But the USSR sees much more advantage in using its arms surplus to gain influence with the Arab nationalists and to undermine the US/UK position. When Rusk again raised the question with Gromyko this October, we were again ignored. We've also been at Nasser and Israel, arguing against the senseless waste of resources, but haven't gotten to first base. Over time we may be able to reach some at least tacit understandings, but this will depend largely on our first convincing the Soviets and UAR that they will not be allowed to create an arms imbalance in the Near East.

C. So maintaining an arms balance may be the best way of moving toward arms controls, and of forestalling trouble in the meantime. The Saudis really want arms, not against Israel, but to protect themselves against Nasser over Yemen. Tiny Jordan knows that it would be suicide to attack Israel, but Hussein (2/3 of whose people are Palestinians) must appear to them as a good Arab and keep his army happy (it's his base of power). We have no independent stake in Jordan; it has no oil or bases. The main reason why we've spent some $500 million to keep Jordan independent is to prevent the closing of a hostile Arab ring around Israel. The Israelis themselves recognize that our subsidizing King Hussein is worth its weight in gold to them, and play up US arms sales to Arabs mainly to get us to sell to Israel as well.

III. Should the US now sell combat planes to Israel? We've come a long way over the past four years toward becoming one of Israel's arms suppliers, and the net effect has been to help stabilize the area, without creating as much Arab backlash as we'd feared. Indeed, it is remarkable that we've managed all these years to be Israel's chief backer, without it costing us our influence in the Arab world. This has been no mean trick, and is still feasible if we don't get spooked by Arab, Israeli, or uninformed US Zionist criticism.

From 1948-61 we managed to avoid becoming a major arms supplier by indirectly subsidizing Israeli purchases in Europe. But the drying up of Israel's regular European sources (they just don't produce the right items any more--and Bonn opted out entirely) forced us to become direct suppliers--first Hawks and then tanks. Since our own deep commitment to Israel's security would almost force us to intervene if there were another major Arab-Israeli flareup, it is in our interest to help Israel maintain a sufficient deterrent edge to warn off Nasser and other eager beavers. And the more secure Israel feels, the less likely it is to strike first, as at Suez. So maintaining a reasonable Arab/Israeli arms balance helps limit the chances of our being drawn into a Near East crisis.

A. But does Israel really need US planes? Not as much as it did tanks, but it has a good case. Soviet MIGs and bombers are still flowing to the UAR and Syria. We committed ourselves last year to help out with "up to 24 combat aircraft", if they were not available in Europe. If we want to be legalistic, we can argue that French Mirage interceptors are unavailable, but the Israelis want and can best use an intruder-type.

B. Will selling planes to Israel spook the Arabs? Our Arab experts so warned before we sold Hawks in 1962, then again before we sold tanks. But actual experience shows far less reaction than we feared. Unless revealing the tank deal creates unforeseen Arab troubles, it's a good bet that quiet, limited aircraft supply to Israel will not upset our applecart in the Arab world.

C. Can we use planes as a lever to keep Israel from going nuclear? Desperation is what would most likely drive Israel to this choice, should it come to feel that the conventional balance was turning against it. So judicious US arms supply, aimed at maintaining a deterrent balance, is as good an inhibitor as we've got.

D. In the last analysis, can we avoid selling planes to Israel sooner or later? Given continued Soviet shipments to the UAR and Syria--which are Israel's real worry--Hill and other pressure is growing to the point where we probably won't have a defensible case much longer. We could argue that we won't sell planes to either Israel or the Arabs, but does this stand up when (1) the Soviets keep shovelling arms to the wrong Arabs; (2) we've already sold Israel tanks and missiles so why not planes; and (3) it is our friends, not our enemies who will suffer if we refuse to sell arms. Moreover, the more Hill and Zionist criticism we get, the more it interferes with our ability to carry out a sensible Arab policy. So if we're going to be badgered into selling planes anyway sooner or later, we can gain more and will risk less by doing so now when we can drive a hard bargain.

IV. Should we sell to Jordan too? If we refuse planes to Israel, we can't get away with Jordan sales without a storm of domestic US protest. But if we deny Hussein's request he may feel compelled to risk our wrath by caving to UAC demands that he buy MIGs (in which case the Israelis would have an additional powerful argument for getting us to sell them planes). The only way to stop him would be to tell him flatly that if he bought Soviet planes we'd cut off his annual $50 million subsidy. Some of us think Hussein would back down. But should we take the risk? Hussein's ability to stay on his uneasy throne depends critically on his not appearing to be a US or Israeli stooge (his grandfather was assassinated for this reason). We've already stalled Hussein to the point of no return--in his judgment and that of our Ambassador. Jordan's independence is important enough to us, and to Israel, that we should not risk jeopardizing it short of over-riding reasons.

Thus there is a compelling case for selling planes to Jordan as well as Israel. In fact, the basic rationale is to protect Israel itself. Entry of Soviet arms into Jordan would start a trend which could seriously upset the Arab-Israeli arms balance, and put us under great Israeli pressure. As with tanks last year, if we sell to one the same logic suggests we sell to both. Otherwise, it's hard to avoid an even worse box.

V. Conclusions. In sum, painful as it is, there seems no better option than minimum, carefully controlled plane sales to both. Selling to neither is not a real option if the facts of life will probably force us to sell to Israel sooner or later. So there's advantage in doing so now when we can get Israel to acquiesce in our helping Jordan too. The one real issue is whether such sales would over-expose us to criticism for "fuelling both sides of an arms race". But most of this heat (especially on the Hill) is from those who really object to our arming only Arabs and not Israelis. We might be able to cope with this problem by requiring the Israelis themselves quietly to warn off their Hill lobbyists. This wouldn't be foolproof, but should reduce the flak to tolerable limits.

To meet the argument that we ought to be promoting arms control instead of arms races, we could refer to our frequent efforts to do just this--and protect our flank by yet another Soviet probe (via Dobrynin). However, none of your Sovietologists believe the Soviets will bite.

If we decide to sell Israel aircraft, we can only get what we want in return by providing a low-level intruder. There's no point in offering an interceptor if Israel doesn't want one (and could buy from France if it did). It wants the fancy A-6 (at least $62 million for 24 stripped down versions), but we could probably get it to settle for the smaller, cheaper A-4E (around $24 million for same number).

VI. Recommendations. Offer Israel now (on the same MAP credit terms as tanks) up to 24 intruder-type aircraft, with an option to purchase 24 more next year, provided that Israel will in return: (1) continue buying most of its aircraft in Europe so we don't become prime supplier--thus outraging the Arabs; (2) actively, if quietly, support controlled US arms sales to Jordan as being in Israel's interest just as much as ours; (3) not use our aircraft as nuclear weapons carriers; (4) maintain full secrecy till we decide when and how to publicize all such arms deals.

Offer Jordan up to 36 F-104 A/B's (a secondhand interceptor) or F-5s in increments of 12 per year delivered beginning in 1968 for cash on the line, if Jordan will in return: (1) purchase no Soviet equipment of any kind; (2) keep the deal secret till we decide to publicize; (3) keep mum about US sales to Israel; (4) renew its undertaking not to increase its own arms budget at the expense of our own budget support program.

Despite the length of this memo, it still doesn't cover all the ins and outs of such a tricky and complex matter. So it is well worth a half hour's discussion with your key advisers--hopefully as soon as feasible. We may have held off Hussein well past the zero hour from doing something foolish which could compromise our whole Arab/Israeli policy.

R. W. Komer/2/

Meet this week
Talk with me/3/

/1/Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Name File, Komer Memos, Vol. II. Secret. Filed as an attachment to a February 10 memorandum from Komer to the President, which notes that it is a copy of a memorandum sent to him previously. Komer's February 10 memorandum suggests three agenda items for a meeting the next day on Israel-Jordan: jets for Israel and Jordan, economic aid for Israel, and a desalting plant for Israel. A notation on it in Johnson's handwriting reads, "Put on my desk. L."

/2/Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.

/3/Neither option is checked.

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