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Lyndon Johnson Administration: Memorandum on Conditions for Phantom Sale

(October 29, 1968)

This memorandum from Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Paul Warnke to Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford explores whether or not the U.S. has the ability to attach political strings to the shipment of F-4s it is about to sell Israel. It also discusses the Cold War political ramifications of Israel becoming a nuclear superpower.


F-4 Negotiations with Israel

As you know, the first negotiating session on the sale of F-4s to Israel is tomorrow, 30 October. Assistant Secretary Hart has been delegated Mr. Rusk's responsibility for carrying out these negotiations with Ambassador Rabin of Israel.

The threshold issue is whether our negotiators have authority to impose any political conditions on the sale of the F-4s or whether all that is to be negotiated are the technical details. The second is, assuming that conditions can be imposed, what these should be. Preliminary discussions between the President and Foreign Minister Abba Eban and Secretary Rusk with Eban have focused on Israeli adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As to the first issue we feel that the President's direction to open negotiations does not mean that we must agree to provide the Phantoms unconditionally The oral messages conveyed from Prime Minister Eshkol and other Israeli officials are to the effect that they understand the sale of Phantoms to be unconnected to the issue of the Non-Proliferation Treaty or any other political question. In our view, we should not accept this position and should instead make clear at the outset of negotiations that the sale of the Phantoms will be contingent upon our satisfaction with Israeli assurances on matters affecting our own national security. Authority for our negotiators to take this position should be obtained from the President.

Reports we have as to the President's discussions with Prime Minister Eshkol the first of this year show that the President agreed only to keep the sale of Phantoms to Israel under review and to put ourselves in a position where, if an affirmative decision were to be made by the end of the year, we could begin to supply Phantoms in quantities of two or three per month beginning January of 1970. The announcement of October 9th that we would begin to negotiate with Israel on this sale did not constitute an undertaking to consummate the transaction unconditionally.

Even more important, any agreement with a foreign government is subject to modification in accordance with developments affecting the security of the United States. [3 lines of source text not declassified]. This possession of a nuclear missile by Israel would be of no value to that country unless the fact were known to its Arab neighbors. If this fact were to become known, there is every likelihood that the UAR and possibly other Arab countries would request and receive Soviet nuclear missiles stationed on their soil under Soviet control. At a minimum, this development would lead to increased Soviet penetration and influence among the Arab countries and the complete polarization of the area. The responsibility for Israel's nuclear weapons would generally be charged to us, particularly after the sale of Phantoms has made us virtually Israel's only major source of arms supply.

For the future, the consequences of nuclear weapons in the Middle East could be calamitous. There can be no assurance that Israel's possession of strategic missiles would deter the Arab states, particularly if they have Soviet nuclear missiles as an offset. We must at least contemplate the possibility that, faced with a massive Arab attack, Israel might launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike. A retaliatory attack, however limited, would destroy Israel and face us with totally unacceptable alternatives. The first of these, a nuclear strike by the United States, is almost unthinkable. If directed against the Soviet Union, it would lead inexorably to all-out nuclear war. If directed against an Arab state, it would virtually compel Soviet retaliation against U.S. territory, particularly in view of the fact that Israel would have been the first to resort to nuclear arms.

On the other hand, the inability of the United States to respond to the destruction of Israel by Soviet missiles would damage incalculably our world position and our foreign policy objectives. We would have shown ourselves powerless to protect or even avenge a country for which we have been the principal sponsor and champion. I doubt that the West Germans could retain any confidence in our nuclear deterrent. Their most likely recourse would be an accommodation with the Soviet Union. NATO would cease to exist as an effective body.

In the light of these possibilities, I believe that we must use every available means to get assurances from Israel well beyond their signature on the NPT. These assurances, upon which sale of the F-4s should be expressly conditioned, would include their written agreement:

1. Not to test or deploy those strategic missiles now in Israel without our advance knowledge or consent;

2. Not to manufacture or otherwise acquire strategic missiles or nuclear weapons without our advance knowledge or consent,

3. To permit semi-annual inspection of specified sites in Israel and to provide full information on any program. designed to achieve a nuclear weapon capability; and

4. To sign and ratify 'he Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.1

For illustrative purposes, a proposed exchange of correspondence between the President and the Prime Minister is attached.

Paul C. Wamke

1Harold Saunders sent a memorandum on October 29 to Wait Rostow warning him that Israeli Air Force Commander General Hod was about to arrive in Washington expecting to discuss the purchase of Phantom aircraft with Defense officials and Defense was taking the position that it was not prepared to discuss the aircraft until the United States received assurances from Israel concerning the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Saunders noted the unlikelihood of such assurances. "So we may have a situation where General Hod is here but can't talk to anyone." (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. X, Cables and Memos, 6/68-11/68)

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