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Lyndon Johnson Administration: Memorandum on Selling U.S. Arms to Jordan as the Lesser of Two Evils

(February 21, 1965)

The United States is trying to convince Israel that selling Jordan arms will be the lesser of two evils, because it will prevent Jordan from obtaining unlimited Soviet weapons.

Memorandum From President Johnson to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Harriman) and Robert W. Komer of the National Security Council Staff1

Washington, February 21, 1965.

Following on Mr. Komer's earlier mission, I want you both to impress vigorously on Prime Minister Eshkol and others why they and we confront momentous decisions on aid to Jordan. We have postponed acting as long as possible and now believe that we can delay no longer. We must decide within the next few days. Therefore, I am sending you out to consult with the Government of Israel once again. Your job is to require the Israelis to face up to the hard choice involved.2

I. You should explain fully again why we regard it as the lesser of evils to sell a limited amount of US arms to Jordan. You may describe how we are now within sight of an arrangement which will enable Hussein to withstand United Arab Command (UAC) pressures while still minimizing the threat to Israel. You should candidly outline all the built-in restrictions which we have devised to control the military threat to Israel posed by these sales: (a) present commitment limited to M-48 tanks; (b) no F-104 aircraft, provided that the US does not sell them to Israel either; (c) only a $42 million ground force package spaced out over two plus years; (d) a credit margin of not more than $15 million at any given time; (e) a clear understanding on Hussein's part that he must obtain outside financing and that if not there will be no further deliveries; (f) no Soviet arms in Jordan.

II. If, despite all your arguments, the Israelis insist that our Jordan proposals are totally unacceptable, you should use the following negotiating tactic. Remind them in no uncertain terms that we have made these proposals primarily because of our own deep concern over Israel's security. We have no major interests of our own in Jordan. We have been supporting it, at a cost of roughly one-half billion dollars to date, primarily as a means of preserving stability in the area; among other things, this has been of obvious advantage to Israel. It is my own judgment, buttressed by those of all of my advisers, that if we do not help King Hussein out of his dilemma, Jordan will be compelled to accept much larger quantities of Soviet arms. If this occurs, we have told King Hussein we will have to cut off all aid. The almost certain result in our judgment will be Nasserite domination of Jordan. Then Israel will be hemmed in by a hostile Arab ring, with Soviet arms on the East Bank.

I cannot quite understand why the Israeli Government should take such a totally different view from that of all my top advisers. Is Israel prepared to live with the likely result? The US can do so more easily than Israel. It is hard enough for me to get foreign aid through Congress without having also to defend aid to Nasser and aid to Hussein, which we regard as so much in Israel's interest. At least we can save money and avoid controversy in the US. But Israel must realize the likely cost to us and to it if we lose much of our influence in the Arab world. Israel should be quite clear that it is faced with an even more grave judgment of policy than is the United States. The maintenance of some effective US presence and influence in the Arab world has proved of incalculable value to the security of Israel. Should the Arab world be unified and organized on the basis of Nasserite and Soviet influence and direction, the threat to Israel security would be fundamentally worsened. Israel should not rely upon the willingness of the American people to undertake unlimited commitments under circumstances where Israel's own attitude has prevented the use of diplomacy to avoid a military confrontation between the tiny beachhead of Israel and the combined Arab-Soviet forces which could be mobilized in that part of the world. These are considerations which Israel must take into account against the background of the probable attitudes of the American people as a whole.

You should also make clear that, regardless of Israel's decision, the US cannot accept Israeli aggressive action against Jordan simply because the latter receives Soviet arms and adopts more pro-UAR policies. We opposed such pre-emptive action before, and we will be compelled to oppose it again--in accordance with the firm US policy last stated on 8 May 1963.

III. On the other hand, if we and Israel can reach a firm mutual understanding on the wisdom of the course we propose, I am prepared to have you discuss the larger Israeli political and security concerns conveyed to me by Mr. Komer.

First of all, I am well aware that however much the Israeli Government might itself be persuaded of our mutual interest in aid to Jordan, Prime Minister Eshkol would still have acute political difficulty in explaining to his electorate why US arms sales to an ostensibly hostile Arab state for an overtly anti-Israeli enterprise are actually the lesser of two evils. But he in turn must be brought to realize that I would have much the same problem here. Moreover, if we went too far in our explanations we would compromise King Hussein, thus defeating the very purpose we seek to advance.

However, I am confident that, given mutual understanding and close coordination, we can work out this political problem. What I need is to be able to say privately that the Israeli Government supports what we do, even if it cannot publicly applaud, and to have that Government back up my words. In turn Prime Minister Eshkol needs to be enabled to say that Israel's security needs can be adequately met and that Israel can face the future with confidence in the strong support of its friends.

Second, I gather that Israel's chief concern is over the possible growing threat from the continuing buildup of Soviet arms in hostile Arab hands. Our longstanding policy, which we believe to have been in Israel's interest too, has been to avoid becoming a supplier of "offensive" arms to Israel or the key Arab states. We have preferred that Israel look to its traditional Western European sources. West Germany's cancellation of its arms aid to Israel without consultation naturally was a deeply disturbing development. We still prefer that Israel seek maximum help from European sources. However, if there is a meeting of minds on other matters and if the US and Israel agree that a disproportionate arms buildup on the Arab side is developing which cannot be otherwise met, the US will make selective direct sales on favorable credit terms.

Eshkol must understand that we do not make such a major change in US policy lightly, and that I personally have grave misgivings over the potentially disastrous effects on our relations with the Arab states. Under the circumstances, we must employ the utmost delicacy in making the shift and in controlling the attendant public disclosure. We would expect to meet any Israeli needs on a quiet case-by-case basis, with minimum attendant publicity. I would require a firm pledge from GOI to collaborate fully in this respect. Nor do I regard Israel as having any immediate arms needs from us. We still see hope that West Germany may deliver the remaining 90 M-48 tanks at issue. Even if not, Israel is getting 60 M-48s and 247 Centurions from the UK. Should it become necessary, however, we will later consider replacing the 90 M-48 tanks.

Third, we recognize that Israel's concerns over any expansion of Jordan's forces relate largely to the geographic threat posed. King Hussein has assured us that he intends to keep his armor on the East Bank of the Jordan. We will ask him for a firm private undertaking to that effect, provided that Israel will promise to keep it secret.

Fourth, Israel has raised the issue of the threat posed by the Arab counter-diversion scheme and the United Arab Command buildup. You may say that we are prepared to discuss this matter fully with Israel, though our view of the dangers posed is considerably less alarmist than theirs. However, we are prepared to reiterate at an appropriate time both our policy of opposition to aggression in the Near East and our support for the Unified Plan as an equitable standard by which to judge water usage by riparian states.

IV. I regard the actions proposed by us as a major contribution to Israel's security, and wish you to emphasize how they further demonstrate the firm support which we have always given Israel. However, such far-reaching steps must meet with a commensurate Israeli response. Therefore, in return we must have certain firm undertakings from the Israeli Government. These are an integral part of any program of mutual reassurances; they must be considered as a package, and accepted as such. I do not propose to have Israel take what it likes and then argue with us about the rest.

A. As already indicated we want Israel's quiet but unmistakable support of our Jordan arms program and its help in abating opposition to our efforts to maintain some sort of a presence in the other Arab states.

B. We must have a pledge of full secrecy on all matters discussed by you and all subsequent actions taken until the US decides, in consultation with Israel, how and when to divulge them.

C. Given the strengthening of Israeli security by the actions we contemplate, we wish a firm written reiteration of Israel's intentions not to develop nuclear weapons, and that Israel certify this by accepting IAEA safeguards on all of its nuclear facilities. So long as we receive the pledge, however, I do not insist on acceptance of IAEA controls now.

D. The US cannot accept Israeli pre-emptive action against the Arab diversion works, but must instead have Israeli agreement to take this problem to the United Nations, where the US would be prepared to support the principle of the Johnston Plan.

V. Finally, I want you to emphasize that in our judgment we have only a few days left before we must either sign a sales agreement with King Hussein or see him go the UAR/Soviet route. We have stalled him past the danger point. Therefore, we cannot and will not engage in extended bargaining with Israel. It must decide now on which course it prefers. Our choice is either to sell arms to both Israel and Jordan or to sell arms to neither. We could not have been more forthcoming in our response. In turn I expect Israel to display the spirit of statesmanlike understanding of US problems in the Middle East which has often been lacking in the past, but which can now open a new, hopeful road to the future.

Lyndon B. Johnson


1 Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of Harold H. Saunders, Israel Security (Harriman/Komer Mission), Feb.-Mar. 1965. Secret. The memorandum bears no drafting information, but another copy is filed with a covering memorandum from Komer to the President, which indicates that Komer drafted the memorandum and had cleared it with Rusk and Ball. Komer added, "With an eye to history (it might get published twenty years after), they toned down some of the flavor of your approach the other night, but I have it firmly in mind for oral use." (Ibid., Country File, Israel, Vol. IV)

2 Telegram 776 to Tel Aviv, February 20, informed Barbour that the President was sending Harriman and Komer to Tel Aviv for confidential discussions and instructed him to inform Eshkol. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, POL 7 US/HARRIMAN) Notes of telephone conversations between February 20 and 23 between Ball and the President and other officials concerning plans for Harriman's trip are in the Johnson Library, Ball Papers, Israel.

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