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Lyndon Johnson Administration: Letter to Israeli PM Eshkol Discouraging Retaliation for Terror

(March 21, 1968)

President Johnson wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in an effort to forestall Israeli retaliation for terrorist attacks launched from Jordan.

Dear Mr. Prime Minister:

I want personally to emphasize the importance I attach to the messages Under Secretary Katzenbach and Ambassador Barbour have today delivered to you and your representatives. We deplore as much as you do the recent terrorist actions against Israeli lives and property. I am firmly convinced, however, that a military reprisal against Jordan would be a major miscalculation. Such action would have destructive consequences for our common hopes for peace and for the future of Our own as well as your position in the Near East.

In the interest of both our countries, I strongly urge that no action of this kind be taken.1

I am making a strong approach at this time to King Hussein for a maximum effort to bring terrorism to a halt.

Sincerely, Lyndon B. Johnson

1President Johnson's message arrived in Tel Aviv 3 hours after Israel launched early morning military operations against Jordan on March 21. Units of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) moved across the Damiya and Allenby bridges at 5:30 a.m. to attack terrorist bases in the Karameh area north of the Dead Sea and the Safi area south of the Dead Sea. IDF aircraft supported the actions of the ground forces. Ambassador Barbour delivered the President's message even though military operations had begun in order to reinforce U.S. opposition to Israeli military reprisals. (Telegram 2983 from Tel Aviv, March 21. ibid) Prime Minister Eshkol telephoned Barbour later in the day to say that although the President's message had come after operations against Jordan had begun, he had responded to it by doing everything he could to localize and limit the operations and to ensure that civilians were not harmed. He justified the operations as a necessary reaction to terrorism and expressed the hope that they would help to stabilize the situation. Barbour reiterated the U.S. view that military retaliation to terrorism only exacerbated the problem. (Telegram 2991 from Tel Aviv, March 21; ibid.)

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