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Lyndon Johnson Administration: Telegram Expressing Israeli PM Eshkol's Reservations about Arms for Jordan

(February 16, 1965)

In the fragile Middle East arms balance, Israel is upset because Germany stopped supplying Israel with arms and the United States, Israel's strongest ally, is now arming Israel's neighbor Jordan, with whom the Israelis share a long a vulnerable border.

Memorandum From Robert W. Komer of the National Security Council Staff to President Johnson1

Washington, February 16, 1965.

Mission to Israel. As your emissary, I explained why we would probably have to sell certain arms to Jordan and asked for Israeli understanding--it being as much in Israel's interest as our own. I did not allude to what we might offer Israel as an offset, but the Israelis very quickly raised this issue with me. It is clearly the core of the problem.

In three very cordial meetings with Eshkol and his key people I believe I got across why arms sales to Jordan were the least bad of the highly unpalatable choices with which we were both confronted. By probing for their ideas as to any other way out, I satisfied myself that they too see no better solution, much as they dislike ours. They trust Hussein's motives less than we, and regard us as probably not having exerted enough pressure.

Moreover, two specific aspects of our Jordan arms position greatly bother Israel. First is the geographic fact that the bulge of Arab Palestine on the West Bank of the Jordan almost cuts Israel in two. While Hussein up to this point has garrisoned it only thinly, Israelis fear that the United Arab Command (UAC) (and his own added confidence) might lead him to put substantial forces on the West Bank. This would require Israel to redeploy a substantial part of the forces it now has in the north and south against the main Arab threats. Second, Eshkol asks how he (especially as a politician running for re-election in November) can explain that he agrees the US should arm an Arab member of a new unified command aimed at Israel--and at a time when Germany has just reneged on arms.

So the Israeli position is that they simply cannot go along with US arms sales to Jordan, much less quietly support them, unless certain other measures are taken to enhance their security position--which they regard as sharply deteriorating in recent months. To understand their violent initial reaction (though they've calmed down some now), one must see it in this larger context. Our proposed sale (which they took as a fait accompli) came as an added shock right on the heels of Bonn's cancellation of arms aid. This had a double adverse psychological impact because it not only meant the loss of one of their three major sources of arms supply (France and the UK are left) but was a clear victory for Nasser. Then, just as they were losing a source of tanks, we told them we planned to provide some to their enemies.

These two shocks also occurred at a time of rising Israeli concern over the unexpected vitality being shown by the Arab counter-diversion scheme and by the Unified Arab Command (they made a great point of taking me right up to the border to see the Syrians digging canals in plain sight). Israel clearly anticipates a developing crisis over the Jordan Waters (and is worrying over where we stand). Finally, the embattled Israelis regarded our Hill fight to continue aid to Nasser as a capitulation after he thumbed his nose at us, burned our library and shot down our plane. All the above will give you the current frustrated mood in Israel. With all due allowance for Israeli emotionalism and shrewd bargaining tactics, it is a reality with which we must deal.

Indeed, Eshkol and the others kept coming back to the larger argument that continued Soviet arms aid to the Arabs, combined now with a surprisingly coordinated Arab approach, was creating a new order of threat to Israel. This, together with the partial drying up of Israel's European arms sources, made the US policy of avoiding direct arms supply out of date. If the US was as firmly committed to Israel's security as we kept saying, and if our policy was to maintain a deterrent balance to forestall another Arab-Israeli war, we must become direct arms suppliers to Israel. Only this way could we deprive Nasser of his psychological victory over Bonn in the short run, and convince the Arabs that they could not overpower Israel in the long run.

Eshkol also made a strong plea for early public US support on the Jordan Water issue, as a means both of reassuring the Israeli electorate and deterring the Arabs from continuing their diversion scheme. He gave me a letter (Tab A),2 asking you to receive his Foreign Minister Golda Meir in early March to put this case personally to you after we'd had time to digest my report.

Conclusions. Israel's worries over its deteriorating security position, and its resultant mood of frustration are likely to grow, since the prospect is one of rising Arab Israeli tension over the Jordan Waters issue.

1. Therefore, unless the Arab diversion scheme loses momentum or the German action is reversed, there will be increasing Israeli pressure on us for help, regardless of what we do about Jordan arms.

2. While Israel now more fully understands the rationale for US arms for Jordan, and Eshkol and Eban at least probably see it as the least bad way out of a painful dilemma, Israel will be compelled to oppose such sales in the absence of compensatory actions tending to reduce their adverse impact. Eshkol put me on notice that he would be compelled to denounce them, especially in an election year.

3. Moreover, such US action would (a) dangerously increase already noticeable pre-emptive tendencies, aimed at warning off the Arabs from their counter-diversion schemes by overt action; and (b) increase Israel's tendency to go nuclear, as the best means of offsetting the decline in its conventional deterrent posture.

4. Because Israel's leaders recognize that controlled US arms sales to Jordan are probably necessary, however, they would prefer to find some way of justifying them by being able to point to other US actions favoring Israel. Their first requirement is US acceptance of principle of direct arms supply. Second, they want US agreement to supply the 90 tanks Bonn cancelled. Third, they want some arrangement which would insure that Hussein keeps his new armor on the East Bank. Fourth, they want public US support of Israel's position on the Jordan Waters and a reiteration of our pledges to resist aggression.

5. The Israelis were somewhat reassured that we intend carefully to control and space out any Jordan arms sales, especially that we contemplate selling only 100 M-48 tanks. To the extent that we enrich the Jordan arms package we will have to enrich what we do for them.

Recommendations. I believe that we can get at least quiet Israeli support of US arms sales if we do at least the following:

1. Keep the Jordan arms package at the present level, i.e. no M-48A3 tanks and no US aircraft. If we have to tell Hussein we'll consider these later, let's face up to this problem when we come to it.

2. Tell the Israelis privately that we will consider direct arms sales if, as, and when we jointly agree they're required, if they in turn will give certain undertakings to us.

3. Be prepared to sell 90 M-48A1 tanks, and to say so publicly, if the Germans finally cancel.

4. Agree in principle to appropriate public statements on Jordan Waters diversion and our opposition to aggression, if we can reach a meeting of minds on Israeli restraint and get them not to insist on the letter of the Johnston Plan.

In sum, we can make a deal with the Israelis by doing certain things that we would probably have to do sooner or later anyway if Arab-Israeli tensions heat up.

R.W. Komer3


1 Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. III. Secret.

2 Eshkol's letter to Johnson, dated February 14, is attached but not printed.

3 McGeorge Bundy initialed below Komer's signature and added a handwritten note: "This seems to me almost right. It may be that we'll need to give Hussein 50 cents more than Bob says--but he's very near the target on what Eshkol needs. McG.B." He also added a postscript praising the President's recent speech to Congress.

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