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Lyndon Johnson Administration: Telegram Urging President Johnson To Hold Up Arms If Israel Attacks Jordan

(November 20, 1966)

This telegram discusses ways to prevent Israel from reattacking Jordan or any other of its neighbors. Here, the special assistant urges the President to send a strong message to the Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol stating that the United States will stop supplying arms to Israel if they attack Jordan or any of their neighbors in a similar manner again.

CAP 661007. The Israel-Jordan border situation remains explosive. Last Sunday's raid weakened King Hussein's ability to control terrorists operating into Israel from Jordan because he no longer has full cooperation of the army, which Israel badly mauled./2/ Another Israeli strike in retaliation for new incidents that could happen would force Hussein to counter attack.

/2/Telegram 1173 from Amman, November 19, reported that Prime Minister Tell told Burns that day that Jordan urgently needed U.S. help to prevent further deterioration of the situation in Jordan, including a strong Security Council resolution condemning Israel, delivery of certain defensive weapons to Jordan, beginning as soon as possible, and U.S. suspension of delivery of military items to Israel. (Department of State, Central Files, DEF 19-8 US-JORDAN) Telegram 1176 from Amman, November 19, reported that in a meeting with Burns that evening, King Hussein underscored the importance of the requests. (Ibid.)

I. Our first job, therefore, is to keep Israel from attacking again. Secretary Rusk recommends a tough message to Eshkol which says we would have to reassess our last year's decision to supply military equipment if Israel attacks again. Since we have already sent a number of tough signals, he hesitates to recommend unqualifiedly that you send this message and volunteers to deliver it himself via Harman if you prefer. (The last paragraph is our suggestion to which working levels at state are agreeable. There has been no time to get it to Secretary Rusk.)

I recommend you send it yourself for Ambassador Barbour to pass orally to Eshkol for three reasons:

1. Sunday's attack badly damaged our ability to go on stabilizing Israel's Jordanian border. Ambassador Harman now understands this, but we're not sure Israeli leaders in Jerusalem do. Asking Barbour to deliver it there will have greater impact. The Israelis have gravely damaged the unspoken truce we've helped them build with Hussein--including possibly the agreement in return for our plane and tank sale not to station Jordanian armor on the West Bank of the Jordan near Israel. They've upset your delicate and successful balancing act in selling jets to Jordan to keep the Soviets out. He is now reported to be receiving Soviet equipment offers and is making requests to us for substantial additional equipment. The Israelis must be made to realize that if they retaliate again, in response to anything short of a major attack, our ability to stabilize the area may be crippled.

2. Bringing home to them that they've undercut your policies will strengthen your hand for whatever we may have to ask Israel to do later to re-stabilize the situation.

3. We also want to use this opening to jolt Israeli leaders into realizing that they can't go on looking to us for protection over the long haul unless they make some effort of their own to coexist with their neighbors. In view of your stance that reconciliation not aggression is the way to solve problems, we can't miss this opportunity to challenge a policy that is leading us all up a dead-end street in the Middle East. Many of Israel's new leaders doubt that the old retaliation policy of Ben Gurion is wise and believe Israel can only survive by working toward accommodation with the Arabs. Their bad mistake last weekend will sharpen debate over this issue. This message from you laid before Eshkol personally would bring them up short and may help the moderates turn the corner.

II. Our second job is to put Hussein back on his feet. His regime has been severely shaken and he has asked us for substantial additional amounts of military equipment. He wants some of it to be airlifted for dramatic impact to undercut critics who charge that he is incompetent to defend Jordan. We do not want to feed his belief that his only response is to build a defense establishment he cannot afford, but we will have to try to meet his problem of demonstrating to his people that he's doing all he can.

One way to do this is to speed up a few items in the military aid pipeline. We don't like this, but the alternative again is to stand by and watch the Egyptians and Soviets happily pour the stuff in. The sensible long-term approach is to send a mission or possibly missions to work out effective ways to seal off the Israel-Jordan border. That's the real problem, and the sooner we divert his attention to that, the better. I suggested the idea to Secretaries Rusk and McNamara. They are exploring possibilities along these lines.

If we speed up Jordan's pipeline, we will have to tell Israel why and ask them to restrain critics here. We would also have to offer similar border-control help to Israel because, in all fairness, they can only give up retaliation if they find some other way to deal with Arab terrorists.

We will push staff work on this today and be back to you quickly with a concrete response to Hussein. But the most immediate need is to restrain Israel and lay a strong bargaining base for whatever long-range scheme we can work out.

I also think it would be a good idea for me to spell out our thinking to Feinberg as soon as we have ourselves lined up. We may have to look like we're making some anti-Israeli gestures before we're done, and a little pre-emptive briefing might help.

Approve message for direct transmission to Eshkol via Barbour
Ask Secretary Rusk to deliver it/3/
Keep last paragraph
Delete last paragraph
Talk with Feinberg/4/
Not now

/3/The President added the following handwritten note: "this message as his own to Harman & you inform Feinberg of contents & ask him to notify his friends of urgency. Another message may be necessary later." An attached note states that the President's wishes were relayed to Rostow by telephone from the LBJ Ranch at 8 a.m. on November 21. The message reads: "Rostow: Ask Secy Rusk to deliver this message as his own to Harman and you inform Feinberg of contents and ask him to notify his friends of the urgency. Tell Rostow it may be necessary for me to send another message later, so I will let Rusk deliver the first one."

/4/The President checked this option.

Suggested Message to Prime Minister Eshkol

"You are aware of our concern at the events of November 13 and their impact on the stability of the regime in Jordan. I am sympathetically aware of the painful dilemma posed by your need both to protect Israel's citizens and to promote peace with your neighbors. Just two weeks ago we made our position on terror incidents mounted from across your border clear beyond question in the Security Council hearings on your complaint against Syria. But while recognizing your problem, I must recognize also that the fact of the raid on Jordan and its magnitude have raised threats to United States interests and, I believe, to those of Israel.

Sunday's raid has set in motion developments in Jordan the outcome of which at this juncture we cannot fully assess. But the position of King Hussein's government and United States interests have been gravely affected. Another such action, no matter what the cause, could bring on irreparable damage. The implications of such action for Israel's security and for area stability would therefore be serious indeed.

Continued application of the policy of military retaliation by Israel raises concern here as to the supply of some categories of United States military equipment to Israel. You will recall that it was only after exhaustive consideration of the military situation in the Middle East that we agreed last year to an exception to our long-standing policy on arms sales. This decision was not easily arrived at. It was taken in the belief that it would contribute to stability in the area. In full candor, I must make certain you are aware that further punitive forays by Israel across armistice lines in the Near East could bring a reassessment of the premises on which our decisions regarding military supply to Israel were based.

These are troubled times, Mr. Prime Minister, when peace is fragile and stability more necessary than ever. Just as there have been events that disturb the peace, there may be in the future more such events. In these circumstances it is the hardest and highest task of government to hold fast to course of moderation and reason. It is because I know you share with me these views that I know I can count on you not only to recognize the peril but also to have the determination to avoid it.

Beyond this present situation, there is also the need to look toward Israel's eventual coexistence with its neighbors. I well know from my own country's experience along its long borders how difficult--but also how essential--this is. It has also been part of our experience that out of a crucible such as the present crisis can come small but sound steps toward a more stable and secure future."

Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Special Head of State Correspondence File, Israel. Secret. `


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