In 1950, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion decided to support the West in the Korean War, which enabled Israel to receive more economic aid and surplus weapons. When the Soviets began to arm Egypt, the U.S. preferred that France serve as Israel’s main arms supplier.
Under the Kennedy Administration this began to change. In September 1962, the U.S. agreed to sell Israel Hawk anti-aircraft missiles in response to Egyptian efforts to develop surface-to-surface missiles.
In December 1962, Kennedy told Foreign Minister Golda Meir that the U.S. had a “special relationship" with Israel like its relationship with Britain, but he refused to formalize this link or to sell Israel offensive weapons. The Administration feared that a formal alliance would damage its relations with moderate Arab states such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and drive the Arabs into the arms of the USSR.
In June 1963, David Ben-Gurion resigned as prime minister and Eshkol replaced him. On October 3, 1963, Kennedy sent Eshkol a letter rejecting Ben-Gurion's proposal for a formal alliance. Eshkol replied on November 3 that the Egyptian threat to Israel’s crowded population centers obliged the U.S. to help Israel acquire advanced weapons at a low price.
The Johnson Administration
In his first letter to Eshkol after becoming president, President Johnson repeated Kennedy’s positions on the use of the Jordan River waters, the refugee question and the U.S. commitment to Israel, but did not mention the Dimona nuclear facility, which had been a source of friction with Kennedy. Eshkol wrote a response thanking him and expressing hope to meet the president. Eshkol was subsequently invited to visit the White House and became the first Israeli Prime Minister to make an official visit in June 1964.
Eshkol and Johnson inspect an honor guard at the White House, 1 June 1964
On June 18, Eshkol reported to the government on his visit and spoke very warmly of Johnson: “You feel as if a friend is walking with you on a dark night, and you are not afraid, and neither is he afraid.”
The two discussed bilateral relations, including the supply of U.S. tanks through West Germany and building a nuclear reactor for water desalination. Eshkol described Johnson as “full of good will and concern” for Israel’s security. Johnson agreed to allow Israel to buy American tanks through Germany but refused the request for aircraft.
Germany did not have diplomatic relations with Israel but gave Israel economic aid under the Reparations Agreement of 1952. The revelation in 1965 that West Germany was selling U.S. tanks to Israel prompted Egypt to invite East German leader Walter Ulbricht to Cairo. This alarmed the West Germans who subsequently decided to stop selling arms to “areas of tension,” including Israel, and canceled the sale of tanks. Israel did achieve a breakthrough, however, when both countries agreed to establish full diplomatic relations.
The uproar over the tank agreement prompted two American delegations to visit Israel to discuss security relations. The first, headed by Robert Komer, arrived on February12, 1965. Komer sent a memorandum to the president discussing how to balance Israel’s demands for arms with Jordanian demands, and how to prevent a violent reaction by Nasser. Komer’s instructions, delivered on February 10, were “to explain to the Government of Israel in full and friendly candor the reasons why we believe that limited and carefully spaced out U.S. arms sales to Jordan are far better than the alternative of uncontrollable Soviet or UAR supply.”
Nothing was decided during the February 12 meeting and a higher-ranking delegation arrived on February 24 headed by Averell Harriman, the ex-Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, now a roving ambassador. Their aim was to formalize the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security. In return Israel would agree not to oppose arms sales to Jordan and an understanding would be reached on the nuclear issue.
On February 28, Golda Meir told the government that a historic change had taken place: for the first time the U.S. had agreed to become Israel’s main arms supplier. However, other accounts describe disagreements and, on March 1, the talks were on the verge of failure. The Americans emphasized the urgency of their answer to Jordan and their fear of its defection to the Soviet-Egyptian camp. If there was no agreement they would abandon Hussein, but Israel would not receive arms either.
The U.S. opposed the introduction of bomber aircraft into the Middle East. On March 6, Komer wrote to National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy that only a deal including bombers and tanks would persuade Israel to agree to arms for Jordan. Washington decided to leave the difficult issues of the Jordan waters and the nuclear reactor for a later date, and to settle with Israel. According to Mordecai Gazit, the Israeli minister in Washington, this was Johnson’s decision, and he had approved all the moves in the negotiations.
On March 10, a day after the signing of a secret draft agreement with Germany, Israel and the U.S. signed the MOU. It included a commitment by the U.S. to Israel’s security and Israel’s commitment not to be the first state to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. The U.S. announced its intention to sell tanks to Jordan and King Hussein’s promise to deploy them on the east bank of the Jordan River. The U.S. would sell tanks and fighter planes to Israel on favorable terms. According to a report by Harriman he was pleased with the results of the talks but warned that the water issue was likely to lead to a clash. He recommended the president not to agree to Eshkol’s request to move the U.S/ embassy to Jerusalem. Afterward, Eshkol and Johnson exchanged letters.
As a result of the MOU, Israel obtained modern weapons, especially tanks, which made possible its victory in 1967. It also received Skyhawk planes, which arrived later but played an important part in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.