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Lyndon Johnson Administration: Memorandum on Israeli Arms Needs

(March 5, 1964)

Memorandum for Record/1/

Washington, March 5, 1964.

Israeli Arms Needs

H.E. Abba Eban, Deputy Prime Minister of Israel
H.E. Avraham Harman, Israeli Ambassador
McGeorge Bundy, Special Assistant to the President
R.W. Komer

In a most relaxed, low-key discussion Messrs. Eban and Bundy exchanged thoughts on Israel's need to redress the imbalance between Israeli and Arab armor, and the pros and cons of further escalation of the arms race. Eban said that he was not here primarily on security business; nevertheless he hoped to contribute to narrowing any points of difference between us before the Eshkol visit, as the President had suggested in his letter to Eshkol. The latter was of course looking forward very much to the visit.

Eban did not dwell on the tank problem, commenting that we seemed to be in agreement on the need. It was the Arabs who invariably started the parade by acquiring new weapons systems, and Israel which generally followed. He cited jets and submarines as cases in point. Moreover, Israel had seen in the Hawk sale US acceptance of the principle that we would not allow an arms imbalance to develop.

Eban did stress, however, the importance of not linking the tank and missile questions. These were two quite different matters. If Mr. Eshkol could be given favorable word on tanks when he came, this would create the right atmosphere for further productive discussions on other matters. He and Harman both urged that we not attempt to deal simultaneously with an immediate and clear-cut question such as tanks, and a murky issue which was not immediate and on which the PM had explained to Mr. Rowen the Israeli views.

As to missiles, Eban acknowledged the gap between Israeli and US estimates. But he emphasized that despite the limited military value of UAR missiles they presented a real psychological hazard, especially to a small, beleaguered nation like Israel. In response to Bundy's query, he said that the purpose of Israeli missiles would be deterrence via threat of retaliation against Cairo. Israel needed a psychological counter which would both bolster popular morale and deter Nasser from thinking he could disrupt Israel with a bomber and missile attack while the US was making up its mind.

Bundy rehearsed the arguments as to why we saw potentially great costs and risks to Israel's moving ahead in this field. The UAR missiles of today seemed to be more for parades than a serious military weapon, though we saw force in the argument that Nasser might over-estimate his own strength. Quite candidly, however, what greatly concerned us were the implications of Israel, with an acknowledged nuclear potential, moving to acquire a delivery system which made real sense only with nuclear warheads. Whether or not Israel had any such intention, the Arabs could hardly be expected not to draw this conclusion. What they might do then was deeply disturbing. By now Israel should be fully reassured as to the firmness of US support; the one thing that might upset this increasingly close relationship would be US belief that Israel was moving in the direction of a nuclear deterrent. Yet Israel's lack of candor in explaining its missile program generated suspicions which should be laid to rest.

The most significant aspect of the discussion centered around the relationship of tanks and missiles. Bundy explained that we were not trying to link the two questions in any attempt at oriental bargaining. What we were trying to say was that we were deeply concerned over both these aspects of Israel's security problem--precisely because both aspects could also deeply involve us. We felt a bit as though Israel was not confiding in us about its missile intentions because it feared our reaction; this in turn made us suspicious that Israel simply wanted to postpone the matter until after the tanks were settled, and then tell us that it proposed to go ahead on a course which could have a deeply unsettling effect on our relationship. The US should not say "it won't do A without B", nor Israel say "we won't talk about B unless you do A." All we could ask was a rational approach; they should not insist we separate the two issues or have no discussion, and we shouldn't insist we link them or have no discussion. We should go ahead on both problems as a mark of mutual confidence. He couldn't exaggerate the importance of coming to a harmonious view on these issues.

Harman and Eban both saw tanks as the "test" of our commitment in Israeli eyes. If the US were unwilling to help meet an agreed need, it would powerfully reinforce the views of those skeptics who felt that Israel could not rely on the US commitment. Eban had again been impressed on this visit, as by past experience here and the Kennedy and Johnson letters, with the extent to which Washington stood firmly behind its words. But we had to reckon with the psychological problem--the fact that our assurances were so private and informal lessened their credibility. Moreover, Israelis closely followed such situations as Cyprus, Vietnam, Malaysia; when they saw the inhibitions on the use of US power, though everyone knew the US had an abundance of power, this raised doubts. Others feared that our tendency to push the UN to the fore in a crisis might lead us down this road at a time when Israel's critical need dictated a quick response.

Bundy made clear that we fully understood these concerns; we could well realize how a beleaguered Israel might worry over the US response. As one of the custodians of nuclear power (which some of us had grown increasingly to wish we hadn't brought into the world), we were very cautious about the responsible use of such power. This of course was one reason why we were so opposed to nuclear proliferation, and felt that steps by Israel which might seem to be creating a new nuclear dimension in the Middle East could so affect US policy as to force us to rethink it. In short, the way to make certain our commitment was unreliable might be to act as if one couldn't rely on it.

Eban raised another question as to how to give credibility to our assurances that we could come quickly to Israel's aid if necessary. When General Rabin, the new Israeli C/S, had been here, he was "impressed as a citizen" but concerned as a soldier with the vagueness of US protestations that we could come quickly and effectively to Israel's support. To military men precision was essential. He realized the problems "joint planning" might give us, but hoped something could be done to facilitate clear, operational understandings. Bundy felt that "joint planning" didn't prove very much. Our military were understandably reluctant to get pinned down to plans that rarely fitted the real case when it arose, yet robbed us of flexibility and often generated argument and mistrust.

The problem of possible arms limitations was also discussed, with neither Bundy nor Eban very optimistic over this route. Eban stressed Eshkol's deep desire to find some way to forestall the constant piling up of arms which cancelled each other out. This was a terrible waste, aside from the grave risks. Perhaps something might emerge from the Geneva talks. Did we see much chance of convincing the Arabs that some sort of a standstill would be mutually advantageous? Eshkol might want to raise this question when here.

Bundy guardedly indicated that we didn't see many signs to date of Arab interest, but all of us were undergoing a process of education along these lines, witness the US and USSR. If we felt that we had something to go on from the Israeli side, it would certainly enhance our desire to keep trying. Here Eshkol's refusal to let us reassure Nasser that Israel wasn't going nuclear tended to tie our hands. If the Arabs, already worried about Israel's nuclear capacity, were to see missiles (which were not much use without nuclear warheads) added to the arsenal, this might create quite a problem.

At Eban's request Bundy gave some background on our Vietnam policy. There was also a brief allusion to Cyprus, Libya, and the repeated Arab statements of hostility toward Israel. All agreed that such words were generally a substitute for action, but they did serve to keep the pot boiling.

RWK [Robert Komer of the National Security staff]


/1/Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. I. Secret. Copies were sent to Rusk, Harriman, Bundy, Jernegan, Department of Defense General Counsel John T. McNaughton, and Myer Feldman at the White House.


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