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Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume XX, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1967–68


Volume Summary

(This is not an official statement of policy by the Department of State; it is intended only as a guide to the contents of this volume.)

Since 1861, the Department of State's documentary series Foreign Relations of the United States has constituted the official record of the foreign policy and diplomacy of the United States. Historians in the Office of the Historian collect, arrange, and annotate the principal documents that make up the record of American foreign policy. The standards for the preparation of the series and the general deadlines for its publication are established by the Foreign Relations of the United States statute of October 28, 1991 (22 USC 4351, et seq.). Volumes in the Foreign Relations series are published when all the necessary editing, declassification, and printing steps have been completed.

The documents in this volume are drawn from the centralized indexed files of the Department of State and the decentralized Bureau, Office, and other lot files of the relevant Departmental units. The editors also make extensive use of Presidential and other papers at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, as well as recordings of President Johnson's telephone conversations. In addition, the volume includes records of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Almost all of the documents printed here were originally classified. The Information Response Branch of the Office of IRM Programs and Services, Bureau of Administration, Department of State, in concert with the appropriate offices in other agencies or governments, carried out the declassification of the selected documents.

This volume is one of three Foreign Relations volumes on the Arab-Israeli dispute during the Lyndon Johnson administration; the other two are Volume XVIII, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1964-1967, which was published in April, and Volume XIX, Six-Day War, which is scheduled for release in 2002. Volume XXI, Near East Region; Arabian Peninsula, and Volume XXII, Iran, were published in 2000 and 1999, respectively.

The following is a summary of the important issues covered in the volume. Parenthetical citations are to numbered documents in the text.

Overview

Problems in the Middle East intruded upon President Lyndon Johnson's heavy preoccupation with the war in Vietnam during the final years of his administration. While the Johnson administration struggled to find a solution in Vietnam, it was compelled to try to deal with the aftermath of the war that had broken out in the Middle East in June 1967. The search for peace in the Middle East proved to be as elusive as the quest for peace in Southeast Asia.

U.S. policy objectives in the Middle East were to participate in efforts to salvage an enduring peace from the war, limit the flow of arms to the area, and discourage Israel from adding the significant new element of nuclear arms into the mix. By the time President Johnson briefed his successor on foreign policy developments in November 1968 (315), the record of U.S. policy in the Middle East following the 1967 war consisted of a series of unrealized objectives, which left the new administration with discouraging prospects.

The United Nations mediation effort launched in November 1967 with strong U.S. support had achieved nothing, despite the sustained efforts of UN Special Representative Gunnar Jarring. Behind the scenes negotiations between Israel and Jordan, also fostered by the United States, had proven sterile. The U.S. determination to sharply limit the flow of U.S. weapons to potential combatants had crumbled. Israel and Jordan rearmed their forces with U.S. weaponry, as the United States emerged as the primary source of military supplies for Israel. U.S. influence in the area waned as the Arab states linked it to Israel. The Soviet Union took advantage of the situation to champion the Arab cause. The threat of renewed warfare hung over the area as terrorists tested Israeli resolve, and Israel and the United Arab Republic engaged in what became a war of attrition. Despite an international effort to foster the cause of peace, the Middle East was unsettled and dangerous as Lyndon Johnson prepared to hand over the reins of power to Richard Nixon at the end of 1968.

Resolution 242 and the Jarring Mission

The effort to build an enduring peace settlement after the June 1967 war was launched with guarded optimism on November 22, 1967, when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 242. Intense diplomatic efforts had produced Resolution 242, which was accepted by all of the combatants except Syria as a framework for a settlement to the Arab-Israeli dispute. It called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Arab territories occupied during the June war in return for an end to belligerency and acknowledgment of Israel's sovereignty. The resolution also provided for a special representative to be appointed to facilitate negotiations on a peace settlement. On November 23 UN Secretary-General U Thant appointed Gunnar Jarring, the Swedish Ambassador to the Soviet Union, as the Special Representative, and Jarring set about the task of searching for sufficient common ground on which to build an enduring peace. His efforts served to highlight the mutual suspicion and animosity that would have to be bridged before peace could be established in the Middle East. (Documentation on the background of Resolution 242 is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1964-1968, Volume XIX.)

The Jarring mission stumbled immediately over varying interpretations of Resolution 242. The Arab governments viewed the resolution as self-implementing, and called upon Israel to withdraw from all conquered Arab territory as a preliminary to a general understanding to establish peace. (87, 113) The Arabs were not, however, prepared for direct negotiations with Israel. In August 1967 the defeated Arab states had met in Khartoum to coordinate strategy. They adopted a joint policy of “no peace with Israel, no recognition of it, and no negotiation with it.” The three “no's" of the Khartoum summit effectively established the parameters of the Arab bargaining position with respect to a settlement with Israel and reinforced Israeli skepticism that the Arabs would be prepared to consider a peace settlement that Israel could accept.

Despite skepticism about Arab intentions, Israel looked upon the outcome of the war as offering the first good opportunity for peace. The Israeli Government was prepared to trade at least most occupied Arab territory for peace, but there were limits on what it was prepared to negotiate with the Arabs. Israel did not want to try to absorb a large hostile Arab population, but insisted upon some restructuring of the pre-war borders in the interest of security. (39, 103) The strategic Golan Heights captured from Syria was one area that the Israelis felt should be incorporated into Israel in the interest of security. On most issues, the Israelis were prepared to negotiate, but, unlike the Arabs, they envisioned direct negotiations leading to bilateral peace treaties. The only issue the Israelis did not view as open to compromise was the city of Jerusalem. They were not prepared to consider any proposal that called for a reversion of east Jerusalem to Arab control. (88, 97) The Arabs, for whom Jerusalem was also a sacred city, were equally adamant that restoration of Arab control over east Jerusalem had to form a part of any settlement. (67) The Jerusalem issue was one measure of how difficult it would be to promote an agreed settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

The Johnson administration, fully aware of the animosities and rigid views that defined the realm of the possible in the search for a peace settlement, did what it could to promote flexibility and compromise. (41, 90) Administration policy was to support the Jarring mission, however dim its prospects for success. All diplomatic posts in the area were instructed to facilitate Jarring's efforts (10), and the State Department sent a steady stream of appeals to Israel and the Arab capitals urging cooperation with Jarring. (63, 79, 102, 103, 178) On February 13, 1968, Secretary of State Dean Rusk sent a message to Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban calling upon Israel to endorse openly Resolution 242, and on May 13 President Johnson sent a letter to United Arab Republic (UAR) President Gamal Abdel Nasser, urging him to seize the unique opportunity offered by the Jarring mission to achieve peace. (79, 171) These and other high-level initiatives, which increased in urgency as policymakers in Washington became concerned that the Jarring mission might collapse, did not seem to change unbending attitudes in the Middle East.

When Prime Minister Levi Eshkol visited President Johnson at the Johnson Ranch in Texas January 7-8, 1968, Johnson attempted in vain to persuade Eshkol that Israel was operating from a position of strength in dealing with the Arabs and could afford to be flexible and magnanimous. Eshkol saw a ring of hostile enemies surrounding Israel, dedicated to its destruction, and felt he could only rely upon superior military strength and explicit bilateral treaty arrangements with the Arab states to underwrite Israel's security. (39-41) In July President Johnson sent George Ball, who had recently been appointed as Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and Joseph Sisco, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, to the Middle East to try to breathe life into the UN mediation effort. Between July 14 and July 20, Ball and Sisco visited Jerusalem, Amman, Beirut, and Jidda, and tried, unsuccessfully, to arrange a meeting in Beirut with UAR Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riad. Ball and Sisco stressed the importance of the Jarring mission, and argued that reasonableness and a will to achieve peace could yield a settlement. Ball urged the Israeli Government to make a public statement indicating that it was not interested in acquiring Arab territory, and warned of the danger that Israel would become isolated if it was viewed by world opinion as expansionist and aggressive. (213, 214) Ball also urged the Arabs to be flexible in responding to Jarring's efforts. (218-220) Ball told the Israelis that their insistence upon direct negotiations was self-defeating, and he told King Hussein of Jordan that no secure peace could be arranged unless the Arab states were prepared at some point for direct negotiations leading to contractual arrangements. (218) The Ball-Sisco mission, like other U.S. efforts to promote compromise and support Jarring, accomplished little, and by mid-1968 the Johnson administration was looking for more promising avenues to peace.

The Search for Other Peace Prospects: The United Arab Republic and Jordan

President Nasser was the leader of popular Arab opinion, and the United Arab Republic was Israel's most formidable opponent. The surest road to peace would have been an understanding between Israel and the United Arab Republic. There was little evidence, however, that Nasser was interested in peace except on his own terms, and, even assuming that he was interested in a settlement with Israel, his position was sufficiently weakened by the outcome of the war that domestic opinion further circumscribed what he could do. The Israelis concluded that there was little prospect of a reasonable settlement with Nasser. (256) U.S. officials were not sanguine about promoting an understanding between Israel and the United Arab Republic, but they saw some possibility for increased influence in Cairo in the feelers that Nasser put out concerning the restoration of relations between the United States and the United Arab Republic.

Like other Arab states, the United Arab Republic had broken relations with the United States during the 1967 war. Nasser had publicly accused the United States of participating in Israel's air attack upon Egypt on June 5. Nasser remained deeply suspicious of U.S. objectives in the Middle East after the war, and viewed the United States as firmly linked to Israel. By December 1967, however, Nasser was apparently becoming concerned about the Soviet embrace. He had welcomed the offer from the Soviet Union to replace his country's heavy losses of military equipment during the war, but along with the Soviet weapons had come Soviet advisers and Soviet requests for military facilities in Egypt. In December 1967 Nasser hinted that he would like to reestablish relations with the United States as a counterbalance to Soviet influence in Cairo. Using a variety of unofficial intermediaries, such as New York lawyer James Birdsall and former World Bank President Eugene Black, Nasser repeatedly sent the message to Washington that he would favor the restoration of relations. (12-14, 21, 74) Nasser wanted the United States to make it easier for him to justify restored relations by some gesture that could be viewed as pro-Arab, such as a statement calling upon Israel to withdraw from all occupied Arab territory. (34, 161, 343) The Johnson administration, however, felt that Nasser would have to set the record straight about what it considered as the “big lie" concerning U.S. involvement in the June war before relations could be restored. (31, 34) Nasser addressed the issue somewhat equivocally in an article published in Look magazine on March 19, but neither the United States nor the United Arab Republic met each other's requirements sufficiently to smooth the way to the restoration of relations.

A much more promising opening for a settlement between Israel and one of its Arab opponents developed through secret conversations between senior Israeli and Jordanian officials. There was a brief attempt at such talks following the 1967 war, but it was short-lived. On March 12, 1968, Ambassador Harrison Symmes cabled from Amman his judgment that the Jarring mission was making little progress in promoting a settlement. He recommended that the United States stimulate a return to direct negotiations between Israel and Jordan. (109) Israel had a strong interest in such talks, but for King Hussein there were risks involved in seeking an accommodation with Israel. The murder in 1953 of Hussein's grandfather King Abdullah was a graphic example of the risks involved. Hussein, however, was confronted with the Israeli occupation of half his country, and he opened secret conversations with the Israelis in London in May. (187) President Johnson's Special Assistant, Walt Rostow, described these talks on September 30 as “the best hope" for peace. (267) Exchanges between senior Israeli and Jordanian officials continued into November, and the Israelis reached the point of making a proposal for an agreement based upon a territorial settlement on the West Bank. The Israeli proposal adhered generally to a plan developed by Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon, which posited Israeli military control over the West Bank, while returning political control of some two-thirds of a demilitarized West Bank to Jordan. From this seemingly promising point in the talks, King Hussein grew increasingly skeptical that Israel would offer peace terms that he could accept, and he eventually broke off the talks. (186) At year's end, Hussein indicated that the negotiating channel was still open, but that he saw little hope of progress unless the Israelis became more forthcoming in what they were prepared to offer. (373)

Concern To Prevent an Arms Race

While the Johnson administration was attempting to promote a peace settlement, it was also trying in other ways to reduce tensions in the area, which were resulting in an arms race. The United States had cut off the flow of U.S. arms to the Middle East during the 1967 war, but despite its postwar decision to honor a 1966 contract with Israel for 48 A-4 Skyhawk fighters, the United States at the end of 1967 was desirous of preventing a fresh infusion of weapons into the area. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, was pouring a steady stream of Soviet weapons into the region to offset Arab losses during the war. The Israeli Government worried that the end result of the Israeli victory might be Arab military preponderance unless the United States increased the flow of weapons to Israel. Jordan made an even more pressing request for the resumption of U.S. military supplies at the end of 1967.

Jordan had suffered heavy losses during the fighting with Israel. Jordan's traditional sources of military supplies had been from the West, primarily the United States and the United Kingdom. With the U.S. embargo still in effect at the end of 1967, King Hussein found himself under heavy domestic pressure to make good the losses in weaponry suffered during the war. Jordan's army faced Israel's across the longest line of confrontation engendered by the Arab-Israeli dispute, and the army became increasingly restive as it tried to meet its responsibilities without the necessary weapons. The Soviet Union offered to meet all of Jordan's military needs on generous terms, and in December proposed to send a high-level military mission to Amman to assess Jordan's needs. (9) On December 30, 1967, King Hussein sent an oral message to President Johnson stating that while he remained a friend of the West and had no desire to buy arms from the Soviet Union, he had to have a commitment that the United States would meet Jordan's military requirements. (29) Confronted with the prospect of Soviet influence replacing that of the United States and Britain in Amman, Johnson made a decision in principle to resume arms shipments to Jordan. (37) Jordan's Army Chief of Staff General Amer Khammash came to Washington in January with a list of Jordan's requirements. (71) After 2 months of sometimes tense negotiations, the United States and Jordan signed a memorandum of understanding on March 28 confirming the arms sale. The most significant elements in the package were 18 F-104 fighters and 100 M 48 tanks. (72, 76, 77, 82, 89, 95, 99, 107, 111, 125)

Israel's objective in pressing its requests for military supplies from the United States was to maintain its military superiority over the combined Arab forces. The Eshkol government viewed that superiority as the only guarantee of Israel's security. For Israel the key element in the military equation in the Middle East was control of the skies. The dominance of the Israeli air force during the 1967 war had been a decisive factor, and the Eshkol government pressed the Johnson administration for the planes necessary to maintain that dominance, particularly the F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber. The Phantom was a superior weapon, which, it was believed, could ensure Israeli security against any aircraft the Soviet Union could provide to the Arab states. The Johnson administration was reluctant to introduce this new weapon into the Middle East. To do so would not only confirm Israel's military superiority, but it would also be perceived by the Arabs as proof that the United States had cast its lot firmly with Israel.

Israel had a prewar contract pending with France at the end of 1967 for 50 Mirage fighters. The United States urged Israel to continue to look to France for arms, but French President Charles de Gaulle withdrew the offer to supply Mirages. U.S. Ambassador Walworth Barbour attempted to persuade Prime Minister Eshkol that the additional 48 Skyhawk fighters would be sufficient to provide for Israel's security, but Eshkol responded that even with the additional Skyhawks Israel would be at a heavy numerical disadvantage against the MIG fighters the Soviet Union was providing to Arab air forces. (3) He insisted that Israel had to have Phantoms. In January 1968 Eshkol put Israel's case for 50 Phantom fighters to President Johnson in person at the Johnson Ranch. (39-41) Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and the President's Special Assistant, Walt Rostow, recommended against supplying the Phantoms to Israel, at least until the outcome of the Jarring initiative was clear. They noted the U.S. military assessment that Israel was sufficiently well armed to remain secure in the Middle East for at least 18 months, and they argued that the United States should avoid being cast in the role of principal arms supplier to any country in the area. (36) Eshkol took the position that Israel's air force was dangerously depleted by the war, and that the remaining planes were no match for the Soviet MIGs being supplied to the Arabs. He represented the Arab threat as imminent and argued that only Phantoms could meet that threat. President Johnson said that he was a proven friend of Israel, but added that he did not believe that weapons made for peace. Nonetheless, he agreed to sell 27 Skyhawks to Israel, beyond the 48 contracted for, and promised to make a decision about the Phantoms by the end of the year. (41)

Israeli officials raised the Phantom issue with increasing urgency during the last months of the Johnson administration. (150, 152, 157, 247) The issue came to a head in the heat of the U.S. presidential campaign in the fall. The nominees of the two major parties, Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon, publicly endorsed the sale of Phantoms to Israel. Congress included an endorsement of the sale in the Foreign Assistance Act enacted on October 8. President Johnson responded with a statement that he had authorized Secretary Rusk to initiate negotiations with Israel on the terms of the sale. In the negotiations that followed, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Warnke attempted to make the sale of the planes conditional upon Israel's willingness to shelve its nuclear weapons program. In his negotiating sessions with Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin, Warnke proposed a sales contract in which Israel would agree to sign and ratify the recently negotiated nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and would agree not to test or deploy strategic missiles. (306, 308, 309) Rabin responded on November 8 that such conditions infringed upon the sovereignty of Israel and were “completely unacceptable.” (309) On November 9 Secretary of State Rusk and Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford took the issue to President Johnson who decided that the sale of the planes would be without conditions. (311) The sale of 50 F-4 Phantom fighters was confirmed by an exchange of letters between Rabin and Warnke. (330, 332, 333) The Arab reaction was summed up in a bitter letter of complaint sent by King Hussein to President Johnson on

November 30. (341)

The Specter of Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East

The agreement to sell Phantom fighter-bombers to Israel introduced a powerful new weapon into the Middle East. U.S. officials tried throughout 1968, however, to curb the threat of the introduction of nuclear weapons into the region. Warnke's effort to tie the sale of the Phantoms to an Israeli endorsement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was an expression of U.S. concern about a possible Israeli nuclear weapons program. The potential introduction of nuclear weapons into the tinderbox of the Middle East was viewed in Washington as a disastrous development, which carried with it the danger that the Soviet Union might respond by putting nuclear weapons into the United Arab Republic. The United States attempted to forestall the threat by persuading Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. During and after the negotiation of the Treaty, letters were sent from Rusk to Eban and from Johnson to Eshkol, urging Israel to join its Arab neighbors in signing the treaty; these efforts, however, were to no avail. (155, 285) Israel viewed its potential for nuclear capability as a brake on Arab aggression that should not be discarded lightly. (189)

Exchanges With the Soviet Union

The dangers inherent in the situation in the Middle East led the United States and the Soviet Union to agree on the importance of preventing a recurrence of war. Although rivals for influence in the area, the United States and the Soviet Union consulted regularly on the situation in the Middle East and joined in supporting the Jarring mission. U.S. officials used the exchanges to try to persuade the Soviet Union to cooperate in limiting the flow of weapons to the region. (57, 58) The Soviets took the position that if Israel would withdraw from all Arab territory, as it maintained, was stipulated by Resolution 242, there would be peace and the issue of an arms race would not arise. (93) In the exchanges between Washington and Moscow, Soviet officials held closely to the Arab line in the dispute. The Soviet Union endorsed the Arab call for a phased withdrawal of Israeli forces prior to a general understanding on peace. (93, 207) The United States viewed this timetable concept as useful only if it served to implement a previously negotiated arrangement for a comprehensive peace. (176) The Soviet Union felt that the United States should use its influence to compel Israel to assume a more flexible bargaining stance, and the United States felt that the Soviet Union should use its influence with the Arabs to the same end. (57, 245, 274) Both countries looked upon the gathering of Middle Eastern Foreign Ministers in New York for the autumn session of the UN General Assembly as offering the best opportunity of promoting a settlement out of the efforts of the Jarring mission.

The Jarring Mission and the United Nations General Assembly

The meeting of the UN General Assembly in October-November 1968 in New York set the stage for the best opportunity Jarring had to broker a settlement in the Middle East. Although Jarring had not achieved any significant progress in his mediation efforts to that point, he did secure the agreement of Israel and the Arab states to indirect discussions among the Foreign Ministers in New York. Jarring was the conduit and facilitator of the discussions. Secretary Rusk supported Jarring's efforts by meeting at the United Nations with all of the Foreign Ministers involved in the dispute. (268, 269, 301, 302) In a November 2 meeting with UAR Foreign Minister Riad, Rusk put forward his own seven-point formula for a peace settlement. (301) Rusk was no more successful than Jarring in stimulating a breakthrough in the negotiations. The Foreign Ministers left New York no closer to a peace settlement than when they had arrived. Jarring was understandably discouraged following the unproductive discussions in New York.

The Climate of Conflict in the Middle East

There was no respite from conflict in the Middle East. Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israeli military and civilian targets in Israel and on the West Bank formed a bitter backdrop to the peace negotiations throughout 1968. The terrorist attacks were launched from bases in Jordan and through Lebanon from bases in Syria. The Arab fedayeen used terror as a weapon to try to weaken Israeli resolve to retain at least some occupied Arab territory. Israel responded with reprisal attacks on terrorist bases. In March an attack blew up an Israeli school bus carrying children, and Israel responded with a coordinated air and ground attack on al-Fatah commando bases at Karameh in Jordan. (116, 119) The United States urged Israel to show restraint in dealing with the terrorists, arguing that reprisal raids served the interests of the terrorists by winning new converts to their cause, and also undermined the moderate Jordanian Government. (117, 134) The United States urged Jordan to do everything possible to try to control the fedayeen groups based in Jordan. On March 28 Ambassador Symmes was instructed to warn King Hussein that the cycle of terrorism and retaliatory raids could “degenerate to the point of no return.” (126) Hussein used his army to try to control the fedayeen, but the terrorist attacks continued and in May expanded to the border between Israel and Lebanon, with the United States again urging restraint. (184, 192)

On July 22 terrorist activities took on a new dimension when Palestinian commandos hijacked an El Al flight bound from Rome to Tel Aviv and forced it to land in Algeria. (223) After intervention by Italy and other interested parties, the hijacking was resolved on September 1 when Algeria released the plane, passengers, and crew. (228) It was clear, however, that the conflict between Israel and Arab militants was no longer confined to the Middle East. In September artillery duels developed across the Suez Canal as the United Arab Republic initiated a limited war of attrition and Israel retaliated. (247) The United States expressed concern to the authorities in Cairo and Jerusalem about the dangers arising from the military exchanges along the Suez Canal, but the exchanges continued. (251, 252) The year ended with the glare of international publicity on the Arab-Israeli dispute. On December 26 newspapers around the world gave banner treatment to an attack by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine on an El Al aircraft in Athens, Greece. An Israeli citizen was killed and another was injured. The Popular Front was based in Lebanon, and Israel held Lebanon responsible for the attack. On December 28 Israel retaliated with an attack on Beirut International Airport, during which Israeli commandos destroyed 13 Lebanese-owned aircraft. (367) The United States criticized the Israelis over the attack, which it saw as disproportionate and directed at an essentially innocent target. (369) Like many other such criticisms, however, it was ignored by the Israeli Government. For President Johnson, at the end of his administration, the fires burning at the Beirut airport symbolized the failure of U.S. and international efforts to find peace in the Middle East, and highlighted the dangers that lay ahead.