23. Memorandum of Conversation1
- Israel and the Near East
- His Excellency, Abba Eban, Deputy Prime Minister of Israel
- His Excellency, Avraham Harman, Ambassador of Israel
- Mr. Mordechai Gazit, Minister, Embassy of Israel
- The Secretary
- NEA—John D. Jernegan, Acting Assistant Secretary
- NE—H. Earle Russell, Jr.
Mr. Eban said Israel now appeared to be low on the list of urgent world problems. An early conflict in the Near East seemed unlikely. The recent Cairo Summit Conference had opted for a course of caution. Tense tranquility characterized the climate of the Near East. The crisis remained since Nasser was giving increased public emphasis to the inevitability of an Arab-Israel war. The upward spiral of the Near East arms race seemed impossible to stop.
Mr. Eban believed Israel had convinced the U.S. that it had fallen behind in the Arab-Israel military balance. Specifically, it was weak in armor. No agreement had been reached as yet on the importance of the U.A.R. missile threat but it was safer to overestimate than to underestimate.
A general spirit of Nasserist adventurism pervaded the area. U.A.R. forces in Yemen had increased and Nasser had questioned the position of the West in Libya. Nevertheless, Israel should welcome the present comparative serenity in the Near East. Nothing was inevitable, even Nasser’s predictions of inevitable war. It was important, however, to preserve the arms balance. Prime Minister Eshkol urged prompt action on the Israeli request for tanks. He felt strongly that this issue should not be linked to other aspects of Israel’s military defense. The provision of tanks was important both substantively and psychologically. Israeli military officers believed the U.S. was sincere in its assurances to protect Israel against aggression but doubted that the U.S. would take prompt action in time of need. Response to Israel’s request for tanks had become a symbol of U.S. willingness to give concrete support to Israel against aggression.
Israel’s view of the dangers of the U.A.R. military build up was such that even if it were possible to prove that a given number of missiles did not constitute a significant military threat, it would be impossible to convince the Israeli people. The problem was largely psychological and required more discussion. Israel was prepared to pursue the matter further but meanwhile hoped for prompt action on the matter of tanks.
The Secretary inquired whether Israel desired to purchase the tanks or hoped for grant military assistance. Mr. Eban replied that outright purchase would impose an intolerable burden on Israel. The Israeli economy was intricate and its seeming strength belied the strain that [Page 51] such a financial burden would create. The Secretary stressed the relevancy of the use of available Israeli resources for acquisition of tanks. Grant assistance for tanks might conceivably permit diversion of sufficient resources for Israel to acquire missiles.
Regarding the results of the Arab Summit Conference, Mr. Eban said Israel had noted a surprising consolidation of Hussein’s position. Jordan’s resumption of diplomatic relations with the U.A.R. had made Hussein a respectable Arab nationalist leader. Nasser had reached a less ambitious concept of what he could do in the Arab world. He was more prepared to live and let live. In Yemen, however, he was engaged more deeply than ever. There were no indications that Syria could be worked into a union with the U.A.R. Continuing instability there seemed likely.
With respect to the proposed Arab diversion of Jordan headwaters, the major danger was from Syria. The positions of Jordan and Lebanon were ambivalent, and the U.A.R. was not immediately concerned. Israel wished to play down the Jordan waters off-take. Regarding the salinity problem, Mr. Eban noted that off-take above Lake Tiberias would have assured sweeter water. Israel, however, was accepting the criteria of the Unified Plan and water usage as provided thereunder. Israel greatly valued the U.S. support and agreed to the desirability of no publicity. In recent talks with the United Nations Secretary General, the latter had agreed that it would be undesirable to raise the Jordan waters issue in the UN.
The Secretary expressed concern about the arms race in the Near East and the backbreaking financial burden it created. He noted a tendency on the part of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. voluntarily to cut nuclear and other arms production and wondered about a parallel desire on the part of the U.A.R. and Israel. Mr. Eban said disarmament interested Prime Minister Eshkol greatly. The U.A.R., however, had been the first on each occasion to introduce a new level of weaponry into the Near East arms race.
Mr. Eban said the diffusion of power in the world in recent years had resulted in increased possibilities for small power conflicts. Large powers might wish to intervene but often felt unable to do so for fear of far-reaching consequences. These circumstances led Israeli military men to wonder about the ability of the U.S. to act promptly in support of Israel. They hoped for more clear-cut indications of U.S. intentions. The Secretary interjected that there was no automaticity in any of our agreements to support our allies. Mr. Eban said it was important, under the circumstances, to build up indigenous forces and not to depend upon big power intervention. This underlined the need for Israel’s tanks. The Secretary said that since the return of the Rowen mission from Israel he had had no opportunity to discuss the matter with [Page 52] the President. He would do so shortly and be in touch with the Israel Ambassador. We recognized Israel’s needs but had problems of our own to consider.
On the position of the U.S. in the Arab world, Mr. Eban said it was safer for all concerned if U.S. influence in the area remained strong. The recent speeches of President Johnson and U. Alexis Johnson had created considerable uproar but the Arab states could not afford to ignore the strength of the U.S. It was salutary occasionally to stress the idea of U.S. opposition to aggression. The Secretary commented that the Arabs did not share Israel’s doubts as to our position on this score. The reaction to the speeches showed that they were convinced of U.S. intent to oppose aggression. Mr. Eban agreed that the military were never satisfied but said that Mr. Eshkol saw the matter in terms of survival of the Jewish people. It was not possible, therefore, to depend upon U.S. assurances without tangible evidence to back them up.
The Secretary said President Johnson looked forward to the coming visit of Mr. Eshkol and to the opportunity to exchange views with him.
- Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, POL 7 ISR. Secret. Drafted by Russell on March 10 and approved in S on March 16. The memorandum text is marked Part I of IV.↩