3. Memorandum of Conversation1
- Israeli Request for Military Assistance
- The Secretary
- His Excellency Avraham Harman, Israeli Ambassador
- Mr. Mordechai Gazit, Minister, Embassy of Israel
- Mr. Shaul Bar-Haim, Counselor, Embassy of Israel
- Assistant Secretary Phillips Talbot, NEA
The Ambassador said that on his recent consultation in Israel he had found the government preoccupied with the key issue of defense. [Page 4] Israel regarded the talks on November 12 and 13 between its representatives and U.S. Government officials2 as very full and helpful, and subsequently had given further information especially on the tank situation. He believed that the United States now had a good picture of Israeli needs.
In Jerusalem, the Ambassador said, the Prime Minister had asked him to put to the Secretary for consideration of the U.S. Government the entire security situation in Israel, and especially the position concerning tanks, which was very serious indeed. He appreciated the opportunity to do that now. There were two aspects, qualitative and quantitative. Qualitatively, there was no question that Israel was now completely out-classed by the UAR. Israel had Centurions, AMX’s and Shermans. By contrast, the UAR had obtained Soviet T–54’s, Stalin 3’s, and also had a declining number of T–34’s. The T–54’s, which were coming in larger numbers, out-classed anything in the Israeli tank inventory in all respects; fire power, armor, maneuverability, etc. Thus, it was vital for Israel to replace at least three hundred of its tanks with more effective tanks. It sought to obtain from the United States two hundred M–48–A–3’s within a year or so; and within two or three years one hundred M–60’s. These would all be replacements of old tanks.
Israel also faced a quantitative problem, the Ambassador said. In the November talks the Israeli representatives had expressed the view, with which they understood the Americans agreed, that minimum safety lies in Israel maintaining a ratio of one to two, or at worst one to three, tanks facing the Arabs. To maintain such ratio in the next two or three years Israel would need to add two hundred more M–60’s.
The Secretary asked where Israel had obtained its Shermans. The Ambassador responded that they had been bought mostly in Europe, and that Israel had obtained them because they were all that were available.
The Ambassador stated that Israel believed its policy of deterrence had worked in the past fifteen years. Now Israel was faced with problems of maintaining the deterrent. It regarded these problems as finite. With the aid he was discussing Israel thought it could preserve its position for the next five years or so making it quite clear to the Arabs that attacks on Israel would not pay.
The Ambassador said that while the UAR was the main threat to Israel, his country had to keep certain tank strength to face the Jordanian armed forces, whom Israel rated highly. It also kept a small number of tanks against the Syrians and Iraqis, because Israel was very vulnerable [Page 5] in the middle of the country, at places not more than ten miles wide and good tank country.[Page 6]
The Secretary, stating that he was not implying anything by his question, asked whether Israel had looked into the race between tanks and anti-tank missiles. He had the impression that over time the tank was likely to be on the way out, like horse cavalry. As an old infantryman, he would be happier handling a modern anti-tank weapon than being inside a tank. The Ambassador said this question had come up briefly at the November talks, and that General Rabin had made the Israeli view clear. Israel was thinking of its immediate tank problem as a very short range issue during a period of extreme vulnerability. The one thing to do in the next few years was to meet tanks with tanks.
The Ambassador continued that Israel hoped to get these tanks from the United States as military assistance. Its military burden had become very heavy. The Prime Minister was an old hand at defense problems, having been Secretary General of the Finance Ministry and Minister of Finance, and now being Minister of Defense as well as Prime Minister. Thus he was very alert to the financial aspects of the military burden, and had shown himself very sensitive to it, so he was not inflating the need.
The Secretary said that military assistance funds were very stringent at the moment. Some of the recent cuts had been more damaging to our military assistance program than to the economic assistance program. We would, of course, study the request. The Secretary asked whether we have had from Israel information about its military expenses outside of any aid question. The Ambassador replied that Israel had not been asked to provide this. The Secretary pondered that it might be useful.
The Ambassador said he wanted to speak a word about the naval side. The UAR had developed a capability of blockading, bombarding and landing, against which Israeli defenses were absolutely out-classed. Now Israel faced the problem of ship-to-shore missiles as well. This was another aspect in Israel’s enormous defense burden. In the budget for the coming year, starting April 1, the Israel defense establishment would get one billion Israeli pounds, 40 percent of the regular budget, and 11 percent of the GNP.
The Secretary said that we were very sympathetic to the problem of defense, and would take a look at Israeli requests. Military assistance was a considerable problem for us, he noted, with reduced availabilities and very important needs. He said he thought it would be helpful if the Government of Israel would let us have information on defense expenses abroad, since this information could be highly relevant and was of the sort always expected of military aid recipients.
The Secretary asked if the Israeli Government had made its request in writing. The Ambassador said not except in the letter that Prime Minister Eshkol had addressed to President Kennedy.3
- Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, DEF 19–3 ISR. Secret. Drafted by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Phillips Talbot on January 4 and approved in S on January 19. The memorandum is marked Part I of II. The other portion of the conversation is recorded in a memorandum of conversation, ibid., POL ISR–US.↩
- For a summary of the talks, see circular telegram 897, November 13, 1963, printed in Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. XVIII, Document 359.↩
- Reference is to Eshkol’s November 4 letter to Kennedy; see footnote 4, Document 1.↩