67. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Tanks for Israel


  • His Excellency, Levi Eshkol, Prime Minister of Israel
  • His Excellency, Avraham Harman, Ambassador of Israel
  • The Honorable Chaim Yahil, Director General, Israel Foreign Ministry
  • The Honorable Theodore Kollek, Director General, PM’s Office
  • Mr. Uri Lubrani, Director of PM’s Bureau and Political Secretary
  • Mr. Mordechai Gazit, Minister, Embassy of Israel
  • The Acting Secretary
  • M—Mr. Harriman
  • NEAPhillips Talbot
  • NEH. Earle Russell

Prime Minister Eshkol inquired about the status of Israel’s request for tanks. Mr. Talbot replied that the President expected to speak to Chancellor Erhard about West German capabilities to supply tanks. Between approaches by the U.S. and by Israel we would make a real try. There were also current conversations with the UK. Adequate tanks should be available.

Prime Minister Eshkol said he did not wish to be pushed to Centurions. The M–48 was superior. There appeared to be a way to obtain M–48 tanks through an arrangement with Italy. He hoped we would accept the Israeli viewpoint. He commented that Centurions were expensive, but he did not wish to discuss pricing until prices were lower. Israel was willing to take a number of Centurions to complete existing tank units.

Mr. Harriman said we would do everything to help, including exploration of the arrangement with Italy. There was, however, the Chieftain in the background. Cost was a problem since it amounted to nearly $300,000 per unit. Mr. Ball added that we foresaw problems with the transparent arrangement with Italy. Security in Italy was not good. The transaction was likely to become widely known.

Mr. Peres said failure to obtain M–48 tanks would be a great disappointment both politically and popularly. The Centurion was not as good a tank, and lacked the range of the M–48. To buy Centurions would be to eat and remain hungry. The cost of 300 Chieftain tanks was excessive since they would cost $500,000 each including spares and ammunition. The total package would amount to $150,000,000. Mr. Talbot interjected that we were not thinking in terms of 300 Chieftain tanks.

Mr. Peres continued that the Mark-8 Centurion was costly and lacked a suitable engine. The best solution economically and politically was the purchase of the M–48. Failure to achieve this would be a shocking popular experience in Israel. He hoped the U.S. would not retract its support for supply of tanks through Germany. Mr. Talbot suggested that the range of tanks was not important since no one wished to go 300 miles. Mr. Peres said that time of operation was more important than range. It reduced maintenance and decreased vulnerability.

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Prime Minister Eshkol noted that deliveries of M–48’s could begin in 8–12 months. Israel was already negotiating with Italy on the problem of conversion. As to Centurion availability, 48 would be available during 1964; 50–100 more in 1965; Chieftains might be available by the end of 1965. Israel proposed to buy 48 Centurions in 1964 and perhaps 50 in 1965, but no more.

Mr. Ball noted that the M–48 tank suggested a more offensive weapon than the shorter range tanks. We understood, however, the advantages of tank “autonomy.”

Prime Minister Eshkol said he hoped to be in a position upon his return to Israel to tell his government that the tank matter had been resolved. If the U.S. and West Germany were interested, the transaction could be kept secret for 2–3 years, by which time the M–48 would be in the same category as the Sherman tank today. In Italy only three people need be fully informed of the transaction.

Mr. Ball said this was a subject for discussion with Chancellor Erhard. He could not speak for him. He believed the problem of tanks could be met. We would take into consideration the arguments made by the Israelis, particularly the need for tank “autonomy.”

U.S. participants made brief reference to possible assistance to Israel in adjusting the cost of high-priced European tanks but declined to discuss details in the absence of more information on tank availabilities and other elements of Israel’s defense expenditures. Mr. Harriman said we would continue to press the Germans, but were not anxious to break away from our policy of avoiding the supply of offensive weapons to the Near East. We believed Israel could meet its needs elsewhere.

In conclusion, the Prime Minister stressed that the proposed M–48 transaction could be kept secret for 2–3 years. He also said Israel was spending $450,000,000 every year for defense and could not afford not to follow up the West German transaction. He hoped it would be possible to obtain agreement in principle on the transaction from Chancellor Erhard.

The discussion ended with the understanding that any further progress on M–48 tank procurement must rest upon the decision of Chancellor Erhard. Meanwhile, discussions on Centurions should continue.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, DEF 12 ISR. Secret; Limit Distribution. Drafted by Russell on June 15 and approved in U and in M on June 22. Prior to Ball’s meeting with Eshkol, the Prime Minister met with Harriman and U. Alexis Johnson for a general discussion of the international scene. (Memorandum of conversation; ibid., POL ISR–US) At 12:15 p.m., Eshkol and Peres met with Vance and received a briefing on U.S. military capabilities to defend Israel. Vance rejected their suggestion of joint contingency planning but indicated willingness to consider periodic discussions with Israel on military subjects. (Memorandum of conversation; ibid., ARAB–ISR)