69. Memorandum for Record1

SUBJECT

  • Talk with Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres

In a cordial talk with Peres Komer laid out certain views and concerns. Frank Sloan joined in. Minister Gazit and Col. Ron were interested observers.

By prearrangement Komer mentioned the Shah’s interest in M–60 tanks. As suspected, Peres was already knowledgeable; he commented that the Shah seemed to want about 460. Komer suggested that the Israelis might wish to point out to the Shah that the M–48A3 was practically the same as the M–60 and could be bought for a great deal less. Deliveries wouldn’t take place for a few years, but when Iran had M–48A3s in quantity, this might be of help to Israel. Komer stressed that we did not want any Israeli approach to appear as being at US instance. Peres fully understood; he quickly grasped the implications of Iran playing a possible future role in the M–48A3 problem, and recognized that this wasn’t an immediate prospect but one a few years off.

Komer then said that, like Governor Harriman, he felt Peres should get a clear picture of Arab-Israeli policy from his visit; we had heard that Peres was one of those who questioned our policy. The Middle East was an area where much more emotion than logic was at play; this made it all the more imperative to sort out what was really going on.

There seemed to be three “myths” about US policy, which Komer wished to deal with candidly, on the understanding that he was talking completely unofficially and personally, and that he would not find such statements being bandied about. Peres fully agreed.

First was the myth that the US pursued a strictly “even-Handed” or “impartial” policy, as between Israel and the Arabs. This was what we often said publicly. But if one looked at actions, not words, it was clear that from 1947 on our policy had basically favored Israel. We had been Israel’s strongest backer from the outset, financially and otherwise, and it was our deterrent power (not that of the British, French, or anyone else) which really provided Israel its insurance policy. What we did do was to seek an “appearance” of balance in our policy, which [Page 165]would permit us to exercise continued influence in the Arab world. This influence was imperative in Israel’s interest as well as ours, because it served not only to protect US assets (oil and bases) in the area but to limit Soviet penetration.

The Aswan Dam fiasco had been a blunder in our policy. We had been the ones who in effect gave Khrushchev his golden opportunity to start peddling Soviet arms in the Middle East. It was Soviet arms, not Arab words, which created the real threat to Israel. So long as Arab words were only a reflection of their impotence, Israel could afford to live with them. But it was crucial that we not become so openly Israel’s champions as to force the Arabs to line up overtly with Moscow. In this event the real threat to Israel would be magnified.

Second was the myth that the US had shifted to a pro-Nasser policy, and that he was our “chosen instrument” in the Middle East. We were making a deliberate and calculated effort to arrive at a basis for mutual cooperation with the man and country which we regarded (as did Israel) as the fulcrum of the Arab world. But no one who looked carefully at the facts could help but see the many places where we were still containing Nasser’s expansionist ambitions. How else could one interpret the fact that we were still providing substantial aid to Libya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan—in fact every country around the UAR. We were even willing to help Syria, except that the Syrians were unhelpable. One thing was certain—Nasser saw clearly that we had not gone overboard with him. We intended to do business with Nasser wherever mutual interests existed, in order to provide him an alternative to out-and-out reliance on the Soviet Union. So long as he had such an alternative he would take from both sides, but would be no more interested in serving as Khrushchev’s stalking horse in the Middle East than ours.

The third myth was that the US could not be relied on to back Israel in a pinch. Harping on this theme from some Israelis was becoming annoying here; we didn’t like to be told our word couldn’t be relied upon, no matter how nicely this allegation was dressed up. Komer said he fully realized that no 100% guarantees were possible in this world. Indeed we recognized the theoretical force of De Gaulle’s argument that a nation could rely totally only on its own resources. What we objected to so vigorously was his feeling that an independent force of real practical meaning could be developed. De Gaulle thought he could tear off an arm, but in practice he might not be able to tear off even a little finger. Ergo, could we afford to risk letting him trigger World War III because of such a delusion? One could argue that Israel had a much more legitimate case for an absolute deterrent than De Gaulle—after all, it was facing the Arabs not the USSR. But in fact we saw no need for such a deterrent, given the US commitment. Even [Page 166]more important, for Israel to take this route would force the Arabs into Moscow’s arms. It might even lead to Soviet missile bases in the Nile delta. In any event, while neither Israel nor any other nation could have 100% assurance that the US would defend it, the all-important thing was what the potential aggressor thought. There was no doubt in our minds here. We had made sure that the Arabs knew we would intervene, and we thought unlikely any miscalculation on their part.

We then got onto the tank matter. Peres explained how they proposed to handle the tank deal through Italy. Only three people—Defense Minister Andreotti, his intelligence chief, and the deputy intelligence chief would be witting of the ultimate tank destination. [1–1/2 lines of source text not declassified]Since this would be an arms export from one NATO country to another, no licenses were required. The tanks would end up in Naples and be reexported from there. [1 line of source text not declassified]

The German MOD at least wanted to sell all of its 232 M–48A1s, so the Germans could say they were getting rid of these earlier models, in order to standardize on M–48A2 or 3s (which they would buy from us as replacements). The German Army would deliver the tanks to the Italian Army, which would send them to the company for refitting. The tanks would be refitted partly in Italy and partly in Israel. German Army engineers would handle quality control in the Italian plant.

Andreotti had asked that 15–20 tanks be left for the Italian Army, which was again interested in the M–48A3. As Peres put it, when Israel bought a new weapon, all sorts of other countries became interested in it because of Israel’s reputation for being a wise purchaser. Komer said that the M–48 request proved the point, since the M–48A3 was unquestionably the best tank buy at the price in the world today.

As to timing, it would take a year before the first tank got to Israel. There would be about four shipments. It would be at least another year before the Arabs found out. In response to Komer’s question, Peres said that Israel had kept its first Centurion purchases secret for 2–3 years. Komer asked for a written summary of these points for our use in talking with the Germans (an unsigned memo furnished later by Gazit is attached).2

Peres said that Israel wanted to buy new engines, guns, etc. for the M–48s directly from the US. He thought this would avoid messy financial problems, and was just as secure. Israel had bought guns from us before. Sloan was dubious over whether DOD would want to do this. We’d have to reserve our position while looking into the matter.

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Peres also urged that we find some way to provide ammunition and if possible spare parts at reduced prices from US stocks. Sloan pointed out that US holdings of 105 mm. tank rounds were all of recent manufacture. It would be difficult to declare them surplus. In fact, we were still buying them for US use. We’d also look into this matter but he didn’t want to hold out false hopes.

Komer mentioned to Peres in passing that he wasn’t going to belabor the missile question again, but wished to say that the secretive and evasive way in which Israel responded to our frequent inquiries on this and Dimona inevitably raised suspicions on our part. For the President of the US to have to intervene personally and repeatedly to get the necessary reassurances was frankly counter-productive; it only made us feel that Israel really did have something to hide. As for Israel’s missile program, why was it that they wouldn’t even answer our queries? Peres said that when one made an arrangement with a third country and that country laid down certain conditions, it tied Israel’s hands. Komer replied that this was the first cogent explanation we’d had, but wasn’t the US/Israel relationship such that we were entitled to greater candor? He said we’d want to talk with Israel further about missiles.

As the meeting broke up Peres said that the Germans wanted to tell the French if they decided to provide tanks. He thought the best way would be for Eshkol to mention it casually to De Gaulle. Westrick had agreed that the Israelis could do so in this event. Komer demurred that we would not like to have our role in the arrangements revealed. Peres was sure this would be no problem, commenting smilingly that when great men get together they don’t get into details.

RWK
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. II. Top Secret. Copies were sent to McGeorge Bundy, Vance, Harriman, Talbot, and Sloan. The attachment indicates that the conversation took place on June 5.
  2. Attached but not printed.