7. Memorandum for Record1
- Israeli Arms Needs
- H. E. Avraham Harman, Israeli Ambassador
- Mr. Mordechai Gazit, Israeli Minister
- Col. Ram Ron, Israeli Military Attache
- Mr. McGeorge Bundy, Special Asst. to the President
- Mr. R. W. Komer
Ambassador Harman explained briefly that he was calling, as he had on several others, to explain the basis for Israel’s increased security requirements, especially for tanks. As Prime Minister Eshkol had said in his 4 November 1963 letter, Israel’s needs fell into three categories: (1) surface-to-surface missiles to meet the growing UAR missile threat; (2) tanks to modernize Israeli armor; (3) some means of countering growing UAR naval strength. The Prime Minister had also stressed the great economic burden that Israel was carrying, which it had to take into account in seeking to meet its security needs. Of course Israel’s immediate and primary need was for tanks.
Mr. Bundy commented that we could see how the growing imbalance between Israeli and Arab armor posed a “real” problem, and were actively looking into it. But why did Israel need missiles? We genuinely had trouble in following their reasoning here. To us, for Israel to spend a lot of money on missiles seemed wasteful and unnecessary. Harman [Page 12] responded that Israel had hoped escalation of the arms race in the Middle East could have been avoided, but the US itself had found that Nasser was uninterested in arms controls. The Israelis had presented to us their evidence about growing UAR missile stockpiles. These created a real psychological and military problem for Israel. In the absence of any effective arms controls, the Israeli Government felt it had to go ahead and develop a deterrent to Nasser’s missiles.
Bundy said that he literally could not follow the Ambassador’s argument. He could see a psychological problem, but in practical military terms Nasser’s missiles were useless. So what would Israel get from matching them with an equally wasteful investment? It reminded him of the arguments of those people in the US who thought we ought to build blast shelters and anti-missile missiles just because the Soviets might have them rather than because we saw an actual need for them. Tanks, he granted again, were a “real issue.” We could talk about this, but when we got down to brass tacks there was a genuine question as to why we should give tanks as grant aid to Israel when it was, as we had heard, planning to buy surface-to-surface missiles from France. We simply didn’t see Nasser’s missiles as posing the kind of threat that would require a major Israeli investment in anyone’s missiles in return. Our intelligence people had looked at the problem again after the US-Israeli intelligence talks. Mr. Komer confirmed that we couldn’t believe the Israeli estimate that Nasser would build a 900–1000 missile force by 1969 or that even a force of this size with conventional warheads could interrupt Israeli mobilization. He and Col. Ron had a brief exchange about the differences in our estimates.
Ambassador Harman then put the case of Israeli missiles on political grounds, saying that we must appreciate the Israeli situation—Israel, surrounded by the Arabs, hemmed in on every side, harassed by constant Arab hostility, had to show its own people that it was able to deter any level of Arab military attack. Mr. Bundy again expressed skepticism as to whether a substantial Israeli investment in SSMs was the answer. He noted that Israel did not seem to have told us very much about its missile plans. How far along were they? Harman replied that their plans had not yet jelled, as General Rabin had indicated when here.2
Bundy thought it would be helpful if the Israelis would tell us about their plans. It would create a tough problem for the US to find that others were selling Israel missiles while we were giving tanks. Moreover, while not deprecating the seriousness with which Israel [Page 13] must look at every aspect of the UAR military build-up, we tended to credit the Israelis with greater qualitative superiority over the Arabs than the Israelis did themselves. Harman objected to what he called the general tendency in the US Government to “overexaggerate” Israel’s superior technology and manpower. He pointed out that 55% of the children entering primary school this year were of non-European descent. Israel was having a hard time absorbing so many immigrants. The quality of its armed forces vis-a-vis the Arabs wasn’t as high as many Americans seemed to think. He then returned to the problem of UAR missiles, saying that one of the difficulties was that these missiles might make the UAR cocky enough to try a fight with Israel, simply because the Egyptians wouldn’t realize how limited a capability they actually had. Possession of a missile force might encourage the UAR to be more aggressive than purely military calculations would justify.
Bundy’s rejoinder was that we had no desire to look down our noses at the UAR missile force, but the simple fact was that such missiles without nuclear warheads would not be meaningful. However, if Israel went in for a substantial missile force along with its existing nuclear potential, it would create the real possibility of a whole new dimension in the Middle East arms race. If any Middle East country acquired a nuclear delivery capability, then we would have such a major change in the situation as to confront us with a grave policy problem. We would be forced to re-evaluate the whole basis of our Middle East policy.
Ambassador Harman, who seemed a little harassed at this point, switched the subject by asking “how about tanks?” Bundy again said that this was a real question which we could look at in real terms, though grant aid would be difficult because MAP was so thin. We could see Israel’s need for tanks, but there were legitimate questions as to the numbers and types that Israel needed, and as to when and how these could be made available, either by us or by other friends. He was no expert on tanks so couldn’t discuss these, but his brother in the Defense Department was looking into them and could give some more authoritative reactions. Bundy was sure that we would have arguments over such questions as the number and type, but at least these were real questions with which we could come to grips.
Harman explained the Israeli “two-bite request.” First of all, they wanted to replace some 300 of their Shermans with modern tanks—200 M48A3s and 100 M60s. The second bite would be to meet the continuing Soviet build-up of Arab armor. Here they hoped for some 200 M60s over the next 2–3 years. On the money, they hoped to get the tanks free. Harman explained the great security burden Israel was carrying. Defense now took 40% of the Israeli regular budget and 11% of GNP. [Page 14] The Israeli economy was really stretched. Israel had to lay out vast sums for the absorption of immigrants, and it was hard to see how it could buy tanks at full value.
Bundy explained the tightness of our MAP program, given the recent Congressional cuts. These had fallen particularly heavily on MAP, so on this question we would have to be tough. We would expect to apply to the Israelis the same cost-effectiveness standards that we applied to our own military establishment. But at least these were questions we could lay on the table and discuss. At the same time, in the common interest, we ought to take another look at the missile problem. We should have a similarly real discussion of what the Israelis had in mind and whether it made sense. If Israel was asking us for grant aid, we had an interest in knowing how they were spending their own money. He emphasized that if we thought for a minute there was a real UAR missile threat, we wouldn’t talk this way. We were not saying that Israel couldn’t or shouldn’t buy a few missiles (5 or so) for psychological deterrent purposes if it felt it mandatory, but our impression was that Israel was going much further. These things were “silly” with conventional warheads. Yet, for just this reason if Israel bought missiles it would mean to Nasser that Israel was going nuclear. This was the risk we saw—and it wasn’t just Israel’s risk, it was our risk too. It was a matter of deep common interest to the US as well as to Israel to keep all of our commitments to Israeli security. This had been President Kennedy’s view, and it was equally that of President Johnson.
Bundy then pointed out that 1964 was going to be a very sticky year anyway, because of the pro-Israeli stand we were going to take on the Jordan Waters. If on top of this we seemed to be subsidizing directly or indirectly a build-up of Israel military strength in so dangerous a field as missiles, especially against essentially frivolous UAR weapons, it would be hard for us to maintain our present position in the Middle East.
Ambassador Harman fervently hoped that we would not get into a missile discussion with Israel. He expressed his strong conviction that Israel was under the gun, recounting how when he returned to Israel twice in 1963 he had explained to all concerned that the US commitment to support Israel was firm. However, he’d had a rough time at home. He had found a general feeling that Israel could not depend solely on unofficial US guarantees, but had to have its own deterrent power. The Israeli Government and Prime Minister Eshkol faced a difficult problem in convincing the Israeli people that Israel could cope with the missiles which Nasser was obviously building and which he kept flaunting publicly.
The Ambassador, after pausing, commented that he greatly appreciated Mr. Bundy’s candor and would be frank in return. When we raised certain economic questions about Israel’s request for tanks, this [Page 15] was reasonable; we could talk about costs and whether Israel could afford purchase rather than grants. But he feared that if we entered into long negotiations about US availabilities and numbers and types, we would complicate matters. Quite frankly, there were many in Israel who said Israel should not spend desperately needed money on older model, reconditioned tanks which would soon be obsolete. It would be wiser to wait a while and buy a new model, which would give Israel a deterrent advantage for several years. Harman feared that if we were sticky, this school of thought would again come to the fore. Both Bundy and Komer responded that there might be something to the argument about waiting for something better. In any case, Bundy assured him we were fully prepared to lay our cards on the table and discuss this as well as other matters. However, Israel must recognize that there were legitimate questions as to what was needed for our own forces, what we could spare, what our new production plans were, etc.
In closing, Bundy emphasized how we regarded both the missile and tank problems as matters of common interest, which we should explore jointly and freely with a full exchange of information on both sides. He also hoped that nothing he had said would indicate that we did not regard Israeli concerns as serious. However, among close friends there ought to be the kind of full and frank airing of respective viewpoints that would lead to those joint decisions which would best serve us both.
- Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Files of Robert W. Komer, Israel Security (Tanks), Nov. 1963–June 1964. Secret. A handwritten note indicates that copies were sent to Talbot, Jernegan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Frank K. Sloan, and Bundy, and subsequently to USIA Director Carl T. Rowan and Deputy Special Counsel to the President Myer Feldman.↩
- Komer’s memorandum of a conversation with Rabin, Ron, and Gazit, November 14, 1963, is printed in Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. XVIII, Document 360.↩