9. Memorandum From Secretary of State Rusk to President Johnson 1


  • Arab-Israel Problems—1964

We face a difficult and challenging year in the Near East. The Soviets are actively seeking to recoup their recent setbacks. Turmoil in the Arab States has sharpened tensions among themselves and vis-a-vis Israel. Israel is increasingly anxious about its future security. What is more, our own interests are steadily more caught up in the area, because of Europe’s growing dependence on reasonable access to Middle East oil, our needs for strategic transit and communications, the importance of blocking Soviet advances, and our other stakes in peace in the region.

I foresee a series of issues in the coming months that could severely strain our position and our influence in the area. The most important of these are:

  • — Arab reactions to Israeli diversion of Jordan waters (the toughest of all);
  • — Israeli nuclear potential implied by completion of the Dimona reactor;
  • — the future of Palestine refugees and of UNRWA;
  • — threats of increased and sophisticated armaments;
  • — conflicts between Arab governments and Western oil companies.

We have learned over the years that the key to a constructive Near Eastern policy is maintaining a balance in our relationships with the Arabs and Israel. This has never been easy. In our interest, but also in Israel’s, we have been at pains during the past three years to build fruitful ties with the Arabs. In 1964, as never before, we will need our Arab relationships to weather the storms likely to be aroused by the issues I have listed.

I believe we shall need to make a heavy investment of U.S. prestige in 1964 in support of Israel against Arab resentments on several of these issues. Actions we propose to take, with your approval, to limit adverse effects of the Jordan waters diversion, Dimona, refugees, and the arms race are discussed in Enclosure 1.

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As to Israel’s estimates of its military defense needs, which preoccupy its leaders and shape their current view of U.S.-Israel relations, we face decisions on what the U.S. should do and when. Israel has asked us to furnish it five hundred tanks under the Military Assistance Program. Prime Minister Eshkol also wrote to President Kennedy that Israel needs assistance in obtaining naval equipment and missiles. In fact, Israel seeks ever closer military and political identification with us. We are looking at ways to help it meet its most critical problems. However, we see its needs in a broader context. In the past, consistent with our policy of refusing to become a major supplier of offensive weapons to states likely to be involved in an Arab-Israel war, we have encouraged Israel to fill its requirements for such weapons in Europe. It has done so. Israel has both public and private assurances of our commitment to its integrity and security. In mid-1963, a JCS review of our military capability to respond to possible aggression against Israel2 completely satisfied President Kennedy that we could deploy to meet any potential threat within 30 hours. He so informed Prime Minister Eshkol. What is more, the Arabs have shown they are well aware of both our intentions and our capabilities to deter and stop aggression. In our view, this reduces the need for Israel to press far and fast toward weapons escalation that would almost certainly throw the Arabs closer into the arms of the Soviets.

While Israel’s increased vulnerability in the field of armor will not become critical for the next year or two, or perhaps longer, there may be an earlier psychological requirement to assure Israel that its armor needs will be met in time. Otherwise, we are likely to be subjected to a strong Israeli pressure campaign and renewed demands for a security guarantee. On the other hand, we may want to time any arms deal with Israel so as to avoid additional Arab antagonism just when we are taking a pro-Israeli stand on the Jordan Waters.

It is also essential to use the steps we take to aid Israel as leverage to achieve greater Israeli cooperation in matters of importance to us. For example, we are greatly concerned lest in response to the UAR’s so-called missiles, which we see as of no military significance, Israel acquire much better missiles in quantity from France. Aside from the drain on Israeli funds (which could otherwise be used to buy tanks), this would enhance Arab fears of a nuclear arms race and might create dangerous repercussions. So we may want to use our help on Israel’s tank problem to get Israel to forego (or sharply limit) any missile buildup.

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The problems, our approach to them, and suggestions about what we might do for Israel are discussed in detail in the enclosures.3

Dean Rusk

Enclosure 1


Five major problems involve potential violence or threaten basic United States interests in the Near East in 1964. Fortunately, we begin 1964 with considerable prestige and good will built up during recent years. These assets give us positive leverage, which we shall need to maintain through and after 1964 if we hope to see an ultimate Arab-Israel accommodation and protection of our major interests in the Near East.

Our policy problems in the Near East are almost always a matter of balance. To deal successfully with the issues ahead, we shall continue to need influence with both Arabs and Israelis. In practice the question of exclusive identification with any Arab state, or with the Arabs generally, does not arise. Israel, however, seeks a close military identification with us to serve as a deterrent to the Arabs. Such a relationship would not only destroy the influence we need to maintain with the Arabs but stimulate closer Arab-Soviet ties and reduce our ability to bring about an eventual peaceful solution to the Arab-Israel dispute.

In the mid-1950s the Arabs thought we had identified ourselves completely and finally with Israel. The Soviets saw an opportunity to side with the Arabs and wreck the Free World position in the Near East. They largely succeeded so far as the French and British were concerned. It has taken several years to reverse Soviet successes, damp down the Cold War in the Near East, and regain the flexibility we need. A policy of balance permits us to protect our own interests in access to oil on reasonable terms, strategic transit and communications rights and facilities, as well as to help Israel achieve long-term security. Our ability to maintain meaningful relations with the Arab states is essential to attain these objectives.

Against this background, the five predictable problems of 1964 come into focus:

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Jordan Waters: Israel will begin to divert water out of the Jordan basin, from Lake Tiberias, this spring. Test pumping is scheduled for about mid-February. Sustained pumping will begin two or three months later. For a decade this has been foreseen as the issue most likely to cause a new Arab-Israel war. Despite their determination to prevent diversion, the Arabs cannot successfully take on Israel. But there is always some danger they will talk themselves into disaster.

In a major gesture of support, President Kennedy committed us to stand beside Israel, provided its water withdrawals are held within the limits of Eric Johnston’s comprehensive 1955 Plan.

We have made extensive diplomatic preparation to fulfill this commitment. Our objective is to prevent Arab use of force or any Arab interference with Israel’s plans, but in such a way as not to exhaust the leverage we need with the Arabs in other divisive issues.

Our best bet is reliance on:

A strengthened United Nations peacekeeping machinery in the area,
Vigorous behind-the-scenes diplomacy with the Arabs, and
Recourse to the United Nations Security Council or General Assembly as necessary.

If we get over this hump without war, we will have made a contribution to Israel almost as basic as our support for its creation in 1948.

Dimona Reactor: Israel’s French-built 25 megawatt power reactor will be completed in January or February. Israel has assured us it will be limited to peaceful uses but with it Israel will have a small nuclear weapons potential. We anticipate strong Arab reactions and, at the least, renewed talk of acquiring comparable installations, perhaps with Soviet help.

Fortunately, we have persuaded the Israelis to invite us to inspect Dimona periodically. We can use our findings to limit the fears of the Arab governments. We need to continue pressing the Israelis firmly to keep off the nuclear weapons path. But these steps will not be enough in the long run. Israel is thinking of a 125–150 megawatt power reactor, five times the size of Dimona. The UAR will try to keep abreast.

We cannot prevent the two sides from moving ahead so long as both stick to peaceful uses. Therefore, safety will lie in:

Involving responsible Free World states in reactor development on both sides so we can know what is going on and have maximum control through bilateral safeguards arrangements,
Encouraging acceptance of IAEA controls to replace bilateral ones,
Exploring possibilities for an Arab-Israel nuclear free zone or acceptance of such other international restraints as may be evolved, and
Reassuring each side on the basis of our knowledge of the capability and intentions of the other side in the nuclear field.

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Israel’s Security and the Arms Race: Nuclear potentials apart, the “conventional” arms race has reached a dangerous new threshold just as we face the Jordan waters issue and the Dimona question. And Israel is pressing its case for new military gestures from us.

Israel wants as close to 100% military identification with the United States as it can get. But its appetites exceed its needs. Neither President Kennedy’s May 8 statement4 nor the assurances in his letter of October 30 to Prime Minister Eshkol 5 (which amounted to a written guarantee of Israel’s security by the President of the United States) fully satisfied the Israelis. We did not expect they would.

Israel has presented a sizeable request for military assistance. On the list in 1963 were a public security guarantee, secret contingency planning, naval equipment, surface-to-surface missiles, grant-aid United States tanks (300 now, 200 later), etc. Our November exchanges with the Israelis indicated that these requests are out of line with Israel’s actual military needs.

Israel needs gradual modernization of its tank and anti-tank defenses. In other respects it has a healthy margin of superiority for some years to come. The UAR’s showcase missiles are in fact only that, not a military threat, and will probably remain so unless Israel gets into serious missilery and the UAR then turns to the Soviets for help. The UAR missiles point up, however, the domestic psychological problem Israel’s leaders face.

The Israelis and others have made efforts to downgrade our capability and commitment to defend Israel. Without going so far toward Israel that we break the bond of confidence we have developed with the Arabs and risk creating a vastly dangerous USSR/Arab versus United States/Israel lineup, we can lay more effective emphasis on what we have very generously done and are doing to help. And there are certain new moves we can make in 1964 that will please Israel and help meet its domestic political problem (and ours). Details of both are in the second enclosure.

In addition, however, we need to work at measures to curb the arms race and enhance stability. To that end:

We should continue active exploration of arms limitation and control. Secretary Rusk has spoken to Foreign Minister Gromyko about the possibility of mutual restraint in the disposition of obsolete weapons. [Page 22] Our Ambassador in Cairo has begun to probe his Soviet colleague on aspects of arms control in the area. We have talked to Nasser secretly about the United States becoming a kind of guarantor for working arrangements to control the escalation of arms. There is discussion of arms control, as well as nuclear free zone possibilities, in the United Nations context. From all of these not much has opened up so far, but the time might come when we could do something serious with the Russians about restraint. Our capability to deal with all parties in this field is enhanced by our traditional Near East arms policy.
We should make clear on appropriate public occasions that we will defend the independence of all Near East states and will resist aggression in any form.
If we facilitate solution of Israel’s tank problem, we should get assurance in return that Israel will not plunge the Near East into either the sophisticated missile or the nuclear weapons field.

Arab Refugees: 1964 will be the year of turn-around on this problem. President Kennedy’s talk with Ben-Gurion in May 19616 and letters to Arab leaders launched a major initiative designed, if successful, to eliminate, over several years, this problem that bulks so large in the Arab-Israel dilemma.7 Negotiations over the next several months will show whether this can proceed fruitfully.

The chances, frankly, are not good. Neither the Arabs nor Israel accepted Dr. Joseph Johnson’s proposals, and Israel’s public rejection of any settlement based on existing United Nations resolutions has further compounded the problem. If we fail, we could probably buy time by continuing to support UNRWA indefinitely (an unpopular course in Congress), or perhaps could phase it out gradually over a period of years. We must expect, however, a storm in the United Nations should the Arabs read this as our goal. We have already tightened UNRWA’s belt. The climax will come next fall when the General Assembly must determine UNRWA’s future.

Whatever the outcome, a heavy investment of United States influence will be required if area stability is to be preserved over this important issue.

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Oil: From the oil producing countries (organized through OPEC) we now face the most intensive pressures for major concession revisions that have ever been put forward. Our influence will be needed on all sides to help maintain the rapport and trust needed between the companies and governments to prevent changes that would entail either chaos or injury to United States private investment in this vital sector. The threat of Arab sanctions against Western oil interests in reaction to Israel’s diversion of Jordan waters may not materialize but is another aspect showing the context in which our interests in the Near East must be viewed.

Intra-Arab Relations: Arab actions on these five problems will be shaped by the state of their own relations. Divided and quarreling as they are today, Arab politicians find a hard line against Israel inescapable. This increases the risk of irrational explosion on any of the big problems.

Without the UAR, no Arab state or combination of states could really damage Israel. Knowing this, other states—most actively, Syria—seek to embroil the UAR with Israel on, for example, Jordan waters and Palestine refugees. A major object of our policy toward the UAR is to persuade Nasser that he is wise to keep Israeli issues “in the icebox,” as his Ambassador says. Similarly, our purpose in Yemen is to prevent a conflagration that might involve other Arab states and ultimately Israel.

In intra-Arab tensions, as in other problems cited here, the key is balance and a careful husbanding of limited and hard-won U.S. influence.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. I. Secret. The memorandum bears no drafting information, but another copy indicates that it was drafted by Talbot. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, POL ARAB–ISR)
  2. Text of JCSM–611–63, August 7, 1963, is printed in Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. XVIII, Document 308.
  3. Enclosure 2, unsigned and undated, entitled “Actions To Reassure Israel: 1964,” is not printed.
  4. Text of the statement, which President Kennedy made at a news conference on May 8, 1963, is printed in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1963, p. 373.
  5. Reference is to a letter from Kennedy given to Eshkol on October 3, 1963; for text, see Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. XVIII, Document 332.
  6. For a memorandum of Kennedy’s meeting with Ben Gurion on May 30, 1961, see ibid., vol. XVII, Document 57.
  7. United States supported the 1961 appointment of a Special Representative of the UN Palestine Conciliation Commission (PCC) to conduct indirect negotiations between Israel and the Arab states toward a resolution of the Palestinian refugee question. After meeting with Arab and Israeli leaders, Special Representative Joseph E. Johnson submitted his proposals to the PCC on August 31, 1962. For an August 7, 1962, memorandum from Rusk to Kennedy summarizing the background of the initiative and Johnson’s proposals, see ibid., vol. XVIII, Document 15. Extensive documentation concerning the initiative is ibid., volumes XVII and XVIII.