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Foreign Relations of the United States 1964–1968, Volume XVIII Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1964–1967

(This is not an official statement of policy by the Department of State; it is intended only as a guide to the contents of this volume.)

Since 1861, the Department of State’s documentary series Foreign Relations of the United States has constituted the official record of the foreign policy and diplomacy of the United States. Historians in the Office of the Historian collect, arrange, and annotate the principal documents comprising the record of American foreign policy. The standards for the preparation of the series and the general deadlines for its publication are established by the Foreign Relations of the United States statute of October 28, 1991 (22 USC 4351, et seq.). Volumes in the Foreign Relations series are published when all the necessary editing, declassification, and printing steps have been completed.

The documents in this volume are drawn from the centralized indexed files of the Department of State and the decentralized Bureau, Office, and other lot files of the relevant Departmental units. The volume also includes records from the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. In addition, the editor made extensive use of the Presidential and other papers at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas. Access to the recordings of President Johnson’s telephone conversations at the Johnson Library resulted in the inclusion of transcripts or summaries of selected conversations with senior U.S. policymakers.

Almost all of the documents printed here were originally classified. The Information Response Branch of the Office of IRM Programs and Services, Bureau of Administration, Department of State, in concert with the appropriate offices in other agencies or governments, carried out the declassification of the selected documents.

The following is a summary of the most important of the issues covered. Parenthetical citations are to numbered documents in the text.



President Lyndon B. Johnson sought to continue his predecessor John F. Kennedy’s policy of pursuing good relations with Gamal Abdul Nasser’s Egypt, then called the United Arab Republic (UAR), while maintaining good relations with Israel. Keeping the Arab-Israeli dispute “in the icebox” was central to this approach. Mounting tensions in the area, fueled by terrorist attacks on Israel and the flow of Soviet arms to the UAR, undermined this policy. The administration reluctantly agreed to provide increasingly sophisticated arms to Israel and Jordan. U.S. relations with the UAR cooled, as UAR intervention in Yemen and Nasser’s vocal criticism of U.S. policies annoyed Johnson and stirred Congressional opposition to U.S. economic aid. Still, the administration tried to take an even-handed approach to the Arab-Israeli dispute, to prevent a buildup of advanced weapons in the area, and to prevent the increasingly frequent incidents on Israel’s borders from flaring into armed conflict. The volume concludes on the brink of the crisis that preceded the Six-Day War.

The Question of Arms for Israel and Jordan

As the year 1964 began, Israel launched an intensive effort to obtain modern U.S. tanks to counterbalance Soviet-equipped UAR forces. The request ran counter to established U.S. policy to avoid becoming a major arms supplier to either side in the Arab-Israeli dispute. Although the Kennedy administration had diverged from the policy with its 1962 sale of Hawk missiles to Israel, Johnson administration officials were reluctant to depart further from it. While there was much sympathy for Israel’s request within the administration, as well as awareness of the domestic political benefits of providing the tanks in an election year, there was also concern over the likely Arab reaction and the impact of a sale on U.S. interests in the Near East and influence in the Arab world. (3, 7, 10, 13, 28, 29, 42)

After an interdepartmental review, the National Security Council Standing Group agreed that the anticipated Arab reaction precluded a direct U.S. tank sale to Israel, but that the United States should assist Israel in obtaining British, French, or German tanks. White House aide Myer Feldman was dispatched to Tel Aviv to tell the Israelis that the United States would not sell tanks directly but would help them obtain tanks from Europe. (47, 48, 54–57) When Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol visited Washington in June 1964, Johnson told him the United States would help Israel in every way possible to obtain British and German tanks at an affordable price. (64, 65) Subsequently, a complicated arrangement was worked out in which Israel would purchase U.S. tanks from Germany, with modernization kits to be supplied by the United States, supplemented by British tanks. The German tank deal was contingent on secrecy. (98)

While the tank negotiations were still underway, a new request for U.S. arms came from Jordan. King Hussein informed the Embassy that Jordan was under pressure from the Unified Arab Command (UAC), which had been created in January 1964 by an Arab summit meeting, to expand Jordanian military forces and introduce Soviet equipment, including tanks and a squadron of supersonic fighters. Hussein had told the UAC that Jordan could obtain U.S. equipment, but if the United States would not provide it, he would be under irresistible pressure to accept Soviet aircraft. (77) The request, especially the request for supersonic aircraft, posed a difficult problem. A sale to Jordan would lead to enormous pressure to sell similar equipment to Israel, with the inevitable Arab reaction, but the administration considered the alternative of a Soviet presence in Jordan unacceptable. (79, 80, 90, 115)

At an NSC meeting in February 1965, President Johnson and his advisers agreed that a tank sale to Jordan was necessary but that they should try to persuade King Hussein to forego supersonics or buy Western European planes. (128) Meanwhile, Eshkol was informed of the pending U.S. tank sale to Jordan and the likelihood of Jordan’s acquisition of supersonic jets. His strongly negative reply increased Johnson’s concern about domestic reaction to the sale of arms to Jordan and persuaded U.S. policymakers that it would be necessary to reverse the policy against direct arms sales to Israel. (135, 136, 138)

The Harriman-Komer Mission

In February 1965 Johnson sent Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs W. Averell Harriman and NSC staffer Robert Komer to Tel Aviv with a package proposal. The United States would consider direct arms sales to Israel on favorable credit terms on a case-by-case basis. In return for this policy shift, the Israeli Government would let its supporters in the United States know of its acceptance of the U.S. arms sale to Jordan, pledge that it did not intend to develop nuclear weapons, agree to inspection of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and agree that it would not take preemptive action against Arab projects for Jordan River diversion but instead would take the problem to the United Nations. (154)

The Israelis soon discovered that Harriman was asking for commitments on matters of vital interest to them but offering only a promise to consider future sales on a case-by-case basis. (155–164) The Israelis would not deny themselves a future nuclear option by accepting IAEA controls, Komer reported, nor would they completely forswear the possibility of preemption on the water issue or promise to take the issue to the United Nations, especially in exchange for a nebulous promise of possible future arms. It would be possible to obtain some Israeli assurances, he thought, by offering some arms sales, which were inevitable anyway. The German tank deal had leaked, the German Government was backing away from it, and the administration was virtually committed to provide the tanks that Israel had expected to obtain from Germany. “In sum,” he cabled, “we [are] seven months pregnant on arms sales to Israel as well as Jordan. If we sell to Jordan we must sell to Israel too. If we don’t sell to Jordan, Soviets will. Then we’ll have to sell to Israel anyway.” (165)

Secretary of State Dean Rusk cabled Harriman that he and the President thought it was time for the Israeli Government to make some hard decisions. Harriman could tell them the United States would replace the tanks if necessary, but apart from that, the Israelis must accept the original package. (166) Harriman replied with some asperity that all Rusk’s points had been made to the point of rudeness. Komer supported this in a cable to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs McGeorge Bundy, adding, “as Harriman says, even Soviets are less tough bargainers than Israelis.” (169) Rusk told Harriman that he did not doubt the forcefulness of Harriman’s presentation but that his cable reflected the President’s feeling that “there are limits beyond which we cannot go in support of Israel.” (168)

Johnson then decided on another proposal. The U.S. Government would sell military equipment comparable in quantities and kinds to what it sold to Jordan but would regard such sales as an exception to its existing policy and not a precedent for the future. In return, the Israeli Government would acknowledge privately the need for U.S. arms sales to Jordan, pledge to utilize all peaceful means concerning the Jordan water issue, and reiterate publicly that Israel would not be the first country in the area to acquire or develop a nuclear weapons capability. (172) The President had decided, Bundy cabled Komer, that since Israel was unwilling to make firm undertakings not to develop nuclear weapons and to refrain from preemptive attacks over Jordan water, the United States should not accept a general open-ended commitment to supply arms to Israel. (178)

After further negotiations between Komer and Israeli officials (Harriman had gone on to other capitals), the two sides reached agreement on March 11. Israel reaffirmed that it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the area, and the United States reaffirmed its opposition to aggression in the area and agreed to sell tanks equivalent to those sold to Jordan, tanks to complete the German-Israeli tank deal if necessary, and up to 24 combat aircraft if Israel could not obtain them from Western European sources. Eshkol assured Komer privately of tacit Israeli acquiescence in the U.S. arms sale to Jordan. (181, 182) A week later, the United States and Jordan reached agreement on a U.S. sale of tanks and other equipment. (183, 185) A year later, agreements were reached for the sale of 48 F–4s to Israel and 36 F–104s to Jordan. (269, 274, 281)

U.S. Efforts at Near East Arms Control

Both President Johnson and Secretary Rusk were greatly worried about the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Near East. U.S. officials had been concerned about Israel’s nuclear program since a secret Israeli nuclear facility at Dimona became public knowledge in 1960. The Israelis refused to permit IAEA inspection of Dimona, but President Kennedy had obtained Israeli agreement for periodic visits to the facility by U.S. teams of scientists. The Johnson administration continued to insist on these visits. The visiting scientists found no evidence of an Israeli atomic weapons program, but U.S. suspicions about Israeli intentions continued. (12, 134, 175, 287, 389, 415) Johnson tried without success to obtain Israel’s agreement to IAEA inspections of all its nuclear facilities. (216, 229, 296, 330, 376)

In addition to the pledge demanded of Israel at the time of the Harriman-Komer mission, U.S. officials continued to stress to the Israelis the importance of the nuclear proliferation issue. At the time of the F–4 sale in early 1966, the administration insisted on a reaffirmation of Israel’s pledge that it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the area. Foreign Minister Abba Eban told Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara that Israel did not intend to build nuclear weapons, “so we will not use your aircraft to carry weapons we haven’t got and hope we will never have.” (269) A few months later, Rusk told an Israeli envoy that the administration assumed Israel did not wish to go nuclear, and that if it did, it would “lose U.S. support.” (311) When Eban told Ambassador Walworth Barbour that this suggestion of sanctions was not in accord with the atmosphere of trust that should prevail between good friends, Barbour replied that it was not a question of sanctions but of a loss of U.S. support. (321)

Another Kennedy arms control initiative continued by the Johnson administration was an effort to probe the possibility of an indirect arrangement to prevent the introduction of advanced weapons by Israel and the UAR. Johnson dispatched U.S. officials for discussions with Nasser early in 1964 and wrote to Nasser inviting a letter affirming his earlier statements that he had no intention of developing nuclear weapons. In July 1964 Nasser sent Johnson such a letter. (24, 25, 51, 58, 85, 89) Johnson then sent John J. McCloy, who had visited Cairo as Kennedy’s emissary in June 1963, to Cairo in September 1964 to discuss possible limitations on missiles. Nasser’s willingness to be cooperative on nuclear weapons did not extend to missiles, of which he had a considerable supply. He told McCloy the problem in the Middle East was not missiles but Palestine; nothing could stop the arms race in the area except the solution of the Israeli problem. (88, 95–97)

Administration efforts to probe the possibility of a U.S.-Soviet agreement to reduce the flow of arms to the area revealed no Soviet interest. Ambassador at Large Llewellyn E. Thompson told Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy F. Dobrynin in February 1966 that the Soviet supply of arms to the UAR added to the pressure on the United States to provide arms to countries in the area. He asked whether an understanding not to sell sophisticated weaponry such as supersonic planes or rockets to countries in the area might be possible. (270) Dobrynin replied in the negative a few weeks later, instead suggesting the possibility of a nuclear-free zone in the area. (278) Rusk pursued this, suggesting to Dobrynin that the United States and the Soviet Union might obtain separate private assurances from countries in the area and then convey them to their counterparts. He told Dobrynin the United States was convinced the Israelis were not planning to make nuclear weapons. Dobrynin appeared skeptical. (292)

Deteriorating Relations With the UAR

Johnson initially sought to continue Kennedy’s policy of trying to develop good relations with Nasser, although that policy was already foundering on Congressional opposition to economic aid to the UAR. Nasser’s intervention in Yemen and for a time in the Congo, his attacks on U.S. policy in Vietnam and other parts of the world, and the flow of Soviet arms to the UAR engendered skepticism about the policy not only in Congress but also within the administration. The policy of trying to reach an understanding with Nasser had produced no benefits, Rusk told the National Security Council in April 1964. (35) Administration officials were unable to find a better alternative to this policy, but legislative constraints and Johnson’s own annoyance with Nasser’s policies limited U.S. economic aid, the primary incentive they could offer Nasser.

In November 1964, a National Security Action Memorandum stipulated that all recommendations on aid to the UAR should be sent to the White House for the President’s review. (106) Johnson was upset when Rusk agreed to continue P.L. 480 programs and other aid in the pipeline after a mob attack on the Embassy in Cairo. (113, 115) Congress was on the verge of cutting off all P.L. 480 aid to the UAR. It was important to get relations back on an even keel, Rusk told the President, in order to end Nasser’s intervention in the Congo and prevent damage to U.S. interests and the growth of Soviet influence in the Arab world. (123) Johnson and Rusk argued successfully for legislation that would permit carrying out the remaining commitments of the existing P.L. 480 agreement with the UAR, provided the President certified it to be in the national interest. Unofficially, members of Congress made it clear that no aid should go to the UAR while its arms shipments to the Congo continued. (125, 205)

Nasser informed U.S. officials in April 1965 that UAR aid to rebels in the Congo had ended. Two months later, Johnson released the last $37 million under the existing P.L. 480 agreement. (206, 219, 223) UAR intervention in Yemen continued, however, and Nasser continued his periodic blasts at U.S. policies. In September Congress adopted new legislation forbidding P.L. 480 aid to the UAR unless the President certified it essential to the national interest. Soon afterward, Rusk recommended offering the UAR a new short-term P.L. 480 agreement in order to maintain some degree of U.S. influence in Cairo. Johnson was reluctant, but Rusk won his approval of a limited package of P.L. 480 aid and credit sales for the UAR. (233, 241, 245, 248, 250, 256) The signature of a 6-month P.L. 480 agreement in January 1966 and a February visit to Washington by President of the UAR Assembly Anwar al-Sadat brought a brief warming of relations. Both Johnson and Rusk had cordial conversations with Sadat. Johnson urged that the two countries try to settle their differences in private rather than broadcasting them. (272, 275) Nasser did not take this advice, however.

In June 1966, Rusk recommended against signing a new P.L. 480 agreement. Administration officials were reluctant to make this recommendation, Johnson’s Special Assistant Walt Rostow told him, but they felt Nasser had “almost dared us publicly not to renew our agreement.” (300) During the following months, the administration extended $70 million in credit for food sales but continued to tell UAR officials that no decision had been reached on a P.L. 480 agreement. UAR Ambassador Mustafa Kamel urged an agreement in meetings with Johnson and Rusk, assuring them that Nasser wanted good relations and arguing with increasing urgency that an agreement was essential to prevent the growth of Soviet influence in the UAR. Rusk asked why the UAR needed Soviet arms and why it needed to keep an army in Yemen. (301, 306, 307, 314, 377, 399)

Although U.S. policymakers continued to hope for improved relations, UAR officials seemed increasingly persuaded that the United States wanted a confrontation. Nasser told a visitor in late 1966 that he had become convinced the U.S. Government was trying to overthrow and possibly assassinate him. (340) He told Ambassador Lucius Battle emotionally in March 1967 that the UAR would not respond to U.S. pressure; it did not want American wheat. (391) Meanwhile, Johnson’s advisers were raising the possibility of a new P.L. 480 agreement. “It’s hard to argue that we should burn all our bridges with the capital of the Arab world,” Rostow told the President. (388) Johnson did not approve the proposal. When the Middle East crisis erupted in May 1967, administration officials were considering a proposal for a $24 million credit to the UAR but hesitating because of concern about Congressional reaction. (412)

Rising Tensions; More Arms for Jordan and Israel

U.S. policymakers became concerned in mid-1965 with the rising number of terrorist incidents and skirmishes on Israel’s borders. The terrorism was not the work of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), created in 1964, but of independent Palestinian terrorist groups, chiefly Fatah. The latter was supported by Syria, although many incidents occurred on Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Jordan. (253, 355) U.S. officials, concerned that border skirmishes might lead to wider fighting, opposed Israeli reprisals and counseled the Israelis to take the incidents to the United Nations. (218, 236, 246, 284, 317, 328) On one such occasion, Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir complained to Ambassador Barbour about a U.S. public statement deploring the use of force by both sides. Barbour told her that Israeli reprisals made such statements inevitable by removing Israel’s status as injured party. Meir told him tartly that she was not interested in being an injured party; she did not want to be injured at all. (249)

In November 1966 a large-scale Israeli raid into Jordan in retaliation for terrorist incidents angered U.S. policymakers, who knew the Israelis were aware of Jordanian efforts to prevent terrorism on the border with Israel. (221, 285, 327, 329) The United States voted for a UN Security Council resolution censuring Israel, and President Johnson authorized a message to the Israelis warning that another such raid would lead to a suspension of U.S. military shipments. (333, 335, 342, 348) The raid profoundly shocked the Jordanians and fueled unrest that threatened Jordan’s stability. President Johnson assured King Hussein of U.S. support, and U.S. officials sought to develop a positive response to Jordan’s request for new U.S. military aid to quell unrest in the armed forces. (345, 346, 351, 354, 356) The United States and Jordan reached agreement on a military aid package in December 1966. (369, 371–373)

When the Israelis were informed of the pending decision on arms for Jordan, they complained that it would unsettle the arms balance in the area. New York banker Abraham Feinberg, who was sometimes an unofficial channel of communication between Johnson and Israeli leaders, warned that the American Jewish community, already upset by the U.S. vote to censure Israel, would be still more upset if the administration gave arms to Jordan and not Israel. (358–359) Johnson told Arthur Goldberg, U.S. Representative at the United Nations, to tell the Israelis that he could not make a deal but that at the proper time, “we won’t be chintzy with them.” (367) In January the Israelis requested 200 armored personnel carriers (APCs) and other military equipment. The request engendered 4 months of debate within the administration. The main issue, Rostow told Johnson, was “how closely we should identify ourselves with Israel in view of its unclear nuclear intentions and our interests in the Arab world.” (417) Johnson approved most of the Israeli request. (381, 385–387, 394, 405–407, 410, 414) In mid-May 1967, as tension built on Israel’s border with Syria, the administration again counseled Israeli restraint. (419)