12. Telegram From the Embassy in Jordan to the Department of State1

3612. Ref: Amman’s 3596.2 Subject: Conversation with Hussein re Present Situation in Middle East.

In discussing the present situation in the Middle East, Hussein observed that the apparent target for possible Israeli attack is Syria. If the UAR does not react militarily to an Israeli attack on Syria, Jordan will stand still. If, as is more probable, Nasser must and does react, if only nominally, Jordan will have to take sufficient action to keep from being a conspicuous scapegoat, but this would not entail a direct armed clash with Israel so long as an Israeli attack on Syria were of limited duration.
The King feels that the Middle East is in for an extended period of serious trouble. He views the factors and issues involved as much more complicated than they appear on the surface. He considers, for example, that infiltration is only symptomatic of the underlying situation. He believes it is important that all concerned will keep the entire picture in the broadest possible focus to insure that all of the factors involved, both short and long range, are properly and accurately calculated. In this context he noted that while Syria might logically be the next target of attack, Jordan is just as likely a target in the short run and, in his opinion, an inevitable one in the long run. In support of this he said that he is not at all convinced that the Israelis have accepted the status quo as a permanent solution. Israel has certain long range military and economic requirements and certain traditional religious and historic aspirations which in his opinion they have not yet satisfied or realized. The only way in which these goals can be achieved, he said, is by an alteration of the status of the West Bank of Jordan. Thus in the King’s view it is quite natural for the Israelis to take advantage of any opportunity and force any situation which would move them closer to this goal. His concern is that current area conditions provide them with just such opportunities-terrorism, infiltration and disunity among the Arabs being the most obvious. The present state of tension in the [Page 17] Middle East provides a cover, so to speak, for an Israeli attack on anyone of their choosing. Hussein pointed out that in 1956 Israel was threatening Jordan but in fact attacked Egypt; in November 1966 it was the Syrians with whom Israel’s relations were at a nadir yet it was Jordan who was attacked. Admittedly, said Hussein, there would have to be a casus belli for an Israeli attack against Jordan, such as a terrorist incident in Israel across from the Jordanian border. In such event Israel might attack Jordan alone, or Jordan and Syria together. The Jordanians are making the maximum effort to interdict terrorists, but, he observed, there always exists the possibility a terrorist would get through who would do serious damage. Or, he added, an incident could be manufactured if the risks and gains appeared worth it.
I challenged Hussein’s thesis and in addition pointed out to him there was no evidence Israel was planning to attack Jordan and that all factors and indicators argued against the Israelis doing so. Hussein remained unconvinced, arguing that neither he nor we could afford to rule such a possibility out of our overall considerations. He conceded that Israel could not successfully annex the West Bank in one action, but any move which would tend to neutralize the West Bank or weaken Arab control over it would put Israel a step closer to a goal which was in her long-term strategic interest. The temporary seizure and occupation of a piece of Jordanian territory would place Israel in a position to extract a price for withdrawal, such as, possibly, demilitarization of the West Bank or some form of UN control over the West Bank. Israel could make as much of a case for such action on grounds of security against infiltration and sabotage as she did in Suez. His regime could not pay a price for Israeli withdrawal and still survive. Hussein said that if Israel launched another Samu-scale attack against Jordan3 he would have no alternative but to retaliate or face an internal revolt. If Jordan retaliates, asked Hussein, would not this give Israel a pretext to occupy and hold Jordanian territory? Or, said Hussein, Israel might instead of a hit-and-run type attack simply occupy and hold territory in the first instance. He said he could not exclude these possibilities from his calculations and urged us not to do so even if we felt them considerably less than likely.
In any event, asked Hussein, what would the US do if his hypothesis proved correct? He had been assured on countless occasions by US officials that the US would not permit the Israelis to alter the status quo. He had been told when last in Washington, he said, that Jordan did not need additional armament because the Sixth Fleet would protect him.
I replied that the US stood by its declarations (Tripartite Declaration, Eisenhower reaffirmation of November 9, 1955, Eisenhower Doctrine and Kennedy statement of May 8, 1963) that the US would not acquiesce in changes of the border by force. Just what form US action would take would have to be decided at the time in the light of circumstances then existing.
Hussein replied: “Yes, I know those declarations. In such a contingency as I have described there would be need for immediate US assistance to force Israeli withdrawal. The other Arab states would not help Jordan, and it would take too long for the US to act. I predict that if the Israelis remain in Jordan for any extended length of time, the present regime here would fall. The same thing would happen if the Israelis succeeded in extracting significant concessions as the price for withdrawal. As you know, I no longer believe the Israelis have a stake in my regime, so that its demise would not deter them from such action. In my opinion, the chances of the contingency we have talked about arising would be practically eliminated if the Israelis were clearly on notice you would forcibly intervene.”
Comment: Whatever Hussein’s beliefs he does not want to tangle with Israel and will be guided by prudence. If, however, a serious terrorist incident should occur in Israel across from the Jordanian border, I defer to judgment of Embassy Tel Aviv but I would imagine that, given the present tense atmosphere and the precedent of Samu, no one could rule out the possibility that Israel might hit Jordan. There is little doubt the Jordanians would in such event counterattack. The King realizes a counterattack would court escalation, but he is convinced that not to counterattack would mean the end of his regime through internal upheaval. I would guess the counterattack would follow swiftly upon the attack, and be of lesser scale than the original attack.
I plan to see the King again in a few days to review the situation with him. I will continue to encourage him in his present course of prudence. Would appreciate any views or reassurances the Department would wish transmitted to Hussein.4
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 32–1 ISR–JORDAN. Secret; Priority; Limdis. Repeated to Baghdad, Cairo, Jerusalem, USUN, CINCSTRIKE, Jidda, Beirut, Damascus, London, and Tel Aviv. Received at 3:23 p.m.
  2. Telegram 3596 from Amman, May 17, reported that Ambassador Burns had met that afternoon with King Hussein, who said he viewed the situation in the Middle East as the most critical since 1956. (Ibid.)
  3. Israel attacked the Jordanian village of Samu on November 13, 1966, in a large-scale raid in retaliation for recent terrorist incidents. Documentation relating to the incident is in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XVIII, Document 332 ff.
  4. Telegram 198899 to Amman, May 20, approved the line Burns had taken with the King as reported in telegram 3612. It instructed him to reiterate to the King the assurances contained in the President’s letter of November 23 (see ibid., Document 346) and to inform him that the U.S. Government still stood by President Kennedy’s statement of May 8, 1963, and that the U.S. estimate of Israeli intentions toward the Jordanian regime had not changed. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 32–1 ISR–JORDAN)