263. Memorandum From the President’s Special Counsel (McPherson) to President Johnson1
The solid part of what I understand about the Middle East situation has already been communicated by Wally Barbour; I was with him during most of his meetings with Israeli officials. What follows are additional impressions.
I don’t need to remind you that I was almost completely in the dark about the events that led up to the outbreak of war. Saigon newspapers leave a good deal to be desired in world news reporting. I arrived in Tel Aviv at 3 a.m. last Monday, was awakened by Wally at 8, and began my education half an hour later to the sound of air raid sirens.
In four days I met Eshkol once, for about an hour (this was Thursday noon), Eban briefly but rhetorically, the Israeli intelligence chief, and the Army J–2. I talked with Moshe Bitan, head of the Foreign Office American section, two or three times a day. I went to the Negev with a Joint Staff colonel, and got to the Gaza border before we ran out of road and into objections from the Israeli military that the town of Gaza had not yet fallen and that we ought to get the hell out of there. I went north to Haifa, Nazareth, and within a few miles of Tiberias near the Syrian border. They would not let me into Jerusalem before they took the Old City, and when they did take it, it was too late for me to go.
- Eshkol sends you his best wishes.
- Bitan told us on the first day that they didn’t want our troops or planes; they would do the job themselves; they just wanted us to keep the Russians off their backs, and they wanted “two or three days to finish the job.” On the last day, he said they still wanted Sky-Hawks very much.
- There is no doubt in my mind about how the war started. After their intelligence chief first talked about “responding to Egyptian [Page 434] attacks”—this was Monday noon—it became clear after questioning that such attacks, if any, could only have been a provoked artillery exchange. More likely there was no such exchange, but a simple preventive assault on the ground in Sinai and by air in Sinai and Cairo. You know their intelligence about Egyptian armored concentration in Sinai; they claimed to have evidence that an Egyptian assault was “imminent”, within a few hours, north of Eilat and into Jordan—thus cutting off the Gulf of Aqaba from northern Israel. My feeling is that it was not so imminent, but that the Israelis simply decided to hit first before the tactical situation got worse.
- By noon the war was essentially won. We sat outside Eshkol’s office about that time. As the sirens went on again, and when we asked the intelligence chief whether we should go to a shelter, he looked at his watch and said “It won’t be necessary.”
- On the Gaza border on Tuesday, at a point where one of the earliest thrusts was made, we saw exhausted truck drivers lying about in the shade, sleeping and talking. When I mentioned the fatigue on their faces, my Israeli colonel said “They’ve earned the right to sleep. They’ve been driving down here since Sunday afternoon. The place looked like Detroit Sunday night.” The “response” began Monday morning.
- The spirit of the army, and indeed of all the people, has to be experienced to be believed. After the doubts, confusions, and ambiguities of Vietnam, it was deeply moving to see people whose commitment is total and unquestioning. I was told that 8-year-olds went to the telegraph office Monday morning to deliver telegrams, as the regular force of messengers had gone off to military duty. In the Negev one hot afternoon, I saw two good-looking girls in uniform riding in the back of a half-ton jeep, one with a purple spangled bathing cap on her head, the other with an orange turban. They were headed for the front, driven by two burly sergeants. (Incidentally, Israel at war destroys the prototype of the pale, scrawny Jew; the soldiers I saw were tough, muscular, and sunburned. There is also an extraordinary combination of discipline and democracy among officers and enlisted men; the latter rarely salute and frequently argue, but there is no doubt about who will prevail. )
- The temper of the country, from high officials to people in the street, is not belligerent, but it is determined, and egos are a bit inflated—understandably. Israel has done a colossal job. There was never any doubt of the outcome, because “there was simply no alternative.” And what has been done has been done not only for Israel, “but for the U.S.—we got you out of a difficult situation in the Middle East” (Bitan and the military).
- Some Israelis, chiefly the military, would like to retain most of the territory they have taken. Eshkol, Eban and Bitan do not talk in such [Page 435] broad terms. I had the distinct impression that they had not thought very clearly, or very long, about what next. Beating the Arabs and keeping the Russians from complicating things had pre-occupied them. Nevertheless every Israeli I talked to said in effect that no government could survive that gave up the Old City or control of Sharm-el-Sheikh, at the straits of Tiran. Regaining the Old City is an event of unimaginable significance to the Israelis. Even the non-religious intellectuals feel this way.
- Though this could change at any moment, and may be only last
week’s opinion, my feeling is that
- they do not want the Sinai, though they do want it “de-militarized”—no longer used as an Egyptian staging area.
- they do not want to annex the West Bank of the Jordan, as this would involve taking in great numbers of Arabs whose loyalties are unpredictable.
- they could conceive a “protected state”—neither Jordanian nor Israeli—in the West Bank lands, managed by international authorities. Eshkol said this.
- they will remain in Sharm-el-Sheikh, and they could imagine a group of maritime nations authorizing Israel to serve as its agent in keeping the Gulf of Aqaba open to shipping; and conceivably joining with Israel in doing the police work. This also from Eshkol.
- they must either retain the Old City, or absolute and guaranteed access to it.
- they would like to straighten a few borders, particularly to cut off some of the Jordanian salients that threaten their access to Jerusalem; and also to widen Israel at its narrowest point, north of Tel Aviv at Natanya. (I am for this; Barbour’s house is about five miles south of Natanya, and Tuesday morning I awoke to the sound of bombs hitting Natanya and of shelling over the hills at Herzliyya, about six miles away toward Jordan.)
- There are constant references and comparisons to 1956. The Israelis do not intend to repeat the same scenario—to withdraw within their boundaries with only paper guarantees that fall apart at the touch of Arab hands. We would have to push them back by military force, in my opinion, to accomplish a repeat of 1956; the cut-off of aid would not do it. While they are contemptuous of the UN’s performance, they did not write it off as a forum or means of resolving the main issues. They were far more affirmative, however, about a major-power settlement.
- What they want far more than territory, of course, is a peace treaty that recognizes the State of Israel.
- They seem to hate Nasser, but not the Egyptians; to hate all the Syrians; and to feel a kind of enraged contempt for Hussein—“that stupid little king who gave control of his country to Nasser.” Nobody really has any ideas about how to bring about a reduction in hatred between themselves and the Arabs.
- I have no such ideas, either; after listening to Arab radio, with a driver-translator, for four days, I don’t think “multilateral aid schemes” will do the trick with the Syrians or the Egyptians. The others are not so intransigent and aid may work. I do think we, the British, and the French should turn every screw in an effort to use this occasion for bringing about Arab recognition of Israel.
- Source: Johnson Library, President’s Appointment File, June 1967. No classification marking. A handwritten “L” on the memorandum indicates the President saw it. McPherson had just returned from a 4-day visit to Israel, following a 2-week trip to Vietnam. Also see Harry McPherson, A Political Education (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972), pp. 413–417.↩
- Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.↩