488. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • The Middle East

PARTICIPANTS

  • The President of the United States
  • Walt W. Rostow, Special Assistant to the President
  • George Christian, Press Secretary to the President
  • Lucius D. Battle, Assistant Secretary for NEA
  • Foreign Minister Abba Eban of Israel
  • His Excellency Avraham Harman, Ambassador of Israel
  • Mr. Ephraim Evron, Israeli Minister

President Johnson received Foreign Minister Eban at the latter's request for a meeting lasting approximately one hour. After an exchange of pleasantries, the President stated that he had been informed of Mr. Eban's discussions with Secretary Rusk, Under Secretary Katzenbach, etc. and that it was unnecessary to review the items taken up in those meetings.

Mr. Eban said that he brought the President warm greetings from Prime Minister Eshkol as well as a letter from him. The President acknowledged that he had received the letter and would study it immediately and reply in due course.

Mr. Eban said that Mr. Eshkol might visit the United States in early 1968 and that he hoped, if circumstances brought him here, he would be able to renew his acquaintance with President Johnson.

Mr. Eban then dealt at some length with the current situation in the Middle East. He remarked that the events of yesterday and today had underlined the essential need to move away from armistice arrangements and cease-fire arrangements and to move to a condition of peace. Of the alternatives available to the Arabs, the most attractive by far is peace; and it is the only alternative not tried. The Israelis cannot go on with a jerry-built structure. What is needed both politically and juridically is peace with mutual recognition of countries' rights. Peace is needed in a legal sense, not an emotional sense. Frontiers, permanent [Page 945]and agreed to, must be accepted by both sides. The ideas of the Israelis are very close to those stated in President Johnson's June 19 speech. Three points are particularly attractive to the Israelis. The first is the recognition in that speech that we cannot go back to the June 4 situation. The second point is the recognition that there must be a durable peace, and the third is the need to supersede fragile armistice lines with something more permanent. That really is all there is to the basic problem.

It is essential, Mr. Eban continued, that in the next weeks the Russians and the Arabs not use their voting strength in the United Nations to prevent a forward-looking policy. There can be no withdrawal without peace. The Israelis accepted that arrangement in 1957. To do so twice in one decade would be ridiculous. National suicide is not an international obligation.

The Government of Israel hopes that the United Nations will say it wants the Israelis and the Arabs to work out their differences with United Nations help. If we are able to “knock down some things” in New York in the next weeks, Mr. Eban believed that the Israelis could become very active beginning in January in an effort to bring about a solution. There was, he felt, a chance of forward motion with the UAR and Jordan. There was not much chance with Syria. Even the Russians admit that the Syrians are unpredictable and irresponsible. The problem for the UAR should not be great. Gaza is the only territorial issue, and the Egyptians have never claimed that it was their territory. Each Arab state would get a good deal if it moved forward now. Moreover, the Israelis are willing to work with anyone who can bring the two sides together. They consider that direct negotiations are important, but they are not rigid about techniques. The important thing is that they not move from the cease-fire lines to “a wilderness of anarchy”. The United States and the Israelis are close together on principles, but there may be more difficulty on details.

Regarding arms supply, the Minister said that he had been surprised at Russian speed in replenishing Arab losses, particularly in planes. The United States must remember that the difference for Israel between survival and extinction in the last war had been 100–150 planes. The Israelis are happy to have had the understanding with regard to the 48 planes reconfirmed. General Weizman has reviewed Israeli needs for the future. They are not excessive and represent an emphasis in quality rather than quantity. The total force would consist of 250 planes which would require delivery of 77 by the end of 1968. Secretary McNamara has agreed to talk with Mr. Eban a week or so before he leaves the United States.

Mr. Eban continued that it was not Israeli policy to sit and wait for Arab action. Israel will be active and try to accelerate progress. The Israelis are “not entirely without contact” with the UAR and Jordan.

[Page 946]

With respect to Jordan, the Israelis were deeply disappointed in the King. They had hoped he would avoid war with Israel even though pressed by Nasser. Nevertheless, the King is there. If he wants peace, the Israelis would be willing to reach an understanding with him which would make Jordan better off economically and politically. They hope the King can be made to understand this and be encouraged to move towards peace. Also, the Israelis hope that he understands “he can't get a good deal without talking”. Some Arabs on the West Bank are telling the Israelis that they wish Israel would forget Hussein. They point out that the population of the West Bank is greater than many states in the United Nations. The Israelis have not encouraged this, however, because they have not given up hope that there can be a peace arrangement with the King of Jordan.

Mr. Eban expressed his appreciation for the great help the United States has been to the Israelis. He said, however, that the Israelis were glad they had relied on themselves and had not expected others to shed blood in their behalf.

President Johnson repeated that he saw no point in reviewing the matters discussed in conversations with Secretary Rusk, Secretary McNamara, Under Secretary Katzenbach, etc. He had nothing to add on the matters discussed.

United States objectives and Israeli objectives are much the same in general. We share the feeling of need to fashion a peace structure for the Middle East and will do all possible to help bring it about. It can be best done, however, by those in the area, and we look to them to move in that direction.

The President said he had little to add to his June 19 statement and the other statements we have made with respect to principles guiding the United States. He said he would be less than candid if he failed to say he regretted that the advice he had given in his last meeting with the Foreign Minister2 had been ignored. While there may seem to be a victory now for the Israelis, in the long term he was not sure anyone had gained. It had been a difficult moment, and the President must say that the most awesome decisions he had taken since he came into office resulted from the Hot Line talks with Kosygin in matters relating to the crisis. The President said he thought at the time that Israeli action was unwise. He still thought so. While he could understand Israeli reluctance not to counsel with the United States, he regretted that we had not been consulted on some actions the Israelis have taken even though the fact that we were not consulted meant we had no commitment thereto. The United States has a strong conviction of its responsibility in the [Page 947]Middle East and a strong tie to the Israeli people. There are many dangers ahead—many more than some people realize even within the Executive Branch of the Government. The aid cut cannot be brushed aside. Neither can the growing desire to “come home” whether it be from Saigon, Berlin, or elsewhere. The voices of isolation are increasing in intensity and effectiveness. The problems of arms sales are increasingly difficult ones for us, and to suggest any sale is to appear to be joining the Mafia. However, we had commitments, and the President will do everything possible to live up to those commitments. The Israelis should understand the difference between a Presidential commitment and Congressional action on that commitment.

With respect to the Middle East, the President said the Israelis should not forget what we had said about territorial integrity and boundaries. We could not countenance aggression.

The Russians think we have great influence with the Israelis which is perhaps not the case, and the Israelis consider that we have great influence with the Russians which is no more true than the first statement.

With respect to arms sales in the area, the President said he was more concerned than anyone in his Administration about the arms build-up in the area which is a difficult and dangerous development. He was worried about the ultimate situation. It is essential in considering the attitudes of the countries in the area not to overlook the humiliation the Arabs suffered and their own need to recoup their loss of prestige. The United States must try to maintain its position throughout the area to keep the USSR from putting its tentacles on other nations. We shall do all possible to pursue vigorously a peace structure for the area. The President wished to caution the Israelis that the further they get from June 5 the further they are from peace.

With respect to the specific items raised, the United States will do what it can in the arms field. The Israelis must recognize the extreme difficulty we faced in proceeding with sales given the current atmosphere. As to acceleration of the delivery date of the planes, we would have to work that out with technicians, and anything that we did would have to be consistent with our own needs and our own schedules. We will try to live up to earlier understandings unless Congressional action limits our ability to do so. Arms sales are a more serious problem than when the President last met with Mr. Eban. The President had hoped to get a Congressional endorsement of programs which had not been forthcoming. Nevertheless, we would do the best we could within the limits of our own situation. It is essential that we maintain the maximum influence that we can throughout the area. Our policy there will be a just one. The President said he looked forward to seeing Mr. Eshkol and would study the letter from the Prime Minister with interest.

[Page 948]

In conclusion Mr. Eban said that he believed that the United States had considerable influence with the Russians. He believed that the Glassboro meeting had kept the Russians from being more unreasonable during this period than they might have been. He pointed out that the Israelis did take the President's counsel. The meeting with the President was May 26. Without that meeting, there might have been action the following day. The situation did, however, reach a state where the military authorities refused to be responsible if a prolonged stalemate occurred. That had led to the June 5 war.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 27 ARAB–ISR. Secret; Exdis. Drafted by Battle on October 25 and approved by the White House on October 27. The meeting took place in the Cabinet Room at the White House. The time and location of the meeting are from the Johnson Library, President's Daily Diary. Copies were sent to Rusk, Katzenbach, Leddy, Battle, and the Embassy in Tel Aviv. George Christian's notes of the meeting are ibid., Meeting Notes File.
  2. See Document 77.