129. Memorandum From Harold H. Saunders of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow)1


  • The President’s Decision and the Near East2

Our main problem, as you said this morning, is to see how we can use the President’s new position to finish as much unfinished business as possible. In the Near East, the main job is how to make concrete progress toward the President’s vision of last June 19. With the President’s new freedom from politics, I’d suggest that we may be able to use the uncertainties of this period to good advantage in Israel.

Two new factors are obvious:

The President is now more free of Israeli pressure. We shouldn’t discount his strong personal determination not to let Israel down, so we have to exclude any dramatic shift in our position. But it’s worth considering what we might do now that we couldn’t have done last week.
The President has nothing to bargain with beyond next January. Whatever we do must not depend on committing the US beyond January 1969, except for military sales which a new Administration would be bound to honor or a financial commitment (like desalting) with Congress behind it.

On balance, I believe the President’s increased freedom may be more important than his loss of leverage. His ability to bargain with US support was neutralized by domestic politics. Now he can play on uncertainties about his successor.

Two possible courses spring to mind:

Use the President’s increased freedom of maneuver to bring pressure on Israel and begin re-balancing our position toward the Arabs. No successor will have such freedom to create public doubt that Israel can count on us in a Soviet-backed effort to get Arab territory back, curtail our support in the UN, tamper with tax exemption for Israel bonds or whatever else might occur to us.
Use the President’s friendship to advantage—he may be the best friend Israel will have in the White House for some time.

[Page 256]

I favor the latter because (a) I don’t think the President would want to pressure Israel and (b) because we’ve never fully and systematically put his friendship on the line in a tough effort to change an Israeli position. Now, if ever, is the time to try. The Israelis are already nervous about approaching the limits of our tolerance, and they might respond to the thought that they might get more support from us now than later.

One other factor has to go in the hopper: There’s not much the President can do on the Arab side. He is tabbed as too pro-Israeli, and our leverage there will increase only as we show we can move Israel.

Putting these elements together, I think our best bet is to concentrate on changing Israel’s position by persuasion-rather than pressure-enough to give Jarring a real chance. That’s where the President’s influence is greatest.

If we take this course, we must be sure that doing something soon is better than letting Mid-East forces play themselves out. I must say I don’t take much convincing on this point. It may already be too late for Hussein and Nasser to negotiate and the next Arab summit may commit the Arabs to guerrilla war instead of political solution.

We want Israel to do two things:


Signal “ready.” One of the big obstacles to Jarring’s getting started is the Israelis’ position that the Arabs must come to them. In part, Eshkol is hiding behind this position to avoid the Cabinet crisis that forcing a decision on peace terms would precipitate. The question is whether an Israeli Cabinet decision now would inject enough new flexibility into the picture to get Jarring going—whether a hint to assure Hussein and Nasser that there is a deal at the end of the track would get negotiations going.

The answer, of course, hinges on whether there’s something at the end of the road for Israel. No one can guarantee that the Arabs will—or can—seriously negotiate anything beside withdrawal. But no one can argue that Israel has given them a fair try, and it’s hard to see how Israel can lose while it sits on the Suez Canal and the Jordan River.

Show tactical flexibility. The time has come to try to move them a short step back from their absolute position on direct negotiations and from the notion of a package settlement all at once. The President last June 19 specifically did not endorse direct negotiations; nor did he rule out settlement in stages, and Secretary Rusk spoke to Eshkol on this point at the Ranch.

What this adds up to is doing something concrete about what we’ve been talking about for weeks without result-increasing Israeli flexibility. Maybe we have a chance to cut the Gordian knot now. The point is that the Israelis are “shook” over the President’s decision. Rabin told Ernie Goldstein, “We’ve had it.” So while the President doesn’t seem to have much to bargain with, the urgency of getting Israel’s security [Page 257] position in order (50 Phantoms) in the next few months may enhance what he does have. We can’t expect to bargain with airplanes for Israeli withdrawal, but now may be the time to shoot our wad on a marginal Israeli shift that might be enough to get negotiations going.

Now we come to an action proposal:

A special emissary to loosen up and pin down the Israeli position. Harry Symmes has proposed retired ambassadors like Holmes, Yost or Jernegan. But all of these are too “Arab” to cut any ice in Jerusalem. If we are to build on the advantages in the President’s new status, we need someone who can go as the President’s man and represent his pro-Israel side. (We’ve mentioned Mac Bundy as filling this bill.)
The line he would take would be to argue out the consequences of each possible course to persuade the Israelis that the consequences of retaliation and sitting tight are dead-ends. That being the case, pressures in the US are mounting to re-balance our position toward the Arabs before it’s too late. That will also be an obvious task for the new President. With London, Paris and Moscow backing away from Israel, it will be dangerous for Israel if the US starts backing away too. Therefore, if Israel will shift its position enough to give negotiations a fair chance, we’ll consider meeting Israel’s aircraft needs now. This approach would combine a big carrot with a gentle stick urging only a marginal shift in Israel’s position.

All of us have a deep sense of foreboding that the Arabs will soon be locked into a guerrilla war that none of us will know how to stop. If the President wants to make one last effort for peace, now is the time. It may already be too late, but the effort won’t cost him anything. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it now and let’s send someone like Mac Bundy with the best possible credentials.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Middle East, Vol. II, 4/68–1/69. Secret;Nodis.
  2. The reference is to President Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election, which he announced in a nationally telecast address from the White House on March 31. See Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968–69, Book I, p. 476.