152. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • W. W. Rostow
  • Ephraim Evron
  • Harold H. Saunders

Israeli Ambassador Rabin on March 20 had asked Mr. Rostow “at Prime Minister Eshkol’s request” about the status of our decision on Phantoms as discussed at the Ranch. Mr. Rostow, on the basis of memos from Secretary McNamara, Mr. Nitze and General Wheeler, and Mr. Helms, reported to the President where staff work stands and asked permission to tell Evron informally. Not wishing to provoke a strong reaction in Jerusalem, Mr. Rostow with the President’s approval passed the information informally in order to give Evron and Rabin a chance to decide how to handle it with their own Government.

Mr. Evron came in at 5:00 p.m. yesterday to hear this report. Mr. Rostow, speaking very precisely, told him the following:

Secretary McNamara had determined that the President could decide as late as December 31, 1968, and still begin delivering Phantoms in January 1970 at the production-line rate of about 4 per month.
General Wheeler, after discussion with General Hod and his team, had determined that US training can be done beginning January 1969 provided the Israelis do preliminary training (English, electronics basics) in Israel.

Mr. Helms has reviewed the intelligence exchanges [less than 1 line of text not declassified]. There’s no major disagreement on numbers. We interpret these numbers differently with Israel taking the gloomier view. However, Mr. Helms sees no new evidence that would change his estimates.

Mr. Rostow also said that we had carried out our intention, discussed at the Ranch, to approach the Soviets with the following results:

  • —We’ve made two serious approaches.
  • —The Soviets say they’re willing to discuss arms limitation after Israeli withdrawal.
  • —We have never assumed that a direct Soviet answer was the only possible response. We have always assumed that the only Soviet response might be a de facto slowdown of shipments. We are watching this closely.

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Mr. Evron in response said he knew his government would be quite concerned. One of the things General Wheeler at the Ranch had said the US would specially watch was France’s decision on the Mirages. Not only have the French still not delivered them, but they have signed a contract with Iraq. Iraq, from this deal alone, will end up with more Mirages than Israel now has in its inventory. Evron admitted that Soviet shipments to the Arab countries at the moment seemed to have leveled off and that absorptive capacity is a limiting factor. However, he said, noting that he could not be exact, that Israel has information that the training level of Egyptian pilots had increased to something like 50-100 a year.

In sum, Evron felt there were elements in the situation which called for an earlier decision than waiting until the end of 1968. He conceded that it is technically accurate to say that the President’s option will remain open until the end of 1968, but he noted that there are both “psychological and political” elements in the situation which make an earlier decision desirable. In fact, he felt that a public decision was called for, although he did not press that. He then spelled out his notion that the Arabs will only negotiate when they are thoroughly persuaded Israel is so strong that no military solution is possible. In conclusion, he said he could only tell us that the continued uncertainty would worry Jerusalem and urge a prompt decision.

With that subject covered, Mr. Rostow turned to the broader subject of a political settlement, emphasizing that he was speaking entirely personally. He felt a tremendous sense of foreboding and saw the area teetering between the breakup of Jordan and the prospect some day of a bigger war. He felt that “what we and the Israelis owe to our grandchildren transcends hardware.” He felt it is absolutely essential that the Israelis give some encouragement to King Hussein to negotiate a settlement. He realized that Nasser seems unwilling at the moment to go that route, but Hussein is grasping for any straw that would permit him to negotiate a bilateral settlement. Mr. Rostow felt that what is necessary is for the Israelis to give Hussein some glimpse of the kind of settlement they might expect on the West Bank, but particularly in Jerusalem.

Mr. Evron agreed that Hussein is desperately trying to persuade Nasser to give him the blessing for making his own settlement. Hussein—and here Evron cautioned the utmost sensitivity-is using the West Bank notables to try to persuade Nasser to give Hussein a free hand. He did not disagree with Mr. Rostow’s line, although he did indicate that there already is communication through the notables with Hussein.

In conclusion, Evron reiterated his argument that a decision on the Phantoms now would both increase Eshkol’s maneuverability with his [Page 302] own government and would give Hussein further evidence with which to convince Nasser that the political solution was the only one possible.

H. H. S.
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. IX, Cables and Memos, 3/68-5/68. Secret; Nodis. Rostow sent this memorandum to the President on April 26 with an attached note summarizing the conversation. (Ibid.)