163. Action Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson 1

SUBJECT

  • Letter from Eshkol 2 and Some Personal Thoughts

Ambassador Rabin has just delivered to me the attached letter from Prime Minister Eshkol. He supplemented it with a strong pitch for making our decision on Phantoms now. State and Defense will have to staff this carefully since it reopens the whole Phantom decision.

Secretary Rusk asked that he meet with you before a Phantom decision is made. However, I promised to pass this to you immediately and wish to add some purely personal views.

Eshkol’s letter replies to yours of April 6.3 In brief, he argues that Israel has “made every reasonable attempt” to facilitate a political settlement (most of us would not agree) and that the UAR is the main obstacle (true). He says that Israel is investigating fully the chance for a bilateral settlement with Hussein, but he does not know yet whether this is realistic. (In fact, Rabin was pessimistic.) Finally, he argues that Nasser will turn to political settlement only when he is convinced that he has absolutely no hope of a military victory. He urges that we begin delivery of the Phantoms in mid-1969 at the rate of 8-10 a month.

I agree with Eshkol and Rabin that Israel’s security margin is thin. Our intelligence people are probably right in estimating that Israel could handle any Arab threat at least through 1969. But with the French refusing to deliver Mirages and literally no other suitable source of supply left but us, I can understand why Eshkol is worried about seeing our decision held up when delivery is still a year off at best.

Moreover, he faces real political pressures in his Cabinet to exert maximum pressure on us—a point Eppie made yesterday when I called, at your instruction, and told him pressure on the President was most unwise.

I also agree that Nasser no longer seems inclined to reach a political settlement. Hussein (and McCloy) say Nasser’s internal base is too shaky to permit it. Some think he might have moved if the Israelis had [Page 321] been more forthcoming with Jarring in January; but we’ll never know whether our not pushing them harder then lost a major opportunity. (I doubt this because I have come to the reluctant conclusion that Nasser is constitutionally incapable of settling down to peace.)

This raises two questions:

  • —whether we should now do all in our power to bring about an Israel-Jordan settlement—the next possibility;
  • —and whether our aircraft decision could play a role.

Although he asked not to have his name associated with it, Evron has hinted twice to Hal Saunders and me that if we strengthened Israel (with Phantoms) Eshkol might be able to stick his neck out farther in reaching toward a political settlement with Hussein.

Theoretically, it might be possible to use the Phantoms to bargain for enough of a marginal shift in Israel’s position to improve chances for a settlement with Hussein. We could not expect Israel to give up anything major, and we could not guarantee success. But it is at least worth considering whether any US move would help.

Some of us believe that it would improve chances for a settlement with Hussein if Israel would:

  • —commit itself via a Cabinet decision to withdraw from most of the West Bank in the context of a Jordanian settlement and permit Hussein a civil as well as religious role in Jerusalem (Eban unhelpfully told Jarring Jerusalem is not negotiable; although there is some reason to believe that Israel might, in the end, be more flexible);
  • —let Hussein know of this decision;
  • —back off from its insistence on direct open negotiations and a formal peace treaty, at least at the beginning of negotiation.

I have been trying for several weeks to get State at least to judge whether these or any other such steps are worth our pressing on Israel. Nick Katzenbach is completing a review this Friday. So far, the State Department seems so divided that no concrete recommendation seems likely to emerge. Yet almost everyone agrees that positions are hardening and another round of fighting—perhaps with Soviet involvement—seems the most likely outcome.

I must also report that some responsible people feel it would be a major mistake to decide now to sell Phantoms. They point out that the Arab-Israeli military balance is no less favorable for Israel than it was last June. They also point out that Soviet arms shipments have leveled off and that our Phantom decision would risk pushing the Soviets into additional shipments and ruin our best chance of getting a grip on the arms race. (You will have a paper from General Wheeler tomorrow and one from us.)

It will take State and Defense some days to review again all elements in the Phantom decision. I feel strongly, however, that we are [Page 322] approaching-if we have not already passed-a critical period in realizing our hopes for a political settlement.

You may wish, therefore, to consider a special meeting to go over this whole situation and, in particular, to hear argument on three points:

  • —should we press Israel to make a maximum try for a settlement with Hussein?
  • —should we relate the Phantoms to such an effort, as Evron suggests?
  • —if so, should we send a special emissary to Eshkol to put the proposition?

Walt

Set up a meeting

No

Call me4

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Special Head of State Correspondence File, Israel 3/1/68-7/31/68. Secret; Nodis.
  2. See Document 157.
  3. See Document 134.
  4. None of the options is checked.