18. Telegram From the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State 1
1796. 1. At outset meeting this morning arranged by mutual request (I had another matter, reported separately, to raise with him on instructions),FonMin Eban gave me following aide-memoire which he described as summarizing the views he wished to present:
December 12, 1967
The Soviet military presence in the Middle East is becoming progressively more blatant and intense.
Rearmament of the U.A.R.
Since June the USSR has replenished over 80 percent of Arab losses in equipment and stores. At the present rate the resupplying of Egyptian [Page 34] forces to pre-June strength will be completed in approximately five months. Some of the equipment will be qualitatively superior to that being replaced. SU-7 aircraft will be in greater proportion than before. T-34 tanks are being replaced by T-54 tanks; howitzers by new field guns. Ground to ground missiles are being introduced in numbers and quality yet to be determined.
Since June the Soviets have established a naval force in the Mediterranean second only to the Sixth Fleet. The present ratio between the two forces is estimated at upwards of 5.3. The coordination between this force and those of the Government of the UAR marks an escalation of Soviet involvement in the affairs of the region.
Following after these naval developments the Soviets yet despatched a squadron of TU-16 bombers to Egypt for a visit of unspecified duration. It is reported that other such visits will follow. The motives may be to strengthen the Nasser regime on the eve of the summit conference and of Ambassador Jarring’s visit. The Egyptian interpretation is exuberant. Cairo is becoming less convinced than ever of the necessity to seek a settlement.
The Soviets have just taken the unprecedented step of intervening actively in the Yemen war by employing Soviet-manned aircraft against Royalist forces. In Arab eyes this gives further credibility to the prospect of Soviet direct intervention elsewhere.
The question is whether this escalation in the Soviet involvement should remain unchallenged. If it does Arab policy will be based on the assumption of eventual Soviet supremacy. It is earnestly recommended that the Soviet Government be apprised of the U.S. Government’s concern and serious reservations over these far reaching maneuvers. The absence of any United States reactions will encourage further Soviet intrusions. The psychological effects of passivity will be grave both in the Soviet and Arab context. At the present stage the political effects are stronger than the strictly military effects. The tendency noticed in November for Arab governments to attach decisive weight to United States influence will be dissipated.
Furthermore we strongly urge the U.S. Government to come to an early and positive decision on Israel’s pending request for additional military aircraft. Such a decision would have the following positive effects:
- It will help redress the political and military gains achieved by the Soviets through their recent actions.
- It will have a sobering effect on Egyptian planners and policy-makers. They know that hundreds of aircraft have reached the UAR while [Page 35] not one single aircraft has reached Israel. It would be extraordinary in such a context if the UAR were to show a conciliatory front.
- It is essential to demonstrate the U.S. determination to ensure a viable balance of armament in the area. The French defection has helped to create an impression that Israel can soon be intimated. It is astonishing to record such a position so soon after the June fighting. The chances of progress in the United Nations conciliation effort are considerably less than they were a few weeks ago, as a result of these cumulative disturbances in the existing and prospective balance of power. To allow this derangement to proceed without counterbalancing action would, in our view, be an error of great scope.
Experience shows that decisions of war or peace in this region are determined not so much by the reality of strengths as by the impression and appearance of it. The significance of the above developments would not be greatly affected by an objectively positive analysis of American power or Israel’s strength. The danger lies in the impression that American and Israeli strength have for some months been static, while Soviet and Arab capacities have been growing in swift momentum.”
2. In the ensuing conversation Eban elaborated on this presentation with particular reference to the psychological and political effects he sees resulting from the increased Soviet presence in the Middle East. Reiterating the Israeli assessment reported on various occasions that Nasser and the Egyptians appear embarked on a two-pronged policy (A) an effort to achieve a political solution on their terms if possible and (B) at the same time rebuilding their military potential to such an extent that if a political solution fails or they ultimately decide that they prefer a renewal of hostilities they will be in a position to defeat Israel at the next attempt, Eban said that he felt in November Nasser was definitely emphasizing the desirability of alternative (A), a political solution, but that there are now serious indications that he is less dedicated to that course. This change Eban attributes to the psychological impact of recent moves in the area. Eban is apprehensive that if this is the case the Egyptians will be less anxious to reach agreement politically than they would have been heretofore. His particular concern is not a real imbalance in US-Soviet force in the area in the favor of Soviets but rather the appearance of additional Soviet activity which might have such an effect on Arabic thinking as to influence them in direction of unrealistic further adventures or, obviously a lesser but still serious course, might persuade them toward adamancy in political negotiation. Turning to a question of arms supply to the Middle East and particularly US arms for Israel, Eban again stressed the psychological importance of a favorable decision on the Weizman requests as a demonstration of U.S. determination to counter effectively Soviet moves. He assumed that Israel would not get French Mirages. But he [Page 36] stressed that even if they did eventually it would not affect the validity of Israel’s present request to the U.S. As for numbers, even before the June hostilities Israel assessed its requirements until 1970 as 75 A-4’s and 100 Mirages. The first 50 of the latter to be acquired 1968 to be followed by additional 50 in ’69. With the rearming by the Soviets of Egypt and other this Israeli requirement still remains valid. Thus the 27 A-4’s and 50 Phantoms requested by Weizman are necessary regardless of whether the 50 Mirages come from France or not. Eban concluded by expressing view that he hoped firmly, based on the Weizman conversations and his own subsequent ones in Washington, that U.S. would not argue about numbers perhaps on a theory which would not make sense to him that a few more or less would have some useful effect in lightening the impact of U.S. supply. On contrary, if we should do so the psychological counter to the USSR would be diminished and Israel would in effect be left in dangerously short position on these essential defense items.
3. I said that while I did not have anything in addition to what he has been told in Washington as to the present state of U.S. consideration of this matter, it is my understanding that the problem is being actively pursued. I added that I felt Israeli concerns have been clearly enunciated and brought to the attention of appropriate authorities in Washington2 but that I would of course report the additional comments he had set forth today.
- Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL 27 ARAB-ISR. Secret;Exdis.↩
- On December 13 Ambassador Harman called on Acting Secretary Katzenbach to reinforce the points made by Eban with respect to Israeli concerns about growing Soviet influence and involvement in the Middle East and to emphasize the pressing need for arms to enable Israel to meet the threat posed by the influx of Soviet arms into the area. (Telegrams 84998 and 84999 to Tel Aviv, both December 15; ibid.)↩