194. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Mr. Menachem Begin, Israeli Minister without Portfolio
  • Ambassador Rabin
  • Minister Ephraim Evron
  • W. W. Rostow
  • Harold H. Saunders

Mr. Begin opened by affirming that there is widespread appreciation in Israel for President Johnson’s support over the past year. Then he raised two specific requests: (1) that the US deliver the Phantom aircraft requested as soon as possible; (2) that the US speed up delivery of the Skyhawks. He felt the President’s withdrawal from the election campaign gave him a unique opportunity to prove that US support for Israel had nothing to do with American elections and that even a President who is free from election pressures will aid Israel.

He said both these requests were of the utmost importance to all members of the Israeli Cabinet. Israel could not accept the idea that Nasser’s threatening statements were for domestic consumption alone. Moreover, Israel had to minimize its casualties in any war because “Israel has little blood to spill.”

Finally, Mr. Begin said Ambassador Rabin had reported to the Cabinet that the USG sees a difference between a peace settlement and peace treaties. Mr. Begin said he would like to understand this difference.

Mr. Rostow promised to convey the Minister’s concerns to the President. He made clear that the President was as close to Israeli security needs as he was to any major international problem. The President had not yet made a decision on Phantoms, though he had put himself in a position to deliver aircraft to Israel quickly if he decided that were necessary. There were many factors involved, and the President alone would make this decision. Although it was impossible for Mr. Rostow to say when or how that decision might be made, he knew that, in the President’s view, peace was the overriding objective. The President had told Foreign Minister Eban that he does not believe that last June’s war was an unqualified Israeli success in the long run. He believes that Israel’s survival depends on its acceptance as a nation in [Page 380] the Middle East. He does not believe peace can be achieved if one party simply arms to the teeth and expects his adversary to give in and come around asking for peace.

Turning to Mr. Begin’s question about peace treaties, Mr. Rostow said that we had never committed ourselves to one instrument over another. We felt there were numerous ways to record international commitments. The important thing was to engage in a process of peacemaking so that agreement could somehow be achieved among conflicting interests. He reaffirmed that we understand Israel’s basic objective of achieving stable boundaries and acceptance by its neighbors, and we will continue to pursue those objectives. But we feel that the Israelis had an obligation to reach out to their neighbors and help them rise from humiliation to some sort of peace settlement.

Mr. Begin made some general comments which showed little inclination to accept Mr. Rostow’s general approach to peacemaking, but he picked up two of Mr. Rostow’s points:

He denied that Israel’s right to live should be a central element in a peace settlement. He said a nation’s right to live derives simply from its existence. There should be no question or discussion about it.

Mr. Rostow had mentioned Jerusalem as one of the most difficult elements in a political settlement. Mr. Begin said he could not understand why Mr. Rostow had mentioned Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the capital of Israel, and Israel had guaranteed full access to worshippers of all faiths. He did not believe that Israel should deal with Hussein as a potential protector of Moslem interests in the city. In short, he did not see any alternative to full Israeli control. He wondered what solution Mr. Rostow had in mind.

Mr. Rostow said quite informally that he envisioned a Jordanian role in keeping the Moslem holy places and a Jordanian role in the police, education and judicial systems of East Jerusalem. He saw the economies of Jordan and Israel meeting in Jerusalem, and an easily convertible relationship between the two currencies. While he held no special brief for these suggestions, he felt that without some sort of political recognition of Arab interests in Jerusalem, there was not much hope for a peace settlement.

Mr. Rostow ended the conversation by saying that he was more pessimistic over the prospects for peace in the Middle East (as a result of his conversation) than he had been for some time. In closing he said that he would like some time to hear Mr. Begin speak about what he felt the Israelis’ obligations were for reaching some sort of peace agreement.

Comment: The discussion was amicable, but the gulf between the principals’ viewpoints was obvious.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. X, Cables and Memos, 6/68-11/68. Secret;Nodis.