28. Telegram From the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow) to President Johnson in Texas1

CAP 671244. Lacking his secretary, who alone has security clearance in his office, Bob Anderson expressed the following views on the Middle East, which he asked me to make available to you.

It is his quite objective judgment that we are on the way to losing the Middle East rapidly. In a matter of months there will be a military confrontation in which the Soviet Union will be prepared not only to arm the Arabs, but directly to engage, perhaps via technicians, if not more openly. They will use the same techniques as we have used in Vietnam and a similar rationale; namely, that they have a right to help their friends deny others acquisition of their territory. The Israelis have no more right to impose their government on the West Bank of Jordan than the North Vietnamese have a right to impose their government on the South. They will accuse the Israelis of aggression; and, as we know, the concept of aggression can be defined in ways that suit the interests of the party making the definition.
Bob said that he is wholly aware of our legitimate sense that the Arab leaders have proved themselves unreliable. They have created by their own statements and actions a monster in their public opinion which makes it impossible for them to negotiate directly with Israel. They are widely divided among themselves except on the issue of Israel.
Specifically, Bob believes it is unwise for us—and unwise for [Page 53] the Israelis—to increase Israeli arms in order to balance Arab arms acquired from the Soviet Union. He believes it would be a disaster if we made dramatic announcement when Eshkol is here of increased arms for the Israelis. It would be tantamount to a U.S. commitment to engage the Russians directly in the Middle East.
Positively, we believes we must now make a move towards the Arab moderates. We must indicate that our concept of territorial integrity applies not only to Israel, but to the Arabs. We must pick up Nasser’s offer to re-establish relations promptly and not insist on our concept of apologies. The Russians are unpopular throughout the Arab world. There are moderates who want peace. They will accept any amount of U.S. commitment to the integrity of Israel and its borders. They will accept the President’s five points of June 19.2 But if we appear to throw out weight fully behind Israel and ignore their overtures to us, they will turn, whatever the cost, to the Russians.
We must understand, Bob says, that in the Arabs we are dealing with a different breed of cat than any others in the world. To them, face is more important than substance. It means more to them than to the Israelis or to us. Moreover, he believes that if we help them save face, we have the possibility, if we ac fast, of getting a livable settlement for Israel which would block Soviet influence out of the Middle East, He underlined that we must more fast. He concluded that we are on the edge of a war in the Middle East, at least as serious for us as Vietnam, unless we balance our accounts with the moderate Arabs and avoid, on the occasion of the Eshkol visit, any dramatic move in the arms field with Israel which would polarize the Arab world again and lay the basis for their turning once and for all to Moscow.

WWR Comment:

I believe Bob’s comment that we are heading toward a new military confrontation assumes that there is no progress toward Israeli withdrawal and a peace settlement. Ambassador Jarring is now on his second round of talks, and you will be discussing with Eshkol the importance of Israel’s doing everything possible to encourage the Arabs to negotiate rather than fight. We don’t know what this will bring, but we’ve told the Arabs we’d put our weight behind Jarring.
While we’re all wary and unsure of Soviet intent, I’m less certain than Bob that the Soviets are ready for the kind of involvement he predicts. We’ve seen them shy away from it several times this year.
I agree that there should be no dramatic announcement of an arms deal in connection with the Eshkol visit. But I do believe we have a clear interest in Israel’s being able to defend itself.
We have the following in the works for the Arabs:
  • —I am sending you separately a proposed reply to Nasser.3 It’s restrained but positive. Maintaining a relationship with Cairo is central to competing with the USSR in the area.
  • —You are aware of the arms discussions with Hussein.
  • —Gene Black is going to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAR in January and can do some handholding for us if we wish.4 Luke Battle is also considering a trip to the area.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Memos to the President, Walt W. Rostow, Vol. 55, 12/20–31/67. Secret; Eyes Only.
  2. See footnote 5, Document 10.
  3. See Document 31.
  4. Saunders sent a memorandum to Rostow on December 18 in which he observed that Eugene Black was planning to visit the Middle East in late January in his capacity as a Director of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The question, Saunders noted, was whether to encourage Black to visit Cairo with a message for Nasser. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Country Series, United Arab Republic, Vol. VI, Memos, 8/67–7/68)