39. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • U.S.-Israeli Talks

PARTICIPANTS

  • U.S. Side
    • The President
    • Secretary of State Rusk
    • Mr. Walt W. Rostow, Special Assistant to the President
    • Mr. Lucius D. Battle, Assistant Secretary, NEA
  • Israeli Side
    • Prime Minister Eshkol
    • Ambassador Avraham Harman
    • Minister Ephraim Evron
    • Mr. Bitan
    • Dr. Herzog

After an exchange of pleasantries, the Prime Minister read an opening statement as follows:

“Mr. President:

“Before discussing the main purpose of my mission, I want to express my appreciation for many things which happened in the first week of June and in the political arena since then. Having met you in 1964, your emphatic stand and principles during 1967 on matters of the most fundamental importance to the existence and security of my country are engraved for all time on the tablets of Jewish memory and indeed world history.

“The heart of my mission is how can we build peace in the Middle East between the Arab States and Israel. This matter occupies my attention throughout. May I touch on it from three angles:

  • “A. The Middle Eastern situation;
  • “B. The question of the arms race;
  • “C. Russian policy and penetration in the Middle East.

“A.

  • “1. The Six Day war may have possibly, for the first time, stirred in the Middle East the beginnings of a process leading to peace.
  • “2. The world community accepted that there can be no return to the conditions which gave the Arabs strategic and other possibilities of aggression.
  • “3. Regretfully the Egyptian and Syrian armies are being rebuilt at a menacing rate under Soviet guidance as their leaders contemplate the possibility of renewing hostilities.
  • “However there are signs of other views. There are those who ask whether war will not lead to new Arab disasters; there are those who are sitting on the fence; there are those, here and there, who may even be thinking in their heart of hearts of peace. In this situation, the essential first contribution towards peace is to block the road to war.
  • “4. Our policy is direct negotiations leading to peace treaties. We take this line not because of any obstinate adhesion to any particular formula but because we believe that face-to-face contact and reasoning together will create a new psychological reality. Without that, as we have learned for twenty years through bitter experience and as you yourself have noted, any other arrangement has no validity.
  • “5. We support the Jarring mission. In talks with him in Jerusalem, we have made several gestures to help him. Firstly, we have given him two agendas—one for Cairo and one for Amman—which contain suggestions for the subjects to be discussed at any direct meeting. Secondly, we have told him that we will agree that he should preside over a meeting of the two sides to discuss the agendas for negotiations and to define the issues. Thirdly, all contact at this stage can be secret including such a meeting. In order to create a better atmosphere, we have agreed that foreign ships at present in the Bitter Lake can be taken out through an arrangement with General Bull within the framework of our existing agreements on the ceasefire. We have also made a gesture in returning an additional 500 Egyptian prisoners of war without reciprocation. We shall continue to facilitate Jarring’s mission.
  • “6. On the refugee problem, we are convinced that within a peace context this is a question that can and should be solved and we will make our contribution.
  • “7. We are doing everything possible to restore the situation on the Western Bank and in the Gaza Strip to normalcy. In this fiscal year we are investing at least $30 million in order to develop the economy and provide employment for the local population including the refugees.

“In order to stimulate the beginnings of more moderate trends in the Arab world, two factors are crucial. With your permission, I will touch on these two aspects in some detail:

B. The Question of the Arms Race

“Three of the Arab countries whose forces were engaged in hostilities against us in June—Egypt, Syria and Iraq, had in November combined forces of 460 fighters and 47 bombers, or a total of over 500 planes. Egypt alone had over 80% of its June strength and I believe that by now it is nearly back to its June strength. From now on continued Russian supply may be an increase of the pre-June strength. These figures do not take into account countries like Algeria which supplied planes to Egypt in June and its air strength is over 100-150 planes.

“In tanks the Egyptians are steadily progressing towards their pre-war position. Egyptian navy is stronger than in June with special emphasis on rocket-equipped naval craft. The Egyptians are planning an overall increase of their land forces as against June.

“We have every ground to suppose that Russia has introduced ground-to-ground rockets into Egypt.

“The quality of Egyptian planes is much superior to what it was in June.

[Page 82]

“The Egyptian air force is now deployed with a view to increasing the safety of aircraft.

“Continuous and vast efforts to improve training of Egyptian armed forces under Soviet guidance. We assess at least 2,500 Soviet military experts are in Egypt.

Our Situation: At most we have 150 planes of which at least 25 Mysteres and 41 Ouragens are out of date.

“50 additional French Mirages to Israel are very doubtful. Even if DeGaulle will deliver, he will balance it with planes to the Arabs.

“Even if we were to get the 50 Mirages and adding to that the 48 Skyhawks from the U.S., we would not have vital minimum for 1968-69 nor the right mix of planes. We ourselves will have to put out of service the Mysteres and Ouragens. Thus we will be left with only 170 planes. The only plane which has necessary range, defensive capacity and versatility to face up to the new situation is the Phantom. We need of course the additional Skyhawks we have asked for but we cannot have minimum security unless we get Phantoms. All my military advisers, without exception, are unanimous on indispensability of the Phantom.

“Unless the Arabs know that we have necessary defensive capacity, the tendency to renew hostilities will be strengthened and peace possibilities heavily prejudiced. Israel is extremely vulnerable. One defeat in field—can be fatal for our survival.

“We need 50 Phantoms as rapidly as possible.

“Over the years, I think that you and I are agreed that we must avoid a situation where Israel will not be able to meet aggression by its forces alone. The one effective way of assuring this and of interpreting the continuous American concern for Israel’s security which I so deeply appreciate, is by translating this commitment into making the necessary arms available for us.

“What I ask from you is the minimum. I cannot take risks with the security of my country. This means that crucially we must have Phantoms and then Skyhawks.

C. Soviet Policy and Penetration

“We believe that your historic action in warning the Soviets in June ‘hands off’ influenced them away from any thought of active intervention.

“What has happened in Yemen gives apprehension that they may wish in certain eventualities to provide indirect support to Arab aggressive forces. We know of your concern in this respect.

“We believe that the Six-Day War blocked the taking over of the Middle East by the Soviet Union.

[Page 83]

“Side by side with giving us the necessary planes, we think it is crucial that the Soviet Union know that the U.S. will not tolerate any Soviet military intervention in the area direct or indirect.

“This has been U.S. policy since 1946 and received Congressional affirmation in 1957, in the passage of which you, Mr. President, played a central role.

“I would submit that this position be re-affirmed in the clearest terms.

“To sum up, then, we believe the course of peace can be enhanced in the area if the U.S. and other nations support direct negotiations leading to peace, if Israel has the necessary military deterrent capacity and if the Soviets are effectively warned that no unilateral intervention, direct or indirect, will be tolerated.

“Mr. President, I have no sense of boastful triumph nor have I entered the struggle for peace in the role of victor. My feeling is one of relief that we were saved from disaster in June and for this I thank God. All my thoughts now are turned towards getting peace with our neighbors—a peace of honor between equals.”

The Prime Minister then added that military experts had predicted that Israel would win. It is, however, difficult to be precise. If Israel had waited one day more, the outcome might have been different. Israel must live in the Middle East for centuries ahead. It will do all possible to live there peacefully. It needs tools, however, to assure the peace. He regretted that the U.S. was the only source of these tools. It was an “either/or situation”. Either the U.S. must provide the arms or leave Israel to its fate. The Arabs would know that the Americans and the French had said “No”. Even if France gave 50 planes, it would not be enough. Israel needs 350 first-rate planes. By 1970 the Arabs will have 900 planes. The Israelis plead for help.

President Johnson said that he was impressed with the statement made by the Prime Minister. The U.S. is intensely concerned with conditions in the Middle East. It is encouraging to know that the Prime Minister had his thoughts turned to peace with honor. This subject takes most of the President’s day, although not entirely with respect to the Middle East. We have, however, had other serious situations in the Middle East such as Cyprus. We have a difficult situation in Southeast Asia calling on our resources. Now we have a difficult balance of payments problem. If possible, we are as concerned to bring peace in the Middle East as are the Israelis. The U.S. wishes to work with Israel in any way possible, and we believe we have shown that. Since June, the U.S. has ascertained what is most likely to lead to peace in the area in line with President Johnson’s five points to permit 2-1/2 million Jews to live in harmony with many millions of Arabs. We have made it clear [Page 84] to the world that we do not believe might makes right nor that big nations should be permitted to swallow up little nations. We will resist aggression whether it be Hitler, Nasser, or Israel. Other discussions between our countries have dealt with other problems we face, including the difficulties in the Congress with respect to the supply of arms to various parts of the world. The conflict between India and Pakistan where we found ourselves providing arms to both sides of a conflict had had an impact on our Congress of serious proportions. This is not a country where there is one-man rule. The Church amendments, the defeat on the aid bill, all underlined the difficulty we had with the Congress with respect to military assistance programs. The President wished to remind the Israelis that when agreement was reached for the 48 Skyhawks, it was agreed that Israel would look elsewhere for equipment beyond that covered by that understanding.

The Prime Minister interjected here that the Israelis would be delighted to look elsewhere if we would “give them an address.”

President Johnson said that the Prime Minister had to be guided by the best military advice he could get. So does the United States. What’s before us is not a question of our not wanting to see Israel secure although there might be differences as to what was required to assure this security. The President reviewed other defense arrangements, pointing out that he had in the past gone somewhat above the level of equipment recommended from a military point of view. He said that in connection with the request for additional A-4’s and the F-4’s we had reviewed the matter very carefully, and he had spent much time on this subject. The President said that he regretted that the visit was so closely tied to the request for Phantoms. There are much broader problems. Phantoms won’t determine security. Planes won’t change things that basically. The big problem is how 2-1/2 million Jews can live in a sea of Arabs. We searched for a formula in the same way that we searched for a formula during the Greek and Turkish problems over Cyprus and in Vietnam. But success can’t be measured by planes alone. What can be done to implement the five points? This did not mean we were unsympathetic to the military requirements. We had agreed to expedite the 48 Skyhawks, and we were sympathetic on other requests since any loss of face by Israel would be a serious loss to us. However, the President was being criticized for commitments he made, and he must proceed slowly. He followed carefully Israel’s military situation and would not sit idly by and see Israel suffer. This had been made clear by act and by deed. Tomorrow we would review with the military officials of the U.S. the present military situation. At the moment, the President considered it wise to review what steps could be taken toward peace with honor. Neither the Israelis nor the Americans nor anyone else has done all [Page 85] that it should do toward peace, and we were fearful of the consequences of inaction.

Secretary Rusk said that he could not help comparing the situation to our problem with the Russians. The situation growing out of arms races had now reached a situation potentially suicidal for everybody. A finger on a button, and we are all finished. Someone on the diplomatic side must be active to see what is possible in other than military rounds. The Arabs could double any efforts the Israelis made in the military field. How can we come to an arrangement in which Israel could live in peace? The Arabs will not back down from the military race but will call upon the Soviet Union for military help. However, by and large, the Arabs have resisted the Soviet Union. If the Arabs see an Israel with which they cannot live, they will turn increasingly to the Soviets. There is no way we can stop penetration if the Arabs themselves decide that the situation is intolerable. The territorial problem is central. We recognize that there are no agreed boundaries. But the Soviets have made the territorial question the central one in the General Assembly from the beginning and have not changed their position on this point. With the passage of time, unless there is movement, moderate voices will give way to radical voices; and penetration will begin in a manner we cannot stop. We hope you can find it possible to tell us what kind of Israel you want the Arabs to live with and the American people to support. In June, there were discussions with the Congressional leadership, and there was an almost unanimous view that the U.S. should involve itself in the Middle East only in a multilateral framework. While we recognize that Israel is impatient with the United Nations, this organization still might offer the best hope. We are at an impasse in the present situation in our talks with the Russians. Without movement, the Russian position is strengthened in the Arab world and U.S. strength diminishes. The danger cannot be resolved by hardware. Is it possible that Israel could give signals more important than it has given so far? For example, is there some possibility of a solution on the refugee problem? Tiran Island is of no importance to Israel. Despite what Faisal says about Israel, there is a common interest between the Israelis and the Saudis in keeping the Soviet thrust in the area under control. Another possibility concerns the Straits of Tiran. We understand there is no problem in the UAR with respect to the use of the Straits. If the UAR had said so on June 1, there would have been no war. Could the Israelis, through the Jarring mission, permit a U.N. force in Sharm-el-Sheikh with a clear understanding that the Strait is an international one? This costs nothing and removes the charge that the Israelis intend to retain all territory presently held. It is difficult for us to describe the Israelis the Arabs are expected to live with.

[Page 86]

The Prime Minister said these were difficult remarks. Israel is not ready to return to the Israel of June 4, the map of the former Israel. Israel did not want war. It could have lived 50 to 100 years in the prior situation. Now that the war has happened, however, it is impossible to return to the former Israel. Israelis cannot accept a Suez Canal open to all the world except the Israelis. The Prime Minister recalled the signs in Russia, “No Jews”. That cannot be forgotten. When the issue had arisen in 1956, President Eisenhower had said that there was no promise nor was there a treaty. Nevertheless, President Eisenhower had said that the Government of Israel has a right to the use of the Suez Canal. If Nasser tries to interfere, President Eisenhower said he believed the international family of nations will take a firm hand. The Israelis cannot live forever with the feeling that they are untouchable. They have won the war. It is an impossible situation not to find peace. With respect to Sharm-el-Sheikh, perhaps this was negotiable. Secretary Rusk had suggested that the guards be changed and the U.N. permitted to take over. But what had the U.N. action of withdrawal caused before? When Nasser asked for withdrawal of U.N. troops, the U.N. had said take Sharm-el-Sheikh as well. Who can guarantee against a “welch” in two or three years.

Secretary Rusk said that the points were valid. If the U.N. has a role, it must be very clear, and the Security Council must be required to approve a change. This had been the missing ingredient before. No one wants an end to the state of belligerency more than President Johnson as has been repeatedly evidenced. We had insisted in our discussions with the Russians that free passage in waterways must be described in the plural, and the Russians had understood that this included the Suez Canal and that the matter cannot be dealt with by whim.

The Prime Minister said that the Israelis want to see a treaty of peace. It is not enough that Nasser say there is an end to belligerency, and perhaps he can admit that Israel exists. After three wars, Israel deserves peace. Syria is ungovernable. It ignited the war and probably is now willing to continue the terrorism of the past with the hope that the UAR and other “big brothers” will take care of the situation. The Israelis cannot live with bazooka shots into villages and houses demolished. This is a last ditch stand for the spirit of a nation—the Jewish spirit. This we believe in. It is our history. We will try to be cooperative with Jarring. However, Syria won’t talk with him, and Nasser has not been forthcoming. The Prime Minister said that he could not recommend after all that has happened that there be another U.N. force. Given this history, the Israelis put a low value on U.N. troops. While the Cabinet has not considered the matter, he would now say that Jarring should try to bring us together with the Arabs and then leave us alone to negotiate. We will try to be as forthcoming as possible, [Page 87] but we cannot go back. Israel could be exterminated in one day. It will fight tooth and nail with tools, but it must have those tools. There was some hope. Bourguiba had made helpful statements. The attitude of the King of Morocco was known and acceptable. Turkey and Ethiopia were all right. The Prime Minister said that he had mentioned the UAR but had not said that they would or would not try to keep Sinai. There was no one with whom they could discuss the matter. Israel wants security and simple human rights in Suez and in the Straits of Tiran. It is difficult to know what is happening with Jordan and with a King some people say is not stupid. Why would he get in with Nasser whose cause was already lost? The King had not lived up to the agreement that was made with respect to the tanks which prohibited the tanks from crossing the river.

The Prime Minister said he was aware of our difficulties in the balance of payments field, and Israel wished to help. The Government of Israel has $200 million in U.S. banks; and to lessen the burden on the U.S., he could see a way which would double that amount on deposit in our banks, making it roughly equal to gifts Israel receives. In this connection, he must point out that the U.S. had encouraged Israel to spend dollars in France for French Mirages. The Mirage is now as famous as beer from Milwaukee.

With respect to refugees, it has been apparent for some years that the problem would not be difficult to solve if those concerned could talk like friends. Agreements could be reached. Water in the Gaza strip could make a great difference. For example, water would open new areas for settlement. Iraq has land and could be told the world would help and the Israelis would participate. All these problems need careful study.

At this point the meeting adjourned.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL ISR-US. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Battle on January 12. During his visit to the United States, Prime Minister Eshkol was a guest of President Johnson at the LBJ Ranch January 7-8. According to the President’s Daily Diary, the meeting was held in the living room of the Ranch from 5:30 to 7:35 p.m. (Johnson Library)