40. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • U.S.-Israeli Talks


  • U.S. Side
    • The President (Present as noted in text)
    • Secretary of State Rusk
    • Secretary of Defense McNamara
    • General Wheeler, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
    • Mr. Walt W. Rostow, Special Assistant to the President
    • Mr. Lucius D. Battle, Assistant Secretary, NEA
  • Israeli Side
    • Prime Minister Eshkol (Present as noted in text)
    • Ambassador Avraham Harman
    • Minister Ephraim Evron
    • Mr. Bitan
    • Dr. Herzog
    • General Hod
    • General Geva

Secretary Rusk opened the meeting by saying that while the President and the Prime Minister were talking privately,2 it had been suggested that there be an assessment by those present of the Russian input of arms into the Middle East and of the ability of the Israelis to defend themselves.

General Wheeler said that there was no basic difference between U.S. and Israeli assessments of Soviet input or of projections for the future in terms of hardware. Contrary to Israel’s opinions, however, the training, maintenance, command and control structure of the Arab forces will not be as markedly successful as the Government of Israel appears to think. The Arabs have a long way to go. Their maintenance is bad; their morale is shaken. While they do have Soviet technicians, time will be required for them to be effective. The Arabs have taken a tremendous blow. Air and ground destruction has been great, but even more important is the damage done to morale and organization.

[Page 89]

In the opinion of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Israeli Air Force will for the next 18 months continue to be in a superior position in the event of confrontation between any likely combination of Arab forces.

In reaching this conclusion, it is important to understand the basis for it. The effectiveness of Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia is completely discounted. Algeria is pretty substantially discounted due to geography. That leaves the UAR, Syria, and Iraq as main factors to be considered.

Several problems exist and several contingencies have a bearing on the matter. The French could continue to renege on their contract for Mirages for Israel. The USSR could enlarge on the extent of military assistance provided to the UAR. The French could enter into a supply arrangement for high-performance aircraft for radical Arabs, offsetting, perhaps, those that they might provide to the Israelis. The United States and the Government of Israel must keep a close eye, particularly on high-performance aircraft supplied by the French or Russians to the Arab states.

Ambassador Harman said that the Israeli case was based on obtaining the supply of planes from the United States. He seemed confident that if the French supplied the Israelis with the planes to which they are committed, the French would then neutralize this supply by providing planes for the Arab states.

General Hod said that right after the war the U.S. Defense Attache in Tel Aviv had asked how long it had taken to plan the operation that the Israelis had just successfully completed. The reply had been that it had taken 19 years. In this context 18 months was a long [short?] time by comparison. Steps were needed now to be sure that the situation could be dealt with in 18 months if necessary. The Israelis do not want to be victorious again with the price paid in the six-day war. They doubt that they have the strength necessary to deter an attack. Therefore, the Israelis considered they must buy planes now to anticipate needs even within the estimates put forward by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Ambassador Harman said that Syria, the UAR, and Iraq have over 500 planes. Syria and Iraq are better off than they were pre-war. The UAR is close to being as well off as it was before June. What must be remembered is the quality of the mix of planes. The Arabs had a better mix than before and had learned many things regarding the use of an air force; for example, the wisdom of putting planes beyond the range of the Israeli planes. Moreover, naval strength has been increased in the UAR. All this adds up to a real need on the part of the Israelis. The obsolescence factor is getting serious. Old planes already heavily used are not reliable. With the 48 Skyhawks, there will be a total of 200 planes, but the obsolescence factor must be considered. The Israelis need a minimum of 250 for the 1968–69 period. Even assuming the delivery [Page 90] of the 50 Mirages, the Israelis need approximately 70 planes from the United States. Moreover, the UAR has reduced its reaction time, formerly eight minutes, to four minutes. Algeria could not be written off as lightly as the Joint Chiefs wish to do, as the first source of resupply to the UAR had been Algeria. Planes could be supplied with or without crews to the UAR.

Moreover, there was no second-strike capability on the part of the Israelis. It is impossible for them to take chances. Therefore, the slightest threat required a reaction when a more stable situation might deter an aggressor and avoid a war. General Hod reviewed the Israeli losses during the recent war in terms of their current needs. In response to Secretary Rusk’s question, General Hod said that the TU-16’s which were out of range of Israeli planes would not need to refuel to reach Israel but could go from Iraq and return. Both Port Said and Alexandria are blocked by modern SAM-3’s.

(At this juncture, the President and the Prime Minister joined the meeting.)

The President said that he and the Prime Minister had touched on several problems in their meeting, including apparent differences of views between the U.S. and the Israeli military authorities with regard to relative strength and the needs confronting us. They had also discussed the President’s meeting with Prime Minister Kosygin at Glassboro and the likelihood of there being discussions between the U.S. and Russia including the question of Middle Eastern arms. No date has yet been set, but we still hoped to find a means of reaching some sort of understanding on the arms race. If none is possible, a different policy from the present situation is required; but that remains to be seen.

The President wished to emphasize what he had said in the meeting the preceding night which was that the United States wished to explore every possibility of peace, including the opportunity afforded by Ambassador Jarring’s mission. We must also know what kind of Israel we would be expected to assist. He must know what headway could be made in order to deal with the Russians, the U.S. Congress, and others. The President pointed out that Secretary Rusk had mentioned several “low cards” that could be played by the Israelis that could be helpful in a move toward peace. The President hoped for much more detailed conversations on these matters during the course of the day. He said that peace was not to be saved by 27 or 50 new planes. Much more was required, including positive moves toward a peaceful settlement.

The President said he wished to hear the military authorities speak and then to determine whether the views could be reconciled. But very importantly, he wanted answers to the question raised by Secretary [Page 91] Rusk in order to gain an over-all look at what was before us on which his important decisions must rest.

The President said he was deeply concerned about peace in the Middle East, including the security of Israel. There was no lack of interest on his part in either element. That must be understood. There might be differences of judgment as to how to bring about these aims, but his commitment to peace in the area and to assist the Israelis in finding peace was basic. Prime Minister Kosygin had tried to move him from his basic position in July. He had not succeeded. Whether it was decided in these meetings for X, Y, or Z numbers of planes, this would not solve the basic security problems. The most useful thing that can be done is to reach agreement with the Soviets on the arms race. The chance might be slight, but it must be tried before the U.S. could embark along an irrevocable road.

The Prime Minister said that he hoped that there was someone in the world who could tell him when and how there could be peace between Israel and its neighbors. Israel feels weaker than before the war. It is a small country of 2-1/2 million Jews with now thousands of Arabs as well. The Arab countries surround Israel. They far outnumber the Israelis in planes which are increasingly of sophisticated types. Israel cannot wait until Russia gives the Arabs a great many more planes and then have them say in a condition of great strength that they might be ready to come to terms. Many people considered in the past that a one to three ratio between Israel and Arab planes was adequate. There is a limit. The Israeli fighters are better, but they can’t face unlimited planes. The Prime Minister said he had hoped to avoid the war, particularly knowing of the stand of the U.S. and of President Johnson. The decision kept being delayed. But who knows? A minute or an hour might have changed the situation. This is Israel’s last chance. The Jews were there to have a sovereign state which they hoped would increase in population. If France is out as a supplier, “the Israelis would welcome another address where they could buy.” By 1970, the Arabs will have 900 to 1,000 planes. The Israelis must have 350 to 400. Only the Skyhawks agreed to before the war were being supplied to them, and even this group required one year to effect delivery.

Moreover, the Prime Minister had a problem if he returned from the United States without a commitment for planes. The citizens of Israel would be deeply troubled, and the Arabs would know and say that Israel was abandoned. This could mean war, but what the Prime Minister wants is a deterrent army.

General Hod at this point repeated his analysis of relative strengths as set forth above, adding only that Russian pilots were flying over Cairo as recently as two weeks ago. He pointed out also that Russians are in the UAR in great numbers. He expressed the opinion there were [Page 92] 2,500 experts. He repeated again that the Israelis don’t want to win a war again. They want a deterrent to war. To do so, there must be a second-strike capability or they could never take chances on any Arab act of first strike. There is no substitute for Phantoms.

General Wheeler said that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had given an estimate before the June war of what would happen and had been within 1/2 day of accurately predicting the outcome. While the fact that they had been right once did not mean they would be right next time; nevertheless, it gave a certain support to their views. There is no basic difference on numerical factors either now or projected. Both the U.S. and the Government of Israel agree that 1970 will be the critical year and that the Air Force is the critical service. However, in looking at the Air Force and discounting Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan and to a degree Algeria, we are forced to concentrate on the UAR, Syria, and Iraq. Assessing what had happened, the inventory on hand, and all other factors, the JCS believe that the Israeli Air Force can cope for the next 18 months with any potential threat they face. The JCS does not question the figures on losses although it wishes to emphasize that what the Israelis really destroyed was morale, motivation, and confidence. These cannot be recovered quickly. He repeated the same factors considered earlier; i.e., whether the Soviets will continue to increase the number of high-performance aircraft, whether the French will honor their commitment for 50 Mirages, and whether the French would counterbalance a sale of 50 Mirages with a sale to the Arabs.

General Wheeler agreed that the situation must be watched carefully and recognized that events could lead to change to the detriment of Israel in, say, about a year.

Secretary McNamara said that he had carefully considered the evidence which Ambassador Harman had submitted, and it seemed clear to him that Israel can prevail over any potential Arab enemy. The action taken with respect to the planes could bring a reaction which the Prime Minister should consider. Two and a half million Jews could not stand against the whole Arab world particularly if they were assisted by the Russians. Actions on the plane request could have a bearing on this situation by bringing further Russian support. There is no reason for the Israelis to say that Israel is abandoned. This will not occur while President Johnson is President. What must be considered is how the sale of 50 F-4’s would affect deGaulle. Secretary McNamara believed that such a sale would greatly reduce any chance for a French deal. It might also increase the flow of planes from Russia. What effect would such a sale have on Jordan? Probably not helpful in the total context of things. With these unknowns, we should move cautiously.

General Hod said that the arms race had never been affected by what the GOI had available. MIG-15’s and MIG-17’s arrived without [Page 93] relation to the planes the Israelis had. It appeared to the Israelis that the Russians had sent planes as fast as the UAR could absorb them. The Egyptians would probably get MIG-23’s now if the UAR could in fact absorb them.

Secretary McNamara stressed the view that both the Americans and the Israelis agreed that it would be better for the U.S. not to be the only supplier of planes. Secretary McNamara challenged the statement on abandonment by referring to the 48 A-4’s supplied to the Israelis as well as numerous statements in the United Nations and elsewhere of help.

Prime Minister Eshkol said that the question had been raised as to what the Israelis were doing to bring peace in the area. He repeated the statements made the preceding night with respect to support for the Jarring mission, the release of Egyptian prisoners, and the cooperative attitude with respect to ships in the Bitter Lake. He added that the Israelis had not fought the sale of arms to Jordan.

Dr. Herzog said that in past assessment of the possibility of war, Israel had accepted the U.S. view. No war was expected before 1970. He mentioned the Jarring mission, Soviet global policy, and the search for direct dialogue between the Arabs and the Israelis as elements that will unfold in coming months. We could not be sure what these three processes will do, but to help the process of peace and help bring about a direct dialogue, it is essential that the Israelis be in a position of strength. He also pointed out that any arms arrangement could be kept secret.

General Hod said that the only chance of assuring that there would be no reason for sending U.S. troops is a strong Israeli Air Force.

President Johnson said that he regretted that we talked only of planes. We talked of political requirements in Israel. What was he able to say to the American people with respect to steps toward peace?

Ambassador Harman pointed to the limit of the absorptive power of the Arabs for hardware. He felt that estimates on UAR build-up had to do with how fast they could absorb. What is required as a precondition to peace is to block the road to war. Syria does not want peace. It was playing the same role now that it had played in April and May. The Syrians had refused to meet Jarring in Damascus. In the UAR there is a growing sense that they are “feeling their strength.” The Elath incident had helped morale greatly. Other forces in the Arab world perhaps were hesitant and wanted to look before they leaped. Perhaps there were such forces in the UAR. But the important thing was to block the road to war which could be done by Israeli strength. He mentioned Nasser’s speech of November 23 in which President Nasser had said that the Egyptians cannot tolerate another defeat.

[Page 94]

The Prime Minister then picked up the discussion of the preceding night and asked whether we really considered it conceivable that the Israelis abandon Sharm-el-Sheikh. How could they do so without peace treaties? Secretary Rusk said that he confesses to a bias. He wanted a political settlement and not a military settlement. Peace cannot be assured by hardware. The U.S. is less secure now than it was before it spent billions of dollars on defense. He had difficulty seeing his way out of two points. The Government of Israel faced the danger of isolation in the U.N. It had been prevented so far only by extraordinary effort. A comfortable position in the U.N. might even be greater security than 50 Phantoms. He hoped the Israelis would keep the situation under reasonable control. In terms of the modalities, he wanted to point out that there were many situations in which there was peace but no peace treaty. For example, between Japan and the USSR. Next, Secretary Rusk wished to mention the effect of time on the situation. The U.S. believes time hurts the moderates and helps the radicals. Our problem is not just the problem of Israel. The responsibility of the United States Government goes much beyond that. We needed help on those aspects of U.S. interest that we needed to manage. Israel has a stake in this. He was not sure how we can keep the U.N. situation under control and not sure how we can break Soviet influence. Some indication towards the moderate Arabs would be helpful. He referred to his suggestion of the preceding night that the Israelis evacuate the Straits of Tiran. He also had mentioned possibly turning over of the responsibility for patrolling Sharm-el-Sheikh to the United Nations which could lead to withdrawal from the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula under arrangements assuring free passage through the Straits and requiring Security Council approval before the troops could be withdrawn. He hoped the Israelis would help us find other examples which would improve the chances of a solution. The interests of the U.S. were world wide and involved.

The Prime Minister said he must ask who would assure free passage through the Suez Canal. The Secretary said he was not suggesting that the Israelis withdraw until the issue of the Canal is settled. Ambassador Harman said that there was no equivalence of position in the Security Council. Whatever the Arabs wanted the Soviets supported, and the Arabs had a Soviet veto for anything they opposed.

At this point the meeting adjourned for lunch.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL ISR-US. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Battle on January 12. According to the President’s Daily Diary, the meeting was held in the living room of the Ranch from 11:55 a.m. to 1:50 p.m. (Johnson Library)
  2. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Johnson and Eshkol met privately from 11:35 to 11:55 a.m. (Ibid.)