41. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • U.S.-Israeli Talks

PARTICIPANTS

  • U.S. Side
    • The President
    • 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
    • Ambassador Avraham Harman
    • Minister Ephraim Evron
    • Mr. Bitan
    • Dr. Herzog
    • General Hod

Following lunch, President Johnson convened a meeting of those listed above. The President opened the meeting by saying that the group had touched at various times on the problem of desalinization in the area. He said that he felt it desirable from our point of view to find the best person possible to work on this important study and that he would soon designate the best qualified individual he could find to deal with the matter.

The President then mentioned the communique agreed upon by his staff and that of Prime Minister Eshkol.2 There appeared to be no objection from either side to the text.

The Prime Minister then said that he had been considering how he could help with the matters raised concerning possible steps toward peace. He said that the U.S. had raised the question of Tiran. He wished to point out that from that island it was possible to hinder navigation in the Straits of Tiran. Could the U.S. work out an agreement with Faisal [Page 96] that would prevent the island from being armed so that this interference could not occur? The basis for any agreement must be that the island “not become a tyrant”. It is a small island, and it is doubtful whether anyone would want or could live there. If the U.S. can go to Faisal and take up the matter with him, and if the U.S. will then tell the Government of Israel in writing that this island will not be used to hamper or hinder navigation, the Prime Minister would have something new to take to his military people and to his Cabinet which might permit an understanding. The Prime Minister said he wished to point out that he was looking for things to limit President Johnson’s burdens and would continue to do so.

Secretary Rusk then said that we would examine what could be done with respect to the island of Tiran.

President Johnson said that he hoped the Prime Minister would join with him in instructing Foreign Minister Eban and Secretary Rusk to explore together every possible factor that could be fitted into the search for peace. The world will expect a great deal from us, and we must do what we can to find ways toward solution of the problems.

The President continued by saying that Israel’s security is important to us. That is basic to much that had been said, and he wished to emphasize it. We also had other problems in the area. We had considered what could be done with respect to Jordan. Is it better if we do nothing and leave the vacuum for Russia to fill? We consider it better that we enter into a small program rather than to run the risk that the Russians will arm Jordan without limitation.

The Prime Minister said that he preferred that any country in the area be tied up with the U.S. rather than the Soviets. If the U.S. finds it must provide equipment to avoid Jordan’s obtaining it from the Soviets or Nasser, he hoped it would be as little as possible. The Israelis will not criticize the decision. However, he hoped the U.S. will not say that Israel agrees or approves. When questioned as to whether he would prefer arms shipments to Jordan from the U.S. or the Soviets, he must obviously say the U.S. While he would prefer no arms at all, if the U.S. considered something necessary, go ahead.

The President then reaffirmed his concern for the security of Israel. He said we must have very straight talk between the two countries on a continuing basis. He thought both sides could agree on three objectives. First, there is the need to do what can be done to bring about a stable peace in the Middle East. We are particularly anxious not to be charged with impeding Jarring’s peace mission. Again, the President stated his hope that the Foreign Minister and Secretary Rusk would explore every avenue to bring success in the search for peace. Second, both of us are anxious to deter if possible an arms race in the Middle East and to avoid escalation of that race. The United States [Page 97] wants to give no excuse to the Soviets for an increase of arms in the area. The U.S. is uncertain what the Russians will do in this area, but in any event it is our joint purpose to deter an arms race. Third, the U.S. has as a hope and purpose the goal of assuring, if necessary, adequate equipment to the Israeli Air Force to defend itself. What the U.S. does will reflect the judgment of the President; but the judgment of the Israelis will affect his final decision. Again, Foreign Minister Eban and Secretary Rusk in the search for contributions toward peace should carefully check other aspects such as all ship movements, Soviet military shipments into the area, etc. In connection with this third goal, the President wished to suggest the addition of the following sentence to the communique: “The President agreed to keep Israel’s military defense capability under active and sympathetic review in the light of all relevant factors, including the shipment of military equipment by others into the area.” This statement would show that the third goal was possible. The U.S. will be helpful. This statement is a deterrent to the Arabs and might push them toward restraint. The statement also says, “Stop, look, and listen” to the Soviets. It is not as contentious as arms shipments would be, but it will help give the people of Israel something to stand on. Meanwhile, both sides must stay in touch through intelligence authorities and hope for an agreed assessment of the threat.

The President said that the generals on both sides are agreed on what to expect in the future. They agree that the Israeli Air Force might not be adequate to meet its needs in January of 1970 depending on what happens. In order to have the tools needed, the Israelis urge that a decision be made now. The President said he wished to ask Secretary McNamara in the event the President decided to deliver a certain number of planes to take steps to minimize the time required so as to have these planes in Israeli hands by January, 1970. The Israelis must decide how much time they need in order to get pilots trained and ready to operate on that date. The U.S. will take steps to be ready to respond, and Secretary McNamara would establish when we have to decide in order to deliver Phantoms in January, 1970. The President stated emphatically that he was not prepared to make that decision today. He would add, however, 27 A-4’s or 30 A-4’s. Perhaps another 10 if actually needed. And he would assist on a crash basis in training crews for the Phantoms in order that there be no gap between delivery and ability to operate, providing a decision was, in fact, later made to deliver.

General Hod said that he could train pilots in 12 to 18 months.

The question of delivery schedule on the F-4’s was discussed. Secretary McNamara said that lead time on F-4’s was 24 months. The U.S. has, however, a large production, and by December 31, 1968 it may be possible to deliver in 12 months.

[Page 98]

The delivery schedule for the Skyhawks (A-4’s) was discussed. The Prime Minister asked whether the delivery of the Skyhawks could be accelerated. Secretary McNamara replied that we could not move up delivery. We would try to deliver the 27 at approximately the rate of four per month beginning in January 1969 so that there would be a steady flow coming after the 48 A-4’s already contracted for. It will take about six months to get the unique Israeli equipment necessary for these planes, and it will be cheaper for the Israelis to have an even flow of delivery. He was not sure the earlier delivery of the 27 was possible; but he would try.

The President said he wanted Secretary Rusk and Mr. Eban to start to work immediately—which was a basic requirement—on the steps toward peace. At the same time he wanted Secretary McNamara to give him a statement of the latest possible date for a decision that would put him in a position to deliver Phantoms by January 1970—provided he later made that decision. He wanted to make clear there was no commitment to deliver Phantoms. However, he wanted Secretary McNamara to work out the schedule to permit implementation of the President’s decision if he decided to deliver Phantoms by January 1970. The agreement must be secret and any leak would present major problems; and all arrangements were null and void if secrecy is not maintained. The President continued by saying that he wished to talk with the Soviets, the Arabs, and with the U.S. Congress. He also hoped that the Israeli military authorities would discuss with General Wheeler the problem of training pilots and ground crews. If any pilots were trained prior to any decision to send F-4’s, it was essential that this arrangement be kept secret.

The Prime Minister then asked whether instead of January 1970, it would be possible to step up delivery of the Phantoms to the middle of 1969 if necessary. Moreover, he would consider it a favor if the President could find some way to tell him that in 1968 he would send one dozen F-4’s and the rest later. The response to this question from the U.S. side was negative.

Secretary McNamara mentioned that there had been no arrangements on financing and that this would have to be worked out. Thirty A-4’s would cost some $39 million or more, and 50 F-4’s would cost something like $200 million depending on what electronic equipment, etc. was included.

The Prime Minister returned again to the thought that some F-4’s could be delivered during 1968. The President repeated that he wanted the generals on both sides to tell him when the decision must be made in order that planes and pilots be ready for delivery by January 1, 1970 provided he decided to do so. The President rejected the idea of starting in 1968. The Prime Minister again asked for delivery soon; for example, [Page 99] for one per month in 1968. The President said what is at issue here is not the number but the decision. The Soviets and Arabs must prove the Israelis are right before the President would make this decision.

In response to a comment by Dr. Herzog, the President said that he had outlined the basis for doing exactly what the Israelis had asked and on the time-table they have requested provided he decided it was necessary. Meanwhile, we must try to get the Russians to reach an understanding and to urge the Arabs to exercise restraint. The President remarked that President Nasser seemed to be feeling somewhat more subdued, and there were some indications that he wished to find a road to peace and an avenue to a resumption of relations with the United States.

  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 at 2:45 p.m. (Johnson Library)
  2. The joint communique was issued from the LBJ Ranch on January 8. For text, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968-69, Book I, pp. 20-21.