KC Johnson

LBJ & Israel: Prof. Remy’s Class

PM Levi Eshkol continued to hold out for offensive weapons. [Ass’t Secretary of State Averell] Harriman soon joined [US diplomat Bob] Komer in Tel Aviv, tasked with reviewing all facets of the U.S.-Israeli relationship except for economic aid. The Ambassador-at-Large stressed to his hosts the “historic significance of President’s willingness to consider direct arms supply.”[1] The prime minister, however, “couldn’t say that he agreed to actual US sales to Jordan, which would promptly be publicized by Arabs and then seized upon by his political foes, in return for [a] generalized and secret promise US in principle agreed to unspecified direct sales to Israel at some future date.”[2]

Harriman and Komer found it “increasingly clear” that the key to matter was how “Eshkol, with his relatively unstable coalition government, faces real difficulty in carrying his Cabinet even as far as tacit acceptance [of] US arms sales to Jordan.”[3] With an election pending and Ben-Gurion excoriating his successor for not doing enough to ensure Israeli security, Eshkol needed more than a weak guarantee from the United States.[4] Moreover, both soon realized that Harriman’s initial portfolio was too wide—their mission should focus on the short-term question of an arms deal with Israel, and postpone consideration of broader matters for another day.

In Washington, Rusk and Ball insisted that the United States could commit only to “sympathetically” considering a future Israeli request that the United States fulfill the terms of the West German tanks sale.[5] At a decisive moment—if for unusual reasons—Johnson informed Rusk that the United States needed to go further in addressing Eshkol’s concerns. The President, in short, had tired of the diplomatic exchanges with Israel, and was willing to give in to Eshkol.

President Johnson and Dean Rusk, 6.50pm, 28 February 1965[6]

Dean Rusk: [reading from proposed telegram for Averell Harriman to present to Prime Minister Eshkol] “ . . . Our deep concern about unification of Arab world behind Nasser with close working relationships with Soviet bloc is [the] greatest threat to Israel we can imagine. The fact that it would be deeply injurious to U.S. interests in Near East, including the security of Israel, seems to us to require that we and Israel would together to head it off. We agree to a private visit to Washington of [Shimon] Peres and [Yitzhak] Rabin. Must emphasize absence of publicity for such visit, as was accomplished on earlier occasions.” . . .

President Johnson: I had this feeling—I don’t know if it’s any good, but, God, I hate to transfer all those Jews into Washington, though, because I’m afraid that they’ll all move in at the slightest provocation. I wouldn’t be surprised if Golda’s [Meir] not on her way if we don’t watch.

But maybe not.

Do you think that we could say to Averell to strike out the “sympathetically,” and say, “We pledge to give you x tanks, and give them the x tanks, plus a little beyond the tanks—without any planes? It seems that the basis of his [Eshkol’s] objection is that [the U.S. saying] “we view sympathetically” doesn’t commit us.

Rusk: Uh-huh.

President Johnson: And that he wants a commitment.

It seems that we might, without great danger, raise the ante a little bit to what the Germans are giving them, and say if the Germans don’t complete it, we’ll complete it, plus 20 or something.


The next day, Rusk communicated the new policy to Harriman and Komer.[7] The U.S. government, now fully cognizant of “Israeli concerns,” was “prepared to sell military equipment to Israel comparable in quantities and kinds to the equipment that the United States sells to Jordan to preclude the Soviet supply of arms through the UAC to Jordan.” Rusk placed several caveats on the offer—namely, that Israel not consider the arms sale a precedent, and that Eshkol “make a commitment not to oppose our offer to Jordan and to keep all aspects entire agreement completely secret until both governments agree on appropriate publicity.”[8]

[1]  “Telegram from the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State, Tel Aviv, February 26, 1965, 9:45pm,” FRUS, vol. 18, document 161.

[2] “Telegram from the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State, Tel Aviv, February 27, 1965, midnight,” FRUS, vol. 18, document 163.

[3] “Telegram from the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State, Tel Aviv, February 28, 1965, 4am,” FRUS, vol. 18, document 165.

[4] Levey, “The United States’ Skyhawk Sale to Israel, 1966,” p. 265.

[5] “Telegram from the Embassy in Israel to the Department of State, Tel Aviv, February 28, 1965, 11pm,” FRUS, vol. 18, document 167.

[6] President Johnson and Dean Rusk (excerpt), 6.50pm, 20 Feb. 1965, Tape WH6502.06, Citation #6898, LBJ Recordings, CD Track Three.

[7] “Telegram from the Department of State to the Embassy in Israel,” Washington, March 1, 1965, 12:02am,” FRUS, vol. 18, document 169.

[8] “Telegram from the Department of State to the Embassy in Israel, Washington, March 3, 1965, 10:48pm,” FRUS, vol. 18, document 175.

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