President Johnson Tried To Pressure Israel in the 1960s

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - The late President Lyndon Johnson tried to use the promise of weapons sales to pressure Israel to conform to US policy - including a pledge not to develop nuclear weapons - during the years leading up to the 1967 Six-Day War.

The attempt failed, according to declassified documents released by the State Department this week.

Pursuing a policy like that of his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, Johnson attempted to keep the Arab-Israeli dispute "in the icebox" by developing relations with Egypt while maintaining relations with Israel.

But the policy was undermined by an increase in tensions because of terrorist attacks on Israel and the flow of Soviet weapons to the region, the documents on US foreign relations between 1964-1967 reveals.

Bilateral relations between the US and Egypt were problematic because of President Gamal Abdul Nasser's intervention in Yemen and the Congo, his acceptance of Soviet military equipment and frequent anti-American statements.

Nasser's response to a US attempt to stem the flow of weapons into the region was that "nothing could stop the arms race in the area expect the solution of the Israeli problem."

In 1964, Israel intensified its efforts to obtain US tanks to offset the Soviet-equipped Egyptian army. But such a request ran contrary to US policy that was opposed to supplying arms to either side in the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Instead, Washington arranged for Israel to purchase US tanks secretly through Germany, but the deal fell through when word leaked out.

Enter Jordan's King Hussein, who, under pressure from his Arab allies to purchase Soviet equipment, turned to the US to purchase tanks and supersonic fighter planes.

The only way to prevent Jordan from purchasing the Soviet goods, Washington was told, was for the US to sell the tanks to Amman and recommend that the king purchase planes from Western Europe.

Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol reacted very negatively to the arrangement. Johnson, fearing a strong domestic reaction to the Jordanian deal, moved to reverse the policy against selling weapons to Israel.

Israel was presented with a package proposal by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, W Averell Harriman, and Robert Komer of the National Security Council to purchase US tanks and arms on a "case-by-case basis."

In return, Israel would be asked to make four pledges. It would be required to inform its US supporters that it approved of the Jordanian arms deal; promise not to develop nuclear weapons; submit to inspection of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and agree not to take preemptive action against Arab projects to divert the Jordan River, but instead take problems to the United Nations.

Komer cabled back to Washington Israel's refusal to confine itself on vital issues in exchange for a promise of possible future weapons sales on a "case-by-case basis," and he said that "even the Soviets are less tough bargainers than Israelis."

Secretary of State Dean Rusk then told Harriman that the president felt "there [were] limits beyond which we cannot go in support of Israel."

When Israel refused to bend, Johnson decided on a compromise proposal. Israel agreed to "acknowledge privately" the necessity of the US-Jordanian arms deal; pledge to try to resolve the Jordan water issue peacefully, and "reiterate publicly" that it would not be the first country in the region to introduce nuclear weapons capability.

By mid-1965, the US was concerned by "the rising number of terrorist incidents and skirmishes" on Israel's borders with Lebanon and Jordan, perpetrated primarily by "independent Palestinian terrorist groups," chiefly the Syrian-backed Fatah, headed by Yasser Arafat.

Worried that retaliation would lead to "wider fighting," the US opposed Israeli counter attacks and advised the country to take its complaints to the UN.

In one episode, Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir complained to Ambassador Barbour about a public statement "deploring the use of force by both sides."

According to the summary, Barbour said that "Israeli reprisals made such statements inevitable by removing Israel's status as injured party.

"Meir told him tartly," the report says, "that she was not interested in being an injured party; she did not want to be injured at all."

US policy makers were angered by a large-scale Israeli reprisal raid into Jordan in November 1966, saying that Israel knew that Jordan was attempting to prevent terror attacks along the border.

The US voted in favor of a UN Security Council resolution censuring Israel, and Johnson warned Israel that another raid like that would lead to a suspension of US military aid.

The declassified volume ends shortly before the June 1967 Six-Day War.

The State Department expects to publish three additional volumes on the Arab-Israeli conflict from 1964-68 later in 2000 and 2001.