For the first twenty years of her existence, the United States was not Israel’s staunchest ally, believe it or not France was the Jewish state’s biggest benefactor. True the US was the first country to recognize Israel after she declared independence in May 1948, but that was the strong will of Harry Truman wanting to do the right thing over the objections of an Arabist State Department (some things never change). When Israel joined with France and Britain in 1956 to take over the Sinai and open up shipping lanes closed by the Egyptians, it was the US that forced Israel to get out causing a repeat of the blockade eleven years later. There was no US help in the Six Day War despite the Arab nations receiving a healthy supply of arms from the USSR.
It wasn’t until after the Six Day War that the US began to realize the strategic importance of Israel. The Soviets were rearming the Arab states to better than pre-war levels. Israel’s air force, her first line of defense was decimated. That’s when Prime Minister Levi Eshkol paid a visit to the LBJ ranch in Texas.
On the seventh day
An Arab sword of Damocles hung over Israel’s neck in June 1967, and so perilous was its blade that foreign capitals spoke chillingly of the country’s imminent slaughter. But then, within six amazing days, the IDF crushed army after Arab army and felt the jubilation of David with Goliath prostrate at his feet.
Then the seventh day dawned. Soviet Russia swiftly replenished Goliath’s arsenals, while David’s sling lost much of its propellant thrust. France, long Israel’s backer, imposed an arms embargo, and only America could redress the balance. It was this, above all, that drove Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to seek an urgent meeting with President Lyndon Johnson who, in January 1968, extended to him a friendly invitation to his Texas ranch.
The talks took place in the president’s den – a mixture of warm leathers, rust couches, and a low, husky oak table around which the principals and their aides sat. No two men appeared so absolutely unalike in appearance and temperament. The one was a towering Texan, vigorous, groomed, abrasive, and commanding, the other a paunchy, stooped, bespectacled, balding Jerusalemite with a wise, family-friend countenance.
WITHOUT ADO, the prime minister bent his mind to the hub of his argument:
“The heart of my mission, Mr. President,” he said, “is how to create peace in the Middle East at a time when the Syrian and Egyptian armies are being rebuilt by the Soviets at a menacing pace – so fast that the Arab leaders are contemplating renewed war.”
“How fast?” asked Johnson. He was sitting at the very edge of his chair, his demeanor intense. A white dog at his feet barked and sniffed the prime minister’s shoes, and the president snapped, “Quiet, Yuki! Down!”
“Egypt, Syria and Iraq have already replenished their air forces to a combined strength of 460 fighters and 47 bombers,” answered Eshkol. “Egypt alone is now almost back to its prewar air strength. Moreover, the quality of their aircraft is vastly improved.”
“And their ground forces, what of them?” asked the president.
“In tanks,” replied the premier referring to a typed page, “the Egyptians are almost back to their prewar strength. The Egyptian navy is stronger than before, with rocket-equipped vessels. The number of ground troops is rapidly rising beyond their June 1967 strength.”
“Do you see signs of an actual Russian physical presence there?”
“Certainly. Our assessment is that there are at least 2,500 Soviet military experts in Egypt today.”
“OK, that’s the Arab side. Now what about your side? What do you have?” The president was eyeing the prime minister unblinkingly, as if trying to track the motives behind his thoughts. Eshkol’s response, when it came, was slow, soft, and disturbing:
“We have no more than 150 aircraft, all French, 66 of them virtually obsolete. The French are contracted to send us 50 more, but because of their boycott we won’t get them. In a word, Mr. President” – their eyes met and caught – “we presently do not have the minimum means to defend ourselves.”
A FLICKER crossed Johnson’s brow and he exchanged glances with his advisers. “So what are you asking for exactly? Spell it out.” The voice was terse and tight.
Eshkol, knowing this was the decisive moment, adjusted his spectacles, cleared his throat, and said in a measured tone, “What I’m asking for, Mr. President, is the one aircraft that has the necessary range and versatility to enable us to face down our enemies. I’m asking for your F-4 Phantom jets.”
Johnson’s eyes became strangely veiled. The Phantom was America’s newest state-of-the-art fighter-bomber.
“Mr. President,” pressed Eshkol, a sudden edge of desperation in his voice, “please understand, my country is extremely vulnerable. One defeat in the field can be fatal to our survival. What I ask of you is the minimum for our self-defense. Without those Phantoms we will be deprived of our minimum security. We need 50 Phantoms as rapidly as possible.”
Johnson returned him an unreceptive look and Eshkol, really charged up now, said, “Mr. President, last June our enemies tried to destroy us, and we defeated them all. Had we waited one more day, even one more hour, before forestalling them the outcome might have been very different. Yet I come here with no sense of boastful triumph; nor have I entered the struggle for peace in the role of victor. The only feeling I have is one of relief that we were saved from national disaster, and I thank God for that. Now, all my thoughts are turned toward winning the peace – peace with honor between equals.”
“That is a noble thought,” said Johnson.
“Thank you, but we need the tools to help bring that peace about. I regret to say that” – a sudden bitter irony crept into his voice – “the United States is the only source we have for those tools. Within two years our Arab neighbors will have 900-1,000 Soviet aircraft. So it’s an either/or situation. Either you provide us with the arms we need, or you leave us to our fate. It’s as simple as that.”
And then, almost in a whisper, “Mr. President, Israel is pleading for your help.”
LYNDON BAINES Johnson put the back of one beefy hand against his mouth, chewed on his knuckles contemplatively, made a tent of his hairy fingers, and said: “I am impressed by your statement, Mr. Prime Minister. However, as you know, we are facing a difficult situation in Vietnam, calling on our resources. I suggest, therefore, you look elsewhere to find your weapons, not only here in the United States.”
Eshkol threw him a cynical smile. “Please tell me where. I would be delighted to look elsewhere if you can give me an address.”
“That’s as may be, but I regret that your visit here is so closely tied to this matter of the Phantoms. Planes won’t radically change your realities. Your big problem is how two-and-a-half million Jews [Israel’s population at the time] can live in a sea of Arabs.”
Secretary of state Dean Rusk, a solid and benevolent sort, chimed in to say in a reasonable and persuasive tone, “Mr. Prime Minister, in all honesty, whatever efforts Israel makes in the field of military build-up, the Arabs will better you every time. If the Arabs see an Israel they cannot live with, one that is intolerable to them, they won’t back away from an arms race. On the contrary, they will turn increasingly to the Soviets, to the detriment of the American interest. So what we would like to hear from you today is, what kind of an Israel do you want the Arabs to live with, and what kind of an Israel do you want the American people to support? The answer, surely, is not to be found in military hardware.”
“These are difficult remarks you are making, Mr. Secretary,” said Eshkol stonily. “All I can say to you now is that our victory in the Six Day War blocked the Soviet Union from taking over the Middle East; and that, surely, is an American interest. As for the kind of an Israel the Arabs can live with and which the American people can support, the only answer I can presently give is an Israel whose map will be different from the one of the eve of the Six Day War.”
“How different?” quizzed Rusk cagily.
ESHKOL, HIS voice brimming with sincerity, replied, “Please understand, we did not want that June war. We could have lived indefinitely within the old pre-1967 armistice lines. But now that there has been a war, we cannot return to those old, vulnerable frontiers.”
Clearly not wanting a high-stress exchange to escalate into an all-out dispute, the president intervened and suggested a break. When the talks resumed, the president said he would like to try and get a peace process going, to which Eshkol interjected with uncharacteristic adamancy:
“Mr. President, I would love somebody here in this room to tell me when and where and how I can get a peace process going. I wouldn’t be here asking for Phantoms if somebody could tell me that. But instead of peace we are faced with an unprecedented Arab rearmament that again threatens our very existence. The immediate issue is the means to defend ourselves against another attempted onslaught. Israel feels weaker now than before the Six Day War. Why? Because as you rightly said, we are a small country of two-and-a-half million Jews surrounded by a sea of Arabs. So what are we supposed to do – wait until Russia gives them so many planes that they can dictate their terms at will?”
His face had gone white. “Mr. President,” he galloped on, “the State of Israel is the last chance for the Jewish people. I pray with all my heart to avoid another war. But I know of only one address to acquire the means to defend ourselves – and that address is you.”
ROBERT McNAMARA, the secretary of defense, raised a finger. He was a handsome man in his early fifties, with a square chin, a fine mop of hair parted in the middle, and rimless glasses that gave him an intellectual look. There was nothing about him to suggest he was in the midst of a Vietnamese war that would prove one of the bloodiest America had ever fought.
“Having studied the evidence,” he began with dispassion, “it seems clear to me that two-and-a half million Jews truly cannot withstand the whole of the Arab world, particularly if the Arabs are assisted by the Russians. Therefore, the supply of a substantial number of the most sophisticated aircraft could only increase Russian support for the Arabs. At the same time, there is no reason for Israel to say it has been abandoned. This will not occur while President Johnson is president. However, for the US to supply you with planes might greatly increase the supply of Russian planes to the Arabs. So, given these unknowns, we have to proceed with the utmost caution.”
This obscure and contradictory comment aroused the ire of General Motti Hod, commander of Israel’s Air Force, who, with undisguised cynicism, countered: “The arms race, Mr. McNamara, has never been influenced by what we have in our hangers. The only limiting factor is the Arab capacity to absorb the aircraft the Soviets supply.”
And then to Johnson, “Your secretary of defense says that as long as you, Mr. President, are president, Israel will never be abandoned. Might I suggest that the one way of guaranteeing that, and of assuring that US forces will never have to come to our rescue, is by keeping our air force strong.”
THE PRESIDENT suggested another brief break for consultations, after which he said in summation:
“I think we can agree on three objectives. First, there is the need to do what we can to bring about a stable peace. Second, we are all anxious to deter, if possible, an arms race. Third, the United States has a hope and a purpose of assuring, if necessary, adequate equipment to the Israel Air Force to defend itself. And in connection with this goal I suggest that the following sentence be written into our joint communiqu at the conclusion of this session.”
He picked up a paper, and read: “The president agreed to keep Israel’s defense capability under active and sympathetic review in light of all the relevant factors, including the shipment of military equipment by others into the area.” To this he added by way of explanation, “This statement will be helpful in deterring the Arabs, and might even push them toward restraint. It also says to the Soviets, ‘Stop, look, and listen.’ And it gives you something concrete, Mr. Prime Minister, to stand on.”
This, in diplomatic-speak, translated into, “Yes. You’ll have your Phantoms,” and a deeply relieved prime minister responded, “Thank you, Mr. President. I thank you from the heart.”
Lyndon B. Johnson kept his word. Historically, a profound change in the relationship between Jerusalem and Washington was set in motion. America threw in its strategic lot with Israel so that, henceforth, it would become Israel’s main source of sophisticated weaponry.
This strategic alliance, for all its ups and downs, endures as a bedrock of US bipartisan support, for not only does it enable Israel to retain a qualitative edge in the face of extraordinary odds, it is the indispensable key to any process of peace in the future.