Tuesday, October 20, 2015

No Longer a Common Law Wife: Levi Eshkol Signs A Formal Memorandum of Understanding with the United States, 1965

On 25 October we will mark the 120th anniversary of the birth of Levi Eshkol, Israel's third prime minister . Levi Shkolnik, later Eshkol, was born in Oratavo, in Ukraine and came to Palestine in 1914. After serving as the minister of finance for many years, Eshkol became prime minister on 26 June 1963 and served until his death in 1969. Until 1967 he was also minister of defence. One of his most important achievements was the signing of a secret memorandum of understanding with the US on 10 March 1965. This agreement is considered the beginning of the strategic alliance so important to Israel's security and international status.

Levi Shkolnik in the 1920s, Israel State Archives

Here we presents a publication showing the background to the memorandum of understanding (MOU) and the negotiations which led up to the signing (for the text see below, ISA A/7935). The publication includes 18 documents, some from our holdings specially declassified for the purpose, and some from the US archives, published in Volume XVIII of the Foreign Relations of the United States series on the Johnson Administration

You can see all the Hebrew documents on our Hebrew blog.


In Israel's early years the US gave it support and financial help but there was no alliance between them. The Administration wanted to keep good relations with the Arabs and at first Israel preferred neutrality between East and West in order to receive help from both Great Powers. In 1950 Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion decided to support the West in the Korean War, which enabled Israel to receive more economic aid and surplus outdated weapons. When the Soviets began to arm Egypt, the US preferred France to serve as Israel's main arms supplier.

Under the Kennedy Administration this began to change. Although the Americans made difficulties for Israel with their demands over the nuclear reactor in Dimona and the Palestinian refugee problem, in September 1962 they agreed to sell Israel advanced weapons defined as defensive – Hawk anti-aircraft missiles. One of the reasons for this decision was the Egyptian efforts to develop surface to surface missiles. In December 1962 Kennedy told Foreign Minister Golda Meir that the US had a "special relationship" with Israel like its relationship with Britain, but he refused to formalize this link. At most he agrred to repeat past US declarations and to declare that the US was committed to preserving the territorial integrity of all states in the Middle East, including Israel. The Administration feared that a formal alliance would damage its relations with moderate Arab states such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and drive the Arabs into the arms of the USSR.

In June 1963 Ben-Gurion resigned and Eshkol replaced him. He managed to reduce the tension with the US over inspection of the nuclear reactor in Dimona.  One of the factors which persuaded the Americans was the realization that Egyptian President Nasser did not intend to accept their proposals for a compromise with Israel and that he was undermining Western interests in Yemen and Algeria. On 3 October 1963 Kennedy sent Eshkol a letter on the US stand, emphasizing its friendship for Israel and strong military presence in the Middle East but rejecting Ben-Gurion's proposal for a formal alliance (Document 1, ISA A-7939/3). Eshkol replied on 3 November that the Egyptian threat to Israel's crowded population centres obliged the US to help Israel acquire advanced weapons at a low price (Document 2, ISA A-7939/3).

The Johnson Administration

On 22 November Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and Lyndon Johnson became president. Johnson's personal attitude to Israel was more positive. In his first letter to Eshkol in January 1964 he repeated Kennedy's stand on the use of the River Jordan waters, the refugee question and the US commitment to Israel, but did not mention Dimona. Eshkol replied, thanking him and expressing his hope to meet the president. Eshkol was in fact invited to visit the White House, and he arrived in June 1964 – the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister.

Eshkol and Johnson inspect an honour guard at the White House, 1 June 1964
Photograph: Moshe Pridan, Governmet Press Office

On 18 June  Eshkol reported to the government on his visit and spoke very warmly of Johnson: "You feel as if a friend is walking with you on a dark night, and you are not afraid, and neither is he afraid." The two discussed bilateral relations, including the supply of US tanks through West Germany (see Israel's Relations with the Federal Republic of Germany, 1961-1965) and building a nuclear reactor for water desalination. Eshkol described Johnson as "full of good will and concern" for Israel's security. Education Minister Zalman Aranne commented that it seemed that for the first time Israel's relations with the US had emerged from the status of a "diplomatic common law wife." (Document 4 in Hebrew). As a result of this talk Israel was able to buy US tanks through Germany, but Johnson refused to sell it planes. 

Crisis with  West Germany: A Turning Point in Relations with Germany – and with the US

At the beginning of 1965 the sale of US tanks to Israel by West Germany was revealed by the press and this led to a crisis. Up till then Israel and the Federal Republic did not have diplomatic relations, and Germany gave Israel economic aid under the Reparations Agreement of 1952. After the deal was exposed Egypt invited the East German leader Walter Ulbricht to Cairo. In reaction West Germany decided to stop selling arms to "areas of tension", including Israel, and to cancel the sale of tanks, but to establish full diplomatic relations (for the full story, see our publication).

As a result of this crisis two high level delegations from the US came to Israel to discuss security relations. The first arrived on 12 February 1965 and was headed by Robert Komer of the National Security Council (codenamed "Ahiassaf" in the Israeli documents), with Walworth Barbour, the US ambassador and his first secretary, Stephen Palmer. Before he left Komer sent a memorandum to the president discussing how to balance Israeli's demands for arms instead of the tanks from Germany with Jordanian demands, and how to prevent a violent reaction by Nasser. Komer's instructions, delivered on 10 February, were "to explain to the Government of Israel in full and friendly candor the reasons why we believe that limited and carefully spaced out US arms sales to Jordan are far better than the alternative of uncontrollable Soviet or UAR supply." The US was supporting Jordan solely because they saw this as an Israeli interest. They still preferred Israel to receive arms from Europe but recognized that US sales might become necessary.

Sitting on the Israeli side of the table were all the political and security top brass, among them Eshkol, Foreign Minister Meir, Deputy Prime Minister Abba Eban, Deputy Defence Minister Shimon Peres , the Chief of Staff and senior officials. Each side presented its stand and at a lunch meeting in Golda's home on 12 February, the participants held a role playing game in which Golda played the Americans, Eban, the Arabs and Komer represented Israel! However no breakthrough was made. On 24 February a higher ranking delegation arrived headed by Averell Harriman, the ex-Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, now a roving ambassador. With Harriman, a veteran Democrat elder statesman, were Komer, Earl Russell, a State Department official, and Barbour. Their aim was to formalize the US commitment to Israel's security. In return Israel would agree not to oppose arms sales to Jordan and an understanding would be reached on the nuclear issue. On the same day Rainer Barzel , one of the leaders of the Christian Democrat party in West Germany, met with Johnson and expressed satisfaction with the Harriman mission.

 The US is Trying to Buy a New Cadillac for Ten Bucks: Johnson's Decision to Settle with Israel

The talks with Harriman opened on 25 February and on 28 February Golda Meir told the government that a historic change had taken place: for the first time the US had agreed to become Israel’s main arms supplier (Document 9 in Hebrew). However other accounts describe disagreements, and on 1 March the talks were on the verge of failure (Document 10 in Hebrew). The Americans emphasized the urgency of their answer to Jordan and their fear of its defection to the Soviet-Egyptian camp. If there was no agreement they would abandon Hussein, but Israel would not receive arms either. Due to unwelcome publicity  Harriman left for East Asia, and Komer replaced him. 
Nasser and Hussein at the Arab summit in 1964
Photograph: Wikipedia
On 2 March Golda reported to the government on the problem issues, including US opposition to the introduction of bomber aircraft into the Middle East (Document 11 in Hebrew). On 5 March Barbour reported to Johnson and to Secretary of State Dean Rusk that Eshkol had refused the latest proposal. They had insisted on a counter-proposal and thought he was "shaken". On the same day, the Foreign Ministry recalled Ambassador Avraham Harman in Washington to Jerusalem immediately due to dramatic developments. On 6 March Komer wrote to National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy that only a deal including bombers and tanks would persuade Israel to agree to arms for Jordan. The negotiations had undermined the US bargaining position, and Israel was waiting for a better offer. But it had genuine security concerns, and as Barbour said, the US "was trying [to] buy [a] new Cadillac for ten bucks." Washington decided to leave the difficult issues of the Jordan waters and the nuclear reactor for a later date, and to settle with Israel. According to Mordecai Gazit, the Israeli minister in Washington, this was Johnson’s decision, and he had approved all the moves in the negotiations.

On 10 March, a day after the signing of a secret draft agreement with Germany, Israel and the US signed the MOU. It included a commitment by the US to Israel’s security and Israel’s commitment not to be the first state to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. The US announced its intention to sell tanks to Jordan and King Hussein’s promise to deploy them on the east bank of the Jordan. The US would sell tanks and fighter planes to Israel on easy terms. It was signed by Eshkol, Komer and Barbour. According to a report by Harriman he was pleased with the results of the talks but warned that the water issue was likely to lead to a clash. He recommended the president not to agree to Eshkol’s request to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Afterwards Eshkol and Johnson exchanged letters.
An Israel Air Force Skyhawk
Photograph: Oren Rozen, Wikipedia

As a result of the MOU Israel obtained modern weapons, especially tanks which made possible its victory in 1967. It also received Skyhawk planes, which arrived later but played an important part in the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

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