239. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense Laird to President Nixon 1

SUBJECT

  • Middle East Arms Policy

The USG public policy of maintaining a Middle East “military balance” should be altered, in my judgment, because:

(1) The policy does not reflect as well as it should the two dominant military realities of the current and prospective situation. First, repeated studies by various DoD components confirm overwhelming Israeli military superiority in relation to Arab forces. The level of military hardware is not the dominant factor in the Arab-Israeli equation. The Arabs already have more planes than pilots, and more advanced equipment than they can handle. They do not have and are unlikely to get, even with Soviet assistance, the leadership, morale, technical aptitude, and individual motivation necessary to match the Israelis. This reality highlights the second and more critical one: we must draw a distinction between Arab forces on the one hand and Arab plus Soviet forces on the other. It is unrealistic to talk of giving Israel enough equipment to maintain a “balance” against present or prospective Soviet forces that may be focused on the Middle East. This is a separate problem which must not be confused with the Arab-Israeli arms balance issue, but instead involves NATO, the Sixth Fleet, and global US security interests.

(2) The policy removes arms supply initiative in the Middle East from US hands. Instead, the Soviets are enabled to increase their penetration of Egypt at will. The Soviets retain a large degree of control over Egyptian military capability because of Egyptian technical deficiency. Therefore, introduction of new weapons almost automatically increases the Soviet presence in Egypt without, however, increasing their risk of losing control. With the USG committed to a balancing response, increased polarization is assured. The USG, moreover, does not retain any degree of control over Israeli capabilities and, for each new round of weapons, the risk for the USG mounts.

(3) The policy has not achieved USG Middle East objectives. New USG weapons commitments to Israel have provoked greater Soviet [Page 874] penetration of Egypt. These same commitments, which were designed to induce Israeli self-confidence toward productive peace negotiations, have, instead, fostered the over-confidence which translates into today’s rigid posture.

(4) The policy contradicts the heart of the USG peace initiative by committing us to underwriting continued occupation of Arab territories rather than encouraging withdrawal.

(5) The policy associates the USG dangerously with Israeli weapons developments over which we have no control. Specifically, Israeli production of highly sophisticated and special-purpose weapons introduces a critical new factor in the Middle East military equation which will reflect on the USG most disadvantageously if and when the full story eventually surfaces.

(6) The policy does not lend itself to distinguishing between offensive and defensive capabilities. The bulk of Soviet weapons introduced in the recent past are defensive in character and do not directly enhance Egyptian capability to threaten Israel’s survival. USG policy, however, has frequently responded by providing Israel with more highly sophisticated, offensively oriented fighter-bomber aircraft and other offensive weaponry2 which pose a direct threat to Egyptian survival.

Clearly, the time has come to change our policy. Israel is launching a major public campaign for the additional USG aircraft commitments they have sought for some time. Our response will be a prime tangible by which the Arab world will gauge the sincerity of our spoken desires for an equitable peace settlement.

I recommend that we substitute for our present “military balance” policy a new policy which assures only an appropriate Israeli capability to defend its legitimate borders against Arab attack.

Stress could increasingly be placed on defense of Israel per se, apart from occupied territories. Larger questions of military balance as related to NATO and USG-Soviet postures would be dealt with as issues separated from the Arab-Israeli conflict. This new policy would:

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(1) Define USG interests in the Middle East situation more sharply. Israel’s survival would remain important, but would be seen in the context of overall US national interest, rather than as an open-ended commitment.

(2) Enable the USG to decide privately, and justify publicly, if necessary, which weapons to allow or not allow as matters separate from the question of Israel’s survival.

(3) Introduce greater flexibility for our diplomatic efforts to move Israel toward a more reasonable negotiating stance. Statements of USG interest in Israel’s defense could be varied to include “defense of legitimate Israeli borders” if our diplomacy required.

(4) Permit us to exclude further commitments of inflammatory offensive weapons such as attack aircraft, thereby offering greater scope for improvement of our relations with Egypt and the rest of the Arab world and helping reduce opportunities for Soviet penetration.

(5) Place our judgments on justifiable military grounds that can be supported privately, and even publicly, on a professional basis. This would permit a more flexible response to the politicized campaign already beginning on behalf of Israel’s security. Key members of Congress could be briefed on the professional considerations behind our policy, and any need to offset the Soviet strategic gains in the Mediterranean would become the responsibility of the Sixth Fleet and NATO rather than the Israeli armed forces.

The US cannot exert sufficient leverage in the Middle East as long as it is locked rigidly into a false concept of military balance that robs the US of the initiative and does not take into account the very real differences between US and Israeli interests. The proposed policy would gain for us the flexibility to support Israel on a more selective basis, disassociating ourselves from political and military positions which are not in the US national interests.3

Melvin R. Laird
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1164, Saunders Files, Middle East Negotiations Files, Middle East—Jarring Talks, July 1–16, 1971. Secret; Sensitive. The President did not receive this memorandum until July 14, when Kissinger forwarded it to him with a memorandum summarizing its contents. (Ibid.)
  2. Packard met with Rabin on June 24 in the Pentagon to discuss the continuation of aircraft deliveries to Israel, an extension of the U.S.-Israeli data exchange agreement, and the purchase of surplus weapons from Vietnam. When Rabin asked what Israel could “look forward to in the way of sales,” Packard responded that “he understood Israel’s problem” but could only say, as he had previously, “if Israel could get the negotiations started” the aircraft decisions would be “easier” to make. As of that meeting, 12 of the 54 F–4s that Israel requested the year before had been sold and delivered, and of the 120 A–4s that Israel had requested, 20 had been or were being delivered and 18 were coming from new production. (Memorandum of conversation, June 24; Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330–76–0197, Box 66, Israel)
  3. On June 30, the last day of the fiscal year, Nixon approved Kissinger’s recommendation that he endorse the Department of State’s proposal that $50 million in surplus military assistance funds be passed on to Israel as an add-on to the $500 million already approved for that fiscal year. According to Kissinger, the Department of State argued: 1) “The additional money would help our own services who have been bearing some of the financial burden for last year’s exceptional shipments to Israel”; and 2) “This would allay some of the Israeli nervousness that we are cutting off the assistance tap entirely.” Kissinger himself added: “It seems desirable to make use of this money rather than have it revert to the Treasury at the end of the fiscal year. Applying it against the Israeli account would, at the very least, allow increased flexibility in the FY 1972 appropriations even if more than the present $300-million is not actually provided to Israel.” (Memorandum from Kissinger to Nixon, June 30; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 609, Country Files, Middle East, Israel, Vol. IX)