WASHINGTON (Dec. 19)
President Johnson has deferred a decision on supplying important new arms to Israel, including the P-4 Phantom jet fighter-bombers, at least until the February visit of Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, highly-placed U.S. officials disclosed today.
These officials said that the White House was convinced that no dangerous arms imbalance currently existed in the Middle East because of the supply of 48 Douglas Skyhawk jet bombers to Israel. The Skyhawks were purchased in 1966, and are now being manufactured and delivered. Officials pointed out that the Skyhawks represented more than numerical replacement of Israel’s losses in the Six-Day War, because Israel is alleged to have lost fewer aircraft than the total of Skyhawks. Some of the losses were described as obsolescent types.
(Official Israeli sources have declined to confirm reports that Mr. Eshkol would seek permission for Israel to acquire the P-4 Phantom jet fighter-bombers when he meets President Johnson here, but they have never concealed the fact that Israel must find an alternative source of equipment in view of President de Gaulle’s embargo on military equipment for Israel. The backbone of the Israeli Air Force is the Mirage V fighter-bomber, of which Israel had 50 on order in France before last June and the delivery of which has been blocked by Gen. de Gaulle. The French embargo has also stopped the flow of replacement parts necessary to keep the Israeli squadrons airborne. The Douglas Skyhawks, which the United States has released to Israel, and a few of which are being shipped every month, are not considered in the same class as the Mirage V and the P-4 Phantom.)
U.S. officials said that the latest Administration evaluation, fully shared by the President, did not see the Soviet role as such, at this juncture, to justify a greater American involvement in Israeli defensive requirements. It was said that the situation could change during the first half of 1968; and, if so, appropriate conclusions would be drawn.
President Johnson was authoritatively depicted as wishing to avoid a policy that would bracket the United States with Israel’s defense equipment in the same role that France previously played. This would restrict American flexibility in dealing with the Arabs and with changing situations, it was said. The current assessment is that the United States has responded adequately to the Israeli defensive situation as it exists at the year’s end. But the matter remains under active study and consideration. It was apparent, however, that long-term military needs of Israel are not at this moment an issue of great priority at the White House, and certainly not at the State Department.