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Johnson Instructs Rusk to Begin Sale of ‘supersonic’ Aircraft to Israel

President Johnson instructed Secretary of State Dean Rusk today to start negotiations on the sale of supersonic jet fighter-bombers to Israel, a military item long sought by Israel. Mr. Johnson made his decision known while signing the Foreign Aid Authorization Bill. He referred to a section of it–the Halpern-Wolff amendment–that urged him to provide Israel with the “supersonic” military aircraft.

Mr. Johnson did not specify whether he meant the F-4 Phantom jets long sought by Israel or some other supersonic plane in the United States arsenal. Among such planes is the F-104 Star-fighter, which the U.S. has sold to Jordan and West Germany. The Israel Embassy here said, however, that it was convinced that the President had the Phantom in mind.

President Johnson said “I have taken note of (the amendment) concerning the sale of planes to Israel. I am asking the Secretary of State to initiate negotiations with the Government of Israel and report back to me.” The Israel Embassy here was notified today that negotiations for the jets will be gin immediately, a spokesman said.

Mr. Johnson did not indicate specifically that he had made a final decision to sell the planes to Israel. Mr. Johnson is leaving all the negotiation details to Mr. Rusk, it was understood.

The President’s action followed many months of pleading by political parties, leading trade unions, veterans organizations, and virtually every major Jewish organization for Phantoms for Israel. Presidential candidates Hubert H. Humphrey, Richard M. Nixon and George Wallace are all on record favoring such a transaction.

Mr. Johnson declared that his decision was based on a joint resolution of Congress last August calling for the sale of “supersonic” jets to Israel. When that bill passed the Senate, it stated: “It is the sense of Congress that the President should take such steps as may be necessary, as soon as practicable…to negotiate an agreement with the Government of Israel providing for the sale by the U.S. of such number of supersonic planes as may be necessary to provide Israel with an adequate deterrent force capable of preventing future Arab aggression by offsetting sophisticated weapons received by the Arab states and to replace losses suffered by Israel in the 1967 conflict.”

Israel has maintained that it needs 50 F-4 Phantoms, a principal plane in the U.S. Air Force arsenal in Vietnam, to counterbalance the flow of Soviet planes to Egypt. French-made Mirage jets have been a mainstay of the Israeli Air Force, but 50 Mirages bought and paid for by the Israel Government in France have been held up since the de Gaulle Government imposed an embargo on Middle East arms shipments after the Six-Day War.

Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin termed the White House announcement “a contribution to peace and stability.” He said he hoped it would indicate to the enemies of Israel that there was no point in the arms race. He said the acquisition of supersonic jets would help Israel show her determination to avert war by preparations that would deter aggression. Mr. Rabin said he had confidence in the U.S. Government and that this confidence had been justified by today’s development.

The Soviet Union has promised Egypt new and more advanced missiles and jets, according to recent reports. These reportedly include MIG-23s, Russia’s latest strike jet aircraft, and offensive rocket launchers. Cairo was reported to be pressing Moscow for SU-7 all-weather supersonic fighter-bombers. More supplies of modern Soviet arms are also reportedly going to Syria and Yemen.

RECALL COMMUNIQUE ISSUED AFTER JANUARY MEETING

Following a meeting between Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and President Johnson at the LBJ Ranch in Texas on Jan. 8, a joint communique said that “the President agrees to keep Israel’s military defense capability under active and sympathetic examination and review, in the light of all relevant factors, including the shipment of military equipment by others to the area.” The communique also stated that Mr. Johnson and Mr. Eshkol “considered the implications of the pace of rearmament in the Middle East and the ways and means of coping with the situation.”

A White House spokesman later refused to confirm that the President’s statement pertained to the Phantom jets. He said he would not go beyond the President’s wording referring to “supersonic” aircraft. This did not exclude the Phantom but neither did it confirm that it was the plane under consideration.

Officials of the Douglas-McDonnell Co. told JTA that they had reports of the White House announcement but nothing to confirm that it was the Phantom that the U.S. Government might sell to Israel. It was explained that the company does not sell directly to foreign governments. Sales are made to U.S. Navy Air System Procurement Command. It is the U.S. Government that actually transfers the planes to foreign ownership. The Phantom has been delivered to the United Kingdom and is now used by the Royal Air Force. Over 3,000 Phantoms have been delivered to the U.S. Navy. Rear Admiral R. L. Townsend, commander of the Navy Air Systems Command, called the Phantom “the greatest plane in military service today.” The 50 Phantoms sought by Israel would cost approximately $200 million.

AIRPLANES COULD BE DELIVERED BEFORE 1970

The Phantom delivery dates, if the sale is consummated, would depend solely upon the U.S. Government. The Douglas-McDonnell Co. said its manufacturing schedule was up to date. The company indicated that it was untrue, as some Congressmen have said, that it would take until 1970 to produce and deliver the planes. Timing would be in the hands of the Navy procurement officers. Earlier delivery than 1970 would be possible.

The Phantom is rated as a Mach 2-plus jet fighter-bomber-capable of flying at twice the speed of sound. It holds 15 world speed and altitude records. The plane has achieved a top speed of 1,606 miles per hour. Its maximum altitude is 98,557 feet. The Phantom can ascend from the end of the runway to 12,000 meters in 77.15 seconds. It is a twin engine, all-weather aircraft, and requires a two-man crew. The range of the Phantom is rated at 900 miles for air-to-air interception, 1,000 miles for bombing missions, and 2,000 miles for ferrying. A versatile plane, the Phantom can carry up to eight tons of armaments. This could include bombs, napalm, mines, rockets, or missiles. Air Force Phantoms in Vietnam are armed with four Sparrow missiles and infra-red heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles. The Sparrow is radar-guided. It is not known whether the U.S. would agree to sell these weapons systems to Israel with the basic aircraft. Israeli pilots and mechanics could be trained at either the Douglas-McDonnell factory or at U.S. military bases.

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