Negotiations for Sale of Supersonic Aircraft to Begin ‘reasonably Soon’

Negotiations for the sale of supersonic jet aircraft to Israel, directed by President Johnson yesterday, will be initiated “reasonably soon,” the State Department said today. The Israel Embassy disclosed at the same time that it is “already in touch” with the Department relative to the Israel Government’s application to buy 50 Phantom jet fighter-bombers. But a question appeared to hover over the whole transaction as State Department officials who have opposed the sale of Phantoms to Israel indicated that they did not consider the President’s directive to Secretary of State Dean Rusk to open negotiations for the planes a final commitment to sell them.

These officials pointed out that the President’s wording was cautiously phrased and left options open. Mr. Johnson said he was asking the Secretary of State “to initiate negotiations and report back to me.” The President would then retain the option of further action based on the negotiations, the situation then existing, and other factors. They pointed out farther that the White House has very carefully declined to elaborate the President’s language which could not be taken as a final decision confirming the sale and leading to the issuance of export licenses. The officials said that in any case the Department would probably be unable to negotiate in detail and report back to the President before next month’s elections.

Observers here, noting that Mr. Rusk is known to have led the opposition to the sale of Phantoms to Israel at this time, wondered why Mr. Johnson failed simply to direct the State Department to sell the aircraft. They pointed out that the Administration has known for over a year exactly the type of plane Israel wants and that Israel is well aware of the price and other data.

Mr. Rusk was questioned at a press conference today by reporters attempting to clarify whether Mr. Johnson’s announcement on “negotiations” was actually a commitment to sell the planes. Mr. Rusk declined to make the matter clear. Despite Mr. Rusk’s evasive answer and the guarded and cautious wording of the President’s remarks, Israeli authorities here and most Administration officials believe that Mr. Johnson in effect gave a green light to the transaction.

Rep. Seymour Halpern, New York Republican, a co-sponsor of the amendment to the Foreign Aid Bill calling on the President to sell Phantom jets to Israel, said today that he is not satisfied that the White House announcement on “negotiations” actually represents a final decision on the long-pending sale. He said he has asked President Johnson for a clarification.

“The decision on the jets may turn out to be nothing more than a gimmick to evade the great concentration of public opinion for another month or so.” he said. Rep. Halpern said “I want an explanation of why Secretary Rusk avoided a yes or no answer when asked by reporters if a decision had been made to sell the jets.”

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