Hawks vs. Doves: The Story of the First US-Israel Arms Deal

Today, the close defense relations between Israel and the United States appear to be natural and normal – but this was not always the case. Dr. Hayim Iserovich returns to the first arms deal in the 1960s and to the difficulties involved with the American decision to finally authorize the sale of arms to Israel, primarily the game-changing Hawk missile

Hawk missiles displayed during a military parade in Tel Aviv, 1965 (Photo: Wikipedia)

In March 2018, following a prolonged political debate, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, signed the new 1.3 trillion dollar spending bill approved by the US Congress to fund the operations of the government departments and federal agencies in the current budget year. Clause 8071 of that bill conveyed a significant message to Israel. The US Department of Defense, it stated, will allocate the massive amount of $705,800,000 to the funding of the Israeli missile defense systems, including the Iron Dome, Arrow-III and David's Sling systems.

Although the amounts were known in advance, being the outcome of prolonged talks between Israel and the US, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman made no attempt to conceal his satisfaction. "This is the highest aid budget of all time," he said. "I thank our great friend, the United States of America, for investing about 6.5 billion dollars to this day in defending the skies over the State of Israel. We are grateful for the assistance and the uncompromising commitment of the US Government and Congress to Israel's security."

The American investment in the Israeli missile defense systems is yet another manifestation of the relationship between the two countries. With an annual defense aid budget of billions of dollars (the long-term budget for 2019 through 2028 is $38 billion), an air force whose aircraft fleet is made up almost entirely of US-made platforms and intense connections regarding the most sensitive issues, the military alliance and defense cooperation between Israel and the US currently seem natural and fairly normal.

The beginnings, however, were far from simple. Admittedly, the US Government was the first government that promptly recognized the State of Israel 70 years ago, but the attitude shown to the newly-established state was not always warm. When IDF units reached the town of El-Arish during Operation Horev against the Egyptian Army in the Negev in late 1948, US President Harry Truman presented an explicit demand calling for an Israeli withdrawal. When Operation Kadesh (1956) ended, US President Dwight Eisenhower demanded that Israel vacate the Sinai Peninsula.

Another indication of the state of the relations between the two countries in those days emerged in 1958, when the Israeli Government asked that President Eisenhower dispatch a senior representative to attend the festivities of Israel's 10th Independence Day. The position consolidated by the US Government was that accepting the Israeli request "…will generate antagonism toward us in the Arab world, will be exploited by the USSR and have an adverse effect on Arab leaders wishing to maintain close connections with the US." In those years, the US Government did not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and maintained the view that the status of the city should be determined through negotiations.

In the defense field, things were even more complex. US nationals had actively helped Israel during the War of Independence – people like David Marcus (Mickey Stone), the first general in IDF history, and Al Schwimmer, who helped acquire military equipment for Israel, including aircraft and tanks, before going on to establish Israel Aeronautics Industries (IAI), but the US Government imposed an arms embargo on Israel from the very first moment.

In February 1956, a few months after the USSR had begun assisting the Egyptians with the major Czech arms deal, Ben-Gurion implored Eisenhower "Not to leave Israel without an adequate capacity for its self-defense." The US President did not respond favorably, however, and Ben-Gurion had no choice but to turn to the French, thereby making the first step on the path that led to the outbreak of Operation Kadesh eight months later.

With an Open Mind

A series of events that took place in the Middle East provided Israel with an opportunity to attempt and change the American concept. After the Sinai campaign, the Soviets stepped up their military aid to Egypt, delivering shipments that included new MiG-17 fighter aircraft. In February 1958, the United Arab Republic, the union of Egypt and Syria, was established, and in July – a revolution in Iraq toppled the local monarchy, while thousands of US Marines were shipped to Lebanon, to save the government, and British troops landed in Jordan – having flown through Israeli airspace – to assist King Hussein.

About a week after the events in Lebanon and Jordan, the Israeli Ambassador to Washington, Abba Eban, met with US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and stated that Israel was interested in enhancing its defensive capabilities and accordingly, that he intended to submit a list of the equipment sought by Israel. Dulles replied "We will look at it with an open mind, and the past would not necessarily decide the future," but refused to commit to a positive response.

In early August of that year, Israel submitted its official request which included tanks, recoilless rifles, half-tracks, small submarines, helicopters and a transport aircraft, trucks and guided anti-aircraft missiles. In a memorandum sent by William Rountree, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, to Secretary Dulles, he admitted that the extensive supply of weapon systems or substantial defense funding to Israel was still problematic, but emphasized that the situation in the Middle East had changed and that Israel was very helpful to the US in dealing with the new challenges. "In the light of these considerations, some alteration in our policy seems indicated," he wrote. "Sale of weapons which the Arabs would be least able to decry as increasing the danger of Israeli aggression probably would be the most advantageous decision from the standpoint of US interests."

Accordingly, the US Government agreed to sell to Israel 100 of the 350 recoilless rifles originally asked for, in addition to anti-aircraft machine guns, one thousand machine guns, and armor-piercing ammunition. The Americans even agreed to issue a permit for the transfer of Sikorski S-58 transport helicopters of a "specific military configuration." In a meeting between Ambassador Eban and Assistant Secretary Rountree in October, the Israeli diplomat praised the American concessions, and even more "the spirit in which the Israeli problem had been approached."

All of the above notwithstanding, the Eisenhower administration remained cautious with regard to defense ties with Israel. In June 1959, Rountree met with the designated Ambassador to Israel, Ogden Reid, and explained to him, quite simply, that "A very close relationship with Israel has to be carefully balanced by our attention to the Arab states." "It will be important for you to take no position that tends to identify you with Israeli causes or interests," said Rountree, making it clear to Reid that "We are opposed as a matter of policy to supplying most categories of military equipment to Israel," and that "Such assistance as we give them is on a reimbursable basis (for parts lost)."

The Israeli Government did not give up, and in early February 1960 submitted a new list of defense equipment, explaining that "Israel has no choice but to seek a 'qualitative equilibrium' in arms during the next two to three years." This time, the list was longer and more ambitious and included about one hundred latest model aircraft, 530 tanks, 60 armored vehicles, 60 howitzer guns, 250 recoilless rifles, two small submarines, electronic equipment and the highlight – 600 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and HAWK surface-to-air missiles.

"Our guess would be that the Israelis do not really expect us to provide the heavy equipment," noted Louis Jones, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, in a memorandum to Secretary of State Christian Herter. He added that the official policy of not becoming a major supplier of arms to the countries of the Middle East notwithstanding, this time a "thorough assessment" of the Israeli request would be in order.

However, when Ben-Gurion met Eisenhower at the White House a month later, the President reiterated his position according to which the US should avoid the arms race in the region so that "We would be able to act as a mediator in any disputes that arise." He recommended that the Israeli Prime Minister approach France, Britain "and even West Germany" as they "could better supply arms to Israel than could the United States." At the same time, he tried to appease his guest by stating that "The United States is not indifferent to the future of Israel and the United States certainly agrees that Israel has a right to exist."

In a meeting that took place on the following day at the residence of Secretary Herter, the tone was already different. Ben-Gurion made it clear that Israel needed the air-defense equipment urgently as "It can prevent its being finished" by the new bombers being delivered to Egypt, and Herter stressed that "The US would consider the Israeli request sympathetically and urgently." In response, Ben-Gurion wondered "Am I right in believing that I can consider your reply as a positive one?" to which the Secretary of State replied, "That is a fair assumption."

In May of that year, the Americans agreed to sell electronic equipment having a total value of $10.2 million, but the Israeli request for HAWK missile batteries was denied after the Department of Defense had claimed that owing to a shortage of HAWK batteries, even the American needs were not being fulfilled so the selling of this particular weapon system would not be possible in the coming years.

Israel was once again disappointed. "The HAWK missile is the only effective defensive shield against air attack on which we can rely in our situation," wrote the Israeli Ambassador to Washington, Avraham Harman, to US Secretary of State Herter. "Only the HAWK could assure Israel of getting its aircraft into the air and having fields for them to return to after combat," said Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir during her meeting with Herter, expressing her hope that if and when the production problems have been resolved, Israel would be able to receive the missile batteries.

After a while, the US Secretary of State realized that the HAWK battery-manufacturing lead times would be shorter than the earlier estimates, so he stated that he found it difficult to understand "Why we are refusing to allow the Israelis to buy HAWK missiles," while emphasizing their purely defensive character."

Consequently, the State Department decided to present their real position and to explain to Israel, once again, that the Americans had no desire to initiate an arms race and increase tensions in the region. For this reason, the Israeli leadership decided to wait for the next administration that was expected to take office after the elections in November.

For the Benefit of the Jews

The newly-elected president, John Kennedy, had expressed his profound friendship with Israel while he was still a congressman, and when he won the elections, the Government of Israel had a good reason to be optimistic, as an opportunity emerged to improve the relations between the two countries. In May 1961, Kennedy and Ben-Gurion met in New York, and during that meeting the Israeli Prime Minister once again raised the issue of the HAWK missiles, noting that a year earlier, President Eisenhower had given him a reason to believe that he would not rule out the possibility of Israel being provided with those missiles.

The President replied that "While the HAWK is a defensive weapon it is also a missile and should missiles come into the Middle Eastern area, military weaponry will escalate fast." He added that "The HAWK had been given to only a few other countries and if it were introduced into Israel, the next development on the other side might be an air-to-ground or ground-to-ground missile." Nevertheless, Ben-Gurion reported that at some point, Kennedy took him aside and told him: "You know I was elected by the Jews. I have to do something for them."

The task was assigned to Myer Feldman, a close aide to President Kennedy and White House counsel, who served as the unofficial liaison to the Israeli Government and the Jewish community in the US. In an interview to the Kennedy Library, Feldman said that he explained to the President that although the US was committed to maintaining the balance of power in the Middle East, as the USSR had started supplying advanced surface-to-air missiles to Egypt, "The United States could either supply the HAWK, which was better than SAM, or they could look around and see if somebody else would supply an equivalent weapon."

Even within the US administration, prolonged discussions were conducted for and against the sale of the missile batteries to Israel. In early July 1962, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Phillips Talbot, wrote to Secretary Dean Rusk that the HAWK missiles "Would enable Israel to reduce considerably its vulnerability to surprise air attack by low-flying aircraft." He recommended, however, that the sale be avoided at that point, arguing that Israel could deter Egypt from attacking and that the possibility of an Egyptian attack did not seem likely, in addition to the American unwillingness to introduce missiles into the regional arms race.

The Pentagon, on the other hand, noted that "Israel is vulnerable to air attack" and that the danger will increase when Egypt has received new bombers, so the HAWK missiles "Would fill an important gap in their defense." "Acquisition of the HAWK missile system by Israel would not alone act to shift the balance of military power between Israel and its neighbors," said the Department of Defense. Consequently, in early August, Secretary Rusk wrote to President Kennedy as follows: "We recommend that if within the next two months there is no serious prospect of an arms limitation agreement (on Egypt's part), we offer the HAWK to Israel after consultation with the British and discussion with the UAR."

That was good enough for President Kennedy, so he asked Feldman to inform the Israelis that he was willing to provide them with the missiles, but further instructed him to find out what Israel would be willing to give in return. According to Feldman, Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir "were ecstatic" when they heard the news. "They were to celebrate at that moment and they really had not expected it." When he presented the US administration's position regarding the "permutation," the two told him that Israel would be willing to join the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to enable US inspectors to visit the Israeli nuclear reactor in Dimona. Additionally, Israel would be willing to accept a limited number of Palestinian refugees. Feldman noted that he welcomed those statements and thought the Israelis had made serious concessions – a position that was supported by the State Department as well.

At the same time, the Ambassador to Egypt, Denis O'Brian, and Kennedy's special envoy, Philip Strong, arrived in Egypt to brief Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser about the forthcoming sale. O'Brian reported that Strong conveyed a message from Kennedy explaining the reasons for supplying the missile batteries to Israel. "I understand that you'll probably disagree," stressed Kennedy in his letter. "I am not consulting you in any way, but I do not want you to be taken unawares." According to O'Brian, Nasser replied: "Of course, I do not like this. You knew I wouldn't like it, but I am grateful to have been told." As things turned out, there were no direct attacks in the media after the sale had become public knowledge.

Another issue that needed to be resolved was the payment for the HAWK batteries. The Department of Defense demanded $25 million in cash, which Israel made very clear it was unable to pay. At the President's request, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara agreed to supply the missiles to Israel in exchange for a ten-year loan at 3.5% interest. "But that is the only government in the world that gets this," stressed McNamara. "Well, this nation can't afford to pay that much," concluded Kennedy.

The people of the US administration wanted to keep the HAWK deal secret, especially in view of the estimates that at least 18 months will be spent training the Israeli crews and manufacturing the missile batteries for Israel. However, in late September 1962, the New York Times published the headline "US will Supply Israel Missiles in Policy Change," noting that "Washington agrees to sale of HAWKs after study of Red exports to Arabs."

Mordechai Gazit, Chargé d'Affaires at the Israeli embassy in Washington, estimated in a telegram sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem following the media report in the US that Feldman was the source behind the leak. "There is no doubt that the timing (and even more importantly, the form of publication) have to do with the forthcoming elections in November," he wrote. "It is conceivable that the President's tendency to authorize the sale has to do with his sensitivity to the Jewish vote, owing to the slim majority by which he was elected President. But it is very important to stress that the President would not have approved the projectile (= HAWK) if the relevant parties had advised him against it. No president (unless he is corrupt) can make a decision contrary to the opinion of his consultants, if they warn him that his decision would contradict the national interest."

The first HAWK batteries were delivered to Israel in March 1965, after more than one hundred members of the IDF delegation had completed an eighteen-month training period at Fort Bliss, Texas. The new missiles were presented to the citizens of Israel and the world during the Independence Day parade of that year. Four years later, on May 21, 1969, an Israeli HAWK missile was launched at an Egyptian MiG-21 fighter over the Sinai Peninsula, registering the first kill in history by this US-made air-defense system.


Dr. Haim Iserovich is the foreign affairs correspondent of the newspaper Ma'ariv and a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC Herzliya

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