Israeli PM Levi Eshkol Visits the White House

President and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson welcoming Prime Minister and Mrs. Eshkol in front of the White House in Washington, May 31, 1964. Standing left: Under Secretary of State George Ball and General Chester Clifton (Government Press Office, photo credit: Moshe Pridan)  


By the mid-1960s, the relationship between the United States and Israel had thawed considerably from the frosty tensions that followed the Suez Crisis ten years before. Still viewed as an illegitimate nation by much of the world, Israel found a powerful ally in the United States during a critical time for determining its continued existence – the threat of attack from the neighboring Arab states was gathering momentum and giving Israel heightened cause for concern. As luck would have it, United States President Lyndon B. Johnson invited Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to visit the White House in 1964, the most public display of American support for Israel since the young Jewish nation’s inception.

Prior to 1964, the American government had extended a cautious hand of friendship toward Israel. Former president Dwight Eisenhower expressed clear disdain for Israel’s invasion of the Sinai Peninsula in 1956 and demanded Israel end its tactic of preemptive warfare with Egypt, while his successor John F. Kennedy praised Israel in speeches but never offered an invitation to Washington, D.C. It was not until President Johnson took office that the United States began to truly lay the foundation for the close diplomatic relationship the two nations share today. Johnson understood the urgency of such an alliance. The United Arab Republic and Palestine Liberation Organization would each form in 1964, and share the objective of restoring Arab rule in Israel through violent struggle. Due to its geographical position, Israel had become an increasingly vital ally to the United States in its attempts to contain the spread of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence in the Levant and general Middle East, as well as helping the United States to maintain proximity to the Suez Canal – one of the world’s vital trade routes. More specifically, perhaps, Prime Minister Eshkol visited Washington to discuss the urgent matter of Syria’s building a canal to divert major tributaries of the Jordan River away from Israel, a project the Arab League had sanctioned in January. Thus, the timing was ripe for a publicly-christened union of two like-minded administrations. 

P.M. Eshkol and Pres. Johnson in conversation at the White House in Washington. Their cordial personal relations may have to do with both men being farmers, and Eshkol would visit twice more in 1967  1968. Left, Israeli ambassador A. Harmon & the president’s advisor on Jewish Affairs, Feldman. (photo: Moshe Pridan)

In a joint statement on June 2, 1964, Eshkol and Johnson proclaimed their commitment to assist each other on key points of concern, including the territorial integrity of the nations of the Middle East and efforts to “de-salt” Israel’s topography to combat water scarcity and improve Israel’s relatively weak economy. In a continuation from previous regimes, Johnson reiterated American opposition to aggression in the Middle East, be it from Israel or the surrounding Arab states, but acknowledged Israel’s desire for peace in the region. Particularly critical was both leaders’ declaration of shared values and dedication to personal liberties and human dignity; this was a major reason why the United States had recognized Israel’s sovereignty in 1948 under Truman, and Israel’s status as a Western-aligned nation in a sea of Arab nationalism and communism endeared it to the American public despite occasionally defying their preferences. Although a footnote in the grand scheme of American-Israel relations, Levi Eshkol’s visit loomed large in symbolism as an important first in our era of many firsts.  

President Richard Nixon would, of course, visit Mao’s China and break precedent in 1972.  Relevant to this article, Nixon reciprocated LBJ’s invitation to Prime Minister Eshkol to come to Washington. In 1974, he would become the first American chief executive to go the other way – visit the State of Israel. Of all the places the President could have visited amidst the chaos closing in upon him with Watergate, he chose and prioritized Israel in the wake of the Yom Kippur War – six short weeks before he submitted his letter of resignation to Secretary of State Kissinger on August 8, 1974. 

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