177. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Ambassador Rabin
  • Ephraim Evron
  • W. W. Rostow
  • Harold H. Saunders

Mr. Rostow opened the meeting by giving Ambassador Rabin the President’s letter to Prime Minister Eshkol,2 saying that Mr. George Woods had agreed to take on the job as U.S. Coordinator on the Israeli desalting project. Both Rabin and Evron seemed pleased.

Rabin opened the discussion by asking Mr. Rostow what he thought about the apparent shift in the Egyptian position toward talks [Page 347] in New York. Mr. Rostow replied that Israel should take it seriously, probe and make every effort to turn it into something useful.

When Mr. Rostow said that is what we are doing in the Paris talks on Vietnam, Ambassador Rabin jumped right in by pointing out that we were at least probing in direct negotiations. Mr. Rostow admitted that but said that he felt strongly that “this is not the time” for the Israelis to insist on direct negotiations. He said that we had had contacts with the North Vietnamese through third parties in nineteen countries before we got to Paris. He warned the Israelis against being “too theological” in pressing for direct negotiations.

Mr. Rostow went on to say that he fully understood Israel’s requirement for a serious agreement between the parties at the end of the process. The President’s position has been that we were not going to repeat the “Rube Goldberg chewing gum and tape” operation of 1957. We had been with the Israelis from the time of the hotline conversations on the point that, before Israel withdrew, there should be a serious political arrangement that could allow the parties to live together in peace. We had also felt that any such agreement at this time must come from the parties to the conflict themselves. At the same time, we had not been talking about what the Israelis seem to have in mind-something akin to the Congress in Vienna in 1815 “with striped pants, a big peace treaty, and all the trimmings.”

Mr. Rostow returned to the question of why Nasser had made this change in course. He recounted some of the reasons suggested by Robert Anderson’s conversation with Nasser—economic difficulties, political troubles, serious concern about Soviet influence in the UAR. Mr. Rostow said he had no evidence but could not exclude the possibility that the Soviet Union, recognizing the consequences for it of another round of fighting, had told the UAR to get on with the job of political settlement.

Ambassador Rabin asked what we thought Nasser’s purpose is. He said Israel must know what is at the end of the process on which they are now asked to embark. Israel insists that it lead to a contractual agreement—an agreement between the parties and signed by them.

Mr. Rostow agreed that there must be an arrangement that binds the parties. But that can be achieved in any one of a number of different ways. The important thing is to get a process started that can lead to satisfactory arrangements.

The Ambassador voiced his fear that all the UAR had in mind was for Jarring to establish some sort of “timetable” and substitute that for the contractual arrangement Israel wants. He repeated that Israel must know what is at the end of the process. Mr. Saunders said that the Arabs had a similar requirement-to be assured that there is a deal for [Page 348] them at the end of a negotiation. Ambassador Rabin finally agreed, as long as Mr. Saunders was not talking about specific peace terms but rather about the general principle that Israel would withdraw in the context of a peace settlement.

Mr. Rostow cautioned against Israel’s insisting on agreement on procedures at the outset. He could understand Israel’s legitimate desire to know where it was headed, but he could not sympathize with any request from Israel to have the Arabs “like Huck Finn prick their fingers and sign in blood before talks could begin that they would sign a big peace treaty at the end of it.” The important thing is to get Nasser engaged in the process of making peace. That, in itself, could help change the political atmosphere. We have no idea where the Paris talks will take us. We are hoping that when each side engages in the process of working out a modus vivendi, the atmosphere will begin to improve.

Mr. Rostow opined that Nasser himself probably doesn’t know where all this is leading him. Israel has every right to be skeptical. Nasser has many different strands in his thinking, ranging from clear realism to the sort of thinking that took him to war last June. We have always known him to be this sort of schizophrenic individual, and, we can accept a healthy Israeli skepticism. What we cannot accept is the possibility that Israel might not even risk engaging in this process.

More important, Mr. Rostow said, was to get talking with Hussein. The move to New York may be mainly designed to give Hussein a cover for talking. Both Ambassador Rabin and Mr. Evron indicated-more by what they obviously weren’t saying-that Israel had every intention of pursuing this course with Hussein.

Mr. Evron said he differed somewhat from Mr. Rostow as far as the Soviet Union’s possible desire for peace talks was concerned. He felt the USSR’s purpose is to spin out talks in New York until after the US election. Mr. Rostow cautioned against assuming that the Soviets are that well organized or that much in control of their Mid-Eastern clients. He said that we had had a number of contests with the USSR all around the globe. While we respect them as a capable adversary, we know they make their mistakes, and no one should overrate them.

Mr. Evron replied that he saw his explanation as the only way to account for the seeming illogic and unexpectedness of the recent Egyptian move—a new way of showing movement where actually there was none. Mr. Rostow said he thought, to the contrary, that there was a certain amount of Egyptian logic in this move. Particularly, the Egyptians are nationalistic enough not to want to have to continue their heavy dependence on the USSR.

In conclusion, Mr. Rostow said we don’t expect Israel to jeopardize anything of its basic position. But we do expect Israel to try with all its ability-and that is a lot-to turn this Egyptian move into something [Page 349] worthwhile. Both Israelis agreed that this was the course they intended to follow.3

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Israel, Vol. X, Cables and Memos, 6/68-11/68. Secret; Exdis.
  2. Dated May 10. (Ibid., Files of Harold H. Saunders, Israel-Nuclear-Dimona-Desalting, 3/1/68-10/30/68)
  3. Ambassador Barbour followed up on this conversation in a May 20 meeting with Foreign Minister Eban in which Barbour stressed the importance of moving beyond procedural discussions in New York into discussions of matters of substance. (Telegram 3782 from Tel Aviv, May 20; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967-69, POL 27 ARAB-ISR)