143. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1
- The New Soviet Tactic on Middle East Talks
Secretary Rogers has sent you the attached account of his March 11 meeting with Ambassador Dobrynin on the Middle East.2
The Meeting. Ambassador Dobrynin proposed resumption of bilateral talks on a Middle East settlement. He indicated Soviet willingness to consider a more precise formulation on the obligations each side would undertake in a peace settlement provided the U.S. would indicate a willingness to consider the Soviet position that Sharm al-Shaikh would return to Egyptian sovereignty, that an irrevocable UN presence would be stationed there to assure freedom of passage through the Gulf of Aqaba and that Israeli troops should withdraw from Gaza with the pre-war situation there re-established. He also said that the Soviets would expect us to express “concrete views” on a Syria-Israel settlement.
Secretary Rogers responded that we would study these proposals. He made it clear, however, that if we should agree to resume bilateral talks there would have to be an understanding that this did not mean we accepted the substantive Soviet proposals or that we would be willing to make concessions beyond our present position.
What Does It Mean? It is not yet clear exactly what the Soviets are up to with this apparent switch from a propagandistic and unconstructive approach to more flexible tactics. As you know, an earlier signal came in the March 5 Four Power session where the Soviets rather suddenly began to indicate their willingness to resume a constructive dialogue after weeks of attacking us in that forum. This bid to resume the bilateral exchange—which was broken off in December when the Soviets responded to our proposals on the UAR-Israel aspect in a [Page 444] strongly negative and retrogressive manner—apparently is a follow-on to that move. In neither case, however, have they indicated that they are prepared to yield substantially on the issue most important to us and the Israelis—a specific Arab obligation to control the fedayeen and on how the parties will actually negotiate a settlement. Instead, they continue to press for concessions that Nasser demands and that the Israelis would not accept.
It could be that the Soviets came to feel increasingly isolated in the Four Power talks as we persistently stuck to our proposals, the British backed us up and the French search for the middle ground floundered. They may have feared that we were growing tired of their abuse in the Four Power talks and were prepared, if necessary, to end the talks and leave the onus for the deadlock with them. It may also have become increasingly apparent to them that we were not ready to make any more concessions, at least without substantial quid pro quo.3
It may be that the Soviets are concerned to defuse the growing appearance of confrontation, which they themselves launched with the Kosygin letter. This course left them with the ultimate option of having to escalate their involvement. An additional tactical motive may relate to the Soviet sense of timing on the decision of supplying Phantoms to Israel. The Soviets may have thought a show of flexibility at this time would tip the outcome against a new supply.
I note that Dobrynin’s presentation seemed to pick up the thought in your foreign policy report that our approach to the Middle East will be guided by broad interests of international security and development of relations between our two states—another suggestion the Soviets may be backing away from the confrontation track.4
Whatever the cause, there are indications that the Soviets and Egyptians want to keep the negotiating option open. These recent moves were immediately preceded by a visit of Deputy Foreign Minister Vinogradov to Cairo. Egyptian Foreign Minister Riad recently agreed to keep up “political activity” without making a concession on basic issues.
Conclusion: There may be some merit in letting the Soviets sweat it out a bit longer in hopes that they may change in substance as well as approach. They have come to us with a bid to resume the bilateral talks, but have not yet indicated any real give in substance. If we intend to stick with our proposals in their present form, there would [Page 445] seem to be little point in reopening the bilateral dialogue and ease the apparent pressure on the Soviets without any promise of substantive progress.
There is also the problem of what to do with the Four Power talks. The British and especially the French see this forum as being the most productive and might be dismayed to see us abandon it again for private talks with the Soviets. The French, of course, have been difficult and the British are showing signs of becoming somewhat of a problem, but both are still manageable. We may even be able to buy more time in the Four Power talks if our current gambit to shift them away from drawing up guidelines for Jarring to developing an interim progress report for U Thant works out. This could also serve to keep the heat on the Soviets.5
These are just preliminary considerations for your thought.6
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 711, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. VII. Secret; Nodis. Sent for information. Drafted by Saunders and sent to Kissinger on March 13. On March 19, Haig returned this memorandum to Saunders under a covering memorandum with the following note: “Hal, please note HAK had some strong views to make concerning several paragraphs of the attached.” The memorandum was not initialed by Kissinger and apparently did not go to Nixon.↩
- Attached but not printed is a March 12 memorandum from Rogers to Nixon reporting on the March 11 meeting with Dobrynin much as it is summarized in this memorandum. See Document 141 for an account of a subsequent discussion by Vorontsov and Atherton on the same issue.↩
- Kissinger wrote “Since when do the Soviets give a damn about being isolated” in the left margin, and “Maybe to hold [?] us quiet while they introduce SA–3” in the right margin.↩
- Kissinger wrote “Adding Syria guarantees future [unintelligible] exacerbation with Israel” in the margin beside this paragraph.↩
- Kissinger wrote “All this is trivial. Talks aren’t ends in themselves. Question is what do we get out of 4-power or 2-power talks. Which forum is best? If we want 2-power talks, who cares about 4-powers” at the bottom of the page.↩
- Kissinger crossed out this sentence.↩