119. Memorandum for the Record1


  • Meeting of the NSC Special Review Group on the Middle East


  • Under Secretary Elliot Richardson
  • Deputy Secretary David Packard
  • Director Richard Helms
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger
  • General Earle G. Wheeler
  • General F.T. Unger
  • Assistant Secretary Joseph J. Sisco
  • Assistant Secretary Warren Nutter
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary Alfred L. Atherton, Jr.
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary Robert Pranger
  • Harold H. Saunders

Dr. Kissinger opened the meeting by noting that the Group had before it a State Department paper2 outlining two basic strategies—one for confronting the USSR and another geared more to political initiatives. He noted that the two are not exclusive. For instance, even if the second strategy were chosen, there might be a problem of putting some restraints on the USSR or demonstrating to it that, if it did not go along with a political strategy, it might have to face unpleasant consequences. Continuing, Dr. Kissinger noted that in addition there is a short-term problem of what interim response to give to Israel on its aircraft requests while we develop a broader political strategy. The purpose of the meeting was to formulate these strategies in such a way that they could be put before an NSC meeting.3

At Dr. Kissinger’s request, Mr. Sisco explained the strategies outlined in the State Department Strategies paper. In beginning to discuss Strategy 1—after outlining some of the assumptions in the paper—he made two points: (a) We have to be keenly aware of the political and economic costs of adopting this strategy; (b) this course of action might move us closer faster to a confrontation with the USSR.

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Dr. Kissinger interrupted to ask about the counter to that point, namely that this would be a way to avoid confrontation with the USSR by giving support to Israel and making clear that the Soviets could not gain their ends by military action and by warning the Soviets clearly early in the game that they would face us if they tried to press Israel militarily. It is entirely possible, he said, that the second strategy—attempting to break the political impasse and start negotiations—would bring confrontation sooner by making the Israelis feel desperate and under pressure to lash out.

Mr. Sisco replied that the argument is not demonstrable either way. He felt that we would end up with an amalgam of Strategies 1 and 2. For Strategy 2 to be effective, it would have to be made credible by some elements of Strategy 1. If Soviet brinksmanship were to succeed, the price of peace would be too high for us.

Mr. Richardson pointed out that we have to be careful not to kick out the window a chance for negotiations at the outset. Waiting for the Arabs to get tired of Soviet efforts to get their territory back—as would be the case under Strategy 1—might take five-ten years.

Mr. Packard felt that we should not speak of Soviet brinksmanship but of Israeli brinksmanship. He felt the Soviets had no other recourse in the face of Israel’s deep penetration raids except to come to Nasser’s defense.

Mr. Sisco replied that one’s view on this point depends on where one begins. Nasser last year declared a war of attrition, and one could just as well argue that Israel’s moves were a response to Nasser’s provocation.

Dr. Kissinger said that, however the USSR got there, their presence is a geo-political fact of considerable consequences. Ten years ago almost anybody would have considered this move a casus belli.

Mr. Sisco, responding again to Mr. Packard, said he felt the Soviets had gone farther than they need to have done. They could have limited their moves to installing surface-to-air missiles.

Mr. Packard said that the trouble with Strategy 1 was that it would preclude negotiations. Dr. Kissinger replied that it is not axiomatic that the application of force does not provide a way to get to negotiations. It is not absurd to think that the Arabs might lose hope in the face of superior force and turn to negotiations.

Mr. Sisco said that he felt that we should try Strategy 2. The likelihood of its working is not great. If it fails, then we would have to consider elements of Strategy 1. He also felt that we would have to consider breaking off the two power and the Four Power talks because the longer they continue, the longer they relieve Nasser of responsibility for facing up to the necessity to come to terms with Israel.

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Mr. Sisco felt further that we have played the new Soviet decision in relatively low key. He felt that our posture had reflected prudence—not weakness. He felt that we ought to react both politically and militarily. The strategy outlined in the State Department paper was a very restrained reaction.

Mr. Packard felt that we could afford to be restrained while trying Strategy 2. We still have time to return to Strategy 1 later on.

Mr. Sisco returned to Dr. Kissinger’s earlier point—that perhaps the application of force is the fastest way to reach negotiations. He said he is not certain which is the faster road to negotiations. We have been trying Strategy 2 for fifteen months and have not succeeded.

Mr. Richardson noted that Strategy 2 does not impose short-run costs. Dr. Kissinger said, “Except another war if Israel is convinced that they are getting into a hopeless position.” Mr. Richardson replied that this would depend on convincing them that our diplomatic route was a route worth trying.

Mr. Packard noted that if the Soviets moved to the Suez Canal, then it would be a new ballgame. He felt that now we still have a chance to “make a run for it.”

Dr. Kissinger said that in many of the papers that had been written, the point had been made that the military balance had not been significantly affected. He felt, however, that any move that enhances the chances for a strategy of attrition is Israel’s death warrant.

Mr. Richardson said that Israel has two ways of achieving security: (1) achieving or maintaining a military position including advantageous territorial lines; (2) a U.S. commitment of some kind. He did not feel that the Soviets would be impressed by arms deliveries to Israel as such. He felt that we should consider what more to say to the Soviets and to Israel about the nature of the U.S. commitment.

Dr. Kissinger said that he felt that Israeli policy since 1967 had been disastrous. However, he could understand their dilemma of being asked to trade physical security for something highly problematical. He felt that even a U.S. commitment would be highly doubtful given the current mood of the United States.

Mr. Nutter asked how Israel could maintain its superiority in the present situation. Dr. Kissinger replied that Israel would strike out before it goes back to its pre-war boundaries. As they see it, they are confronted by hostile Arabs and face a major almost insoluble problem. The domestic dynamics of the Arab countries are becoming incompatible with the existence of Israel.

Dr. Kissinger said he did not feel that the negotiation Mr. Sisco had proposed in Strategy 2 was going to get off the ground.

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Dr. Kissinger noted again that the presence of Soviet forces in the UAR is a geo-political fact of the greatest consequence. The Soviet Union might be able to use its military position in the UAR against the U.S. in the Eastern Mediterranean. In any case, Israel would look around and see the Mirages in Libya which would have to find their way to the UAR, new U.S. weapons in Jordan, and they would see the noose tightening. Then they would strike.

Mr. Richardson asked what striking would do for Israel. In 1967 they could improve their geographical position but not now.

Dr. Kissinger replied that they might destroy the Arab forces in one of these countries.

Mr. Sisco said that territory would not be their objective this time. But they would seek to destroy the air power and the economic capacity of their enemy. He felt that an extensive attack would permit them to come back to defend their present lines better than they can now or could in an extended war of attrition. They cannot take a strategy of attrition.

Mr. Nutter said he did not see how any U.S. policy would deter Israel—even giving them airplanes.

Dr. Kissinger said he felt that talking about a U.S. commitment to Israel was a waste of time. A defense treaty with Israel would call on us to pay too high a political price in the Arab countries. The Israelis would be “crazy” to believe that we could make good on such a commitment. Mr. Sisco said that he was not even sure that the U.S. could sign such a commitment given our present domestic mood.

Mr. Richardson said that we have to communicate to the Soviets a more direct sense that we will oppose them and we would by giving Israel more planes. Some of the moves against the USSR might hurt us with the Arabs. It seemed to him that the only way to get tough with the Russians is to convey the idea that if they go too far the U.S. will involve U.S. personnel.

Mr. Sisco said he did not feel that threat could be made credible. If the USSR moves its pilots to the Suez Canal, U.S. action would have to include a combination of political and military moves such as the following: breaking off all Middle East negotiations; supplying additional substantial assistance to Israel; setting up a mechanism for continuous consultation with Israel in order to project an image of military coordination; and discussion of overall U.S.-Israeli relations in order to imply the possibility of a security treaty. The danger of these moves is that they go down the polarization track and it is hard to turn back. This becomes a confrontation of prestige by both the Great Powers.

Mr. Nutter asked, “What do you accomplish by this?”

Mr. Sisco said that the Arabs might realize that they cannot get their territory back on a basis other than negotiation. He felt that we [Page 398] would have to pursue Strategy 2 first but might have to move into Strategy 1 at some time later.

Mr. Richardson said he wanted to emphasize the fact that the only card the U.S. holds against the Soviet Union is the risk of confrontation.

Dr. Kissinger asked Mr. Nutter what his strategy is. Mr. Nutter replied that it seems to have been ruled out that approaching the Arabs could launch negotiations. He said he would move directly with the Egyptians and Israelis to try to get a cease-fire in exchange for a partial Israeli withdrawal from the Suez Canal. He did not feel that Strategy 2 in the State Department paper offered enough of a change from past diplomatic approaches.

Mr. Sisco replied emphatically that Strategy 2 was quite different in that it proposes that the U.S. go directly to the Arabs and to the Israelis, asking Israel to commit itself to the principle of withdrawal and asking the Arabs to commit themselves to negotiations of some sort and to peace.

Mr. Nutter asked, “In exchange for eight airplanes?”

Dr. Kissinger said that the President felt committed to provide additional aircraft to Israel. Mr. Nutter asked whether the President felt committed to respond with the F–4. If so, then the Group was wasting its time.

Mr. Pranger noted that we could promise Israel quick re-supply rather than giving them aircraft right now. We could tell them that we are ready to earmark new production for them in order to be able to supply them with emergency aircraft on short notice.

Mr. Nutter said that he did not feel that we could give Israel planes secretly. “Why do the Israelis want planes unless others know they have them?”

General Wheeler, returning to an earlier point, said that the primary risk in providing a security guarantee for Israel is that it brings the U.S. back to Strategy 1 which “has no attraction for me at all.

Mr. Helms seconded General Wheeler’s point by noting that anyone who had lived through 1967 never wants to hear the word “guarantee” again.

Mr. Packard asked Mr. Sisco just exactly what Strategy 2 comprised. Mr. Sisco outlined the strategy in detail as described in the State Department paper. He said that it was very much the same as Mr. Nutter’s strategy until it came to the question of whether or not to provide airplanes to Israel and the question of whether to try for some sort of physical movement of forces in withdrawal in the early stages of such a program. On the question of planes, he felt there were two choices: (1) There is Mr. Nutter’s idea of earmarking planes but not delivering them. (2) There was the possibility of continuing to deliver [Page 399] planes under present contracts for another two months, three each month. Since only 44 of an original contract for 50 would be delivered this year, we could still deliver 6 more without having anyone know that we had exceeded our original plan since 6 Phantoms in a reconnaissance configuration are not scheduled for delivery until 1971 anyway. On the point of partial Israeli withdrawal, he did not feel that Israel would move an inch. He was aware of Mr. Pranger’s discussion with the Israeli defense attaché,4 but he did not feel this was Israeli policy. However, he did not want to debate that point since anyone at the table could confirm it by picking up the phone and calling Ambassador Rabin. If the Israelis were willing to agree to it, we would all be very happy.

Mr. Richardson said he wanted to introduce another element: How to make the conditions under which we would be confronted if we went down the Strategy 1 route more tolerable. Should we be holding out the prospect of a Palestine-Israel federation? Should we be more forthcoming in our position on the status of Jerusalem?

Dr. Kissinger noted that this is the carrot in the policy, but we also need a stick. What will discourage the Soviets is fear of confrontation with us. We have to have thought of how to convey that idea to them. He felt that the only thing that would make Strategy 2 work would be fear that if Strategy 2 fails, there is something worse. We need to devise the maximum stick to introduce into Strategy 2.

Someone asked what kinds of things we could do, and Mr. Sisco replied that one thing we should not do is to cut back the Sixth Fleet.

Dr. Kissinger closed the meeting by summarizing as follows:

1. He thought it was a fair consensus that Strategy 1 by itself was not favored by the Group.

2. He felt that Strategy 2 represented a fair consensus except on the question of aircraft deliveries. He felt the President should not be asked to sign off on the question of whether to try for partial Israeli withdrawal from the Suez Canal. If we could get that, it would be desirable, but if we cannot then we would have to do something else. This is more a question of feasibility than of policy.

3. There should be some analysis of where we go from here. If Strategy 2 does not work, should we move to an effort to work out a Palestinian solution or should we think more about how to make the “stick” more credible.

Harold H. Saunders 5
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–111, Senior Review Group, SRG Minutes Originals 1970. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Saunders. The meeting was held in the White House Situation Room.
  2. For a summary, see Document 116.
  3. See Document 124.
  4. Not further indentified.
  5. Saunders initialed “H.H.S.” above his typed signature.