121. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense Laird to President Nixon 1
- Proposed US Peace Initiative in the Middle East
In my discussion with Dr. Kissinger at breakfast on 4 June, he suggested I provide you with my views on the present Middle East crisis. The following comments are provided in response to this suggestion, and for use in connection with the NSC review scheduled for next week.2
The Department of Defense has participated fully and most urgently in the recent review of Middle East policy, and specifically the question of further aircraft for Israel. The crucial issue confronting us in this review is how to resolve the conflict between our support for Israel, and our desire both to preserve our own interest and influence in the Arab world and to prevent the further spread of Soviet influence. The fact of Israel’s creation, survival and growth has largely determined political attitudes and shaped political strategy in the Middle East. About it almost all other issues and events revolve, including the relative influence and prestige of the United States and the Soviet Union in the Middle East.
Our dilemma lies in the fact that the conflicting aspects of our policy in the Middle East are fully reconcilable only during periods of lessening tension. However, recent actions by the Soviets, the Arabs and Israelis have served to raise rather than lower the level of tension and hostilities. Both the UAR and Israel have undertaken new military initiatives, and the Soviets have involved their own forces to an unprecedented degree. In the present context of increasing violence, the Israelis are pressing us for an enlarged commitment, including some $2.5 billion in arms ($1.6 billion on credit) over five years, and for firm US actions aimed at limiting the Soviet role in the area. In effect, we are being asked to guarantee the continued existence of Israel with whatever means and policies are required, regardless of Israel’s own actions, and with the implicit expectation that unilateral employment of US forces may be necessary at some future time if there is no other alterna[Page 406]tive to ensure Israel’s survival. On the other hand, the Arabs press us to abandon our special relationship with Israel, and tell us that further escalation of our support to that country will destroy the US position in the Arab world for the foreseeable future. In these circumstances, the central question facing us is whether it still is possible or desirable to pursue a policy based on limited support of Israel, at the same time attempting the preservation of our interests and influence in the Arab world. It is the purpose of this memorandum to outline a number of considerations which lead us to believe that we can in fact pursue such a policy, but to do so successfully will be difficult and will require major new US initiatives. To abandon this policy will mean compromising basic US national security interests.
A Policy of New Initiatives and Limited Commitment
This option is still open but requires US initiatives. There is substantial evidence that both sides still want peace, but find themselves so locked into public positions that they cannot or will not undertake, on their own, the new peace initiatives needed to break the stalemate. Instead, they attempt new and escalatory military initiatives, and seek the support of the great powers in doing so. The Soviets have demonstrated at least a degree of restraint (their moves in the UAR appear to result from Israeli actions), but are unwilling to advance beyond the Arab position. Thus, if there is to be an escape from the present vicious cycle of military action–military response, it is the US which must provide it with new and meaningful peace initiatives. These initiatives must emphasize the still substantial common interests of all the parties, and take advantage of the private and more reasonable positions of both the Arabs and Israelis. With the Soviets we must make the most of our common interest in avoiding a nuclear confrontation and preventing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. We can and should seek to enlist the support and assistance of the many other nations with an interest in settlement.
This option also requires US restraint and Israeli cooperation. We must not permit ourselves to be pressured into actions which will weaken our initiatives. In particular, we must not sell, at this time, additional attack aircraft to Israel. We are looking for long-term solutions, and sleight of hand maneuvers to meet short-term Israeli aircraft requests pose too great a risk to be acceptable. In the long run they will become known, and their adverse impact will be the greater for having been hidden. Further, Israel, which already has a very substantial bombing superiority over its combined Arab foes, has no immediate need for such aircraft: against the Arabs they are unnecessary, and against the Soviets they would be insufficient. For the most part, future Israeli aircraft requirements can be met with air defense fighters, such as the F–5, the F–8, or the F–104, all of which are available. In the interim, should [Page 407] an urgent need arise you will recall that we do have contingency plans to provide attack aircraft promptly. The Israelis have been reassured in this regard on several occasions, and we are prepared to repeat these assurances as necessary. By the same token, we must have Israeli cooperation in taking a major “first step for peace”: it is the probability that we can get Israeli concessions which makes our approach to the Arabs credible, and it is Israeli agreement which must act to unstop the bottle. An Israeli concession in the form of agreement to a phased and conditional withdrawal, would be contingent on reciprocal Arab moves, but it is indispensable for any forward movement.
Both indigenous and external powers must assume some portion of the tasks necessary to success. There must be movement by the UAR and Israel, followed by other Arab powers, to stop their open warfare so that they can prepare for peace. Moves on all sides should take place simultaneously in order to avoid embarrassing situations where one party must “lose face” by moving first. Also, public disclosure of detailed plans should be kept at a bare minimum, since it is essential that old rhetorical symbols be jettisoned for minimal gains instead of maximal demands. The critical first step of a de facto cease-fire would be followed by other phases:
—progressive demilitarization of the occupied territories, with simultaneous efforts to control terrorist activities;
—reopening of the Suez Canal to all nations, special attention to points of international sensitivity (Straits of Tiran, Jerusalem, nuclear weapons) and formal peace negotiations as inducements for progressive Israeli withdrawal under conditions of maximum security;
—UN action on the status of the West Bank of the Jordan and the position of the Palestinians in international society;
—Arab recognition of Israel, leading to a formal peace treaty.
—Soviet withdrawal of combat forces from the UAR.
During the de facto cease-fire phase, and thereafter, the US would work through its own good offices in political/military channels; through third countries (with minimum reliance on USSR); through interested and reliable private individuals and groups; and through the UN. It may be necessary, for example, to provide Israel with an arms package of APCs, tanks, and self-propelled artillery to enhance its ability to react to UAR violations of the agreement.
A more detailed outline of a possible new approach will be made available for consideration by the NSC. The critical decision does not depend on details, however, but on a US determination to take the initiative, to insist on Israeli cooperation, and to be fully flexible in our approach.[Page 408]
In evaluating the proposal for a new US initiative, it is of the greatest importance that you consider the implications for our national security of the alternatives. Realistically, the only alternatives are (a) to make a full commitment to Israel, or (b) to continue to add to our present commitment, in the hope that somehow complete polarization can be avoided. The effects of these alternatives on our position in the Arab world would be largely the same, and the chances are very great that even if we sought to avoid it, we would shortly find ourselves pushed into a full commitment posture. The implications of such a posture are extremely serious.
First, we have concluded that there is no acceptable military solution to the present impasse. This impasse has its roots in a number of basic human problems, which are not susceptible of military solution. Nothing we provide to Israel in the way of equipment or financial support can enable that small country to prevent casualties, to halt the war of attrition, to end terrorist activity, or to assure perpetual control of a captive and restive Arab population. The Arabs, even with defensive support by the Soviets, are incapable of mounting more than harassing raids into Israeli-held territory. They can inflict significant, but not decisive losses over time by attrition.
Second, the sale at this time of additional F–4s will contribute to further Soviet success in the Arab world. The F–4s have become the outstanding symbol of Israeli power, and their use as attack bombers has come to be identified in Arab eyes with the US, which has supplied these aircraft to Israel. We have an important security interest in countering Soviet penetration in this vital area, and the sale of additional attack aircraft at this time can only worsen our own image and present the Soviets with new opportunities. The consequences of the sale could, indeed, be made even worse should Israel use these additional aircraft, as they have previous ones, for expanded attack purposes. We have no assurance that provision of additional attack aircraft to Israel at this time will act as a restraining influence on their military strategy or moderate their political stance.
Third, expanding our commitment to Israel, by promising or implying that US forces would be used directly to support Israel under any circumstances, is unacceptable. We cannot overstate the importance of this reservation. Israel’s current military development certainly includes a major effort [1½ lines not declassified]. Israel has refused to sign the NPT, despite repeated US efforts in that direction. [2½ lines not declassified] This consideration reinforces our strong conviction that there is inherent in the present Arab-Israeli conflict a very real potential for a US-Soviet nuclear confrontation. We consider it imperative that the US [Page 409] avoid such a confrontation, and avoid undertaking any additional commitments to Israel which would increase that danger.
Our basic interests require that we avoid nuclear war with the Soviets, or a direct confrontation wherein the threat of nuclear war is possible. A corollary interest is to prevent nuclear weapons from coming into the hands of Middle Eastern states. Our interests also require that we prevent the further spread of Soviet influence, and preserve and strengthen the US position in the area vis-à-vis the Soviets. The critical consideration is one of our basic national security and in our considered judgment an expansion of US commitments to Israel, including a decision to supply additional attack aircraft to Israel at this time, would constitute a significant and dangerous threat to our security interests.
The most sensible move, in my judgment, is to undertake new US initiatives aimed at working toward achieving a phased peace in the area. Should Israel cooperate, but not the Arabs, further aid to Israel can be justified and Arab reaction attenuated, without enlarging our commitment to Israel. Should the Arabs (specifically the UAR) be agreeable, but not Israel, the Israelis would be put on notice that our heretofore implicit guarantee of their security is contingent upon Israeli actions being consistent with US national interests. If Soviet reaction is not in favor, this would give us the opportunity to mobilize world (and particularly European) opinion against them. It would also lessen the adverse effects of further aid to Israel, and give us a lever for use against the Soviets in the Arab world.
I recommend that this memorandum be considered as the basis for the discussion at the NSC meeting on the Middle East.
General Wheeler concurs with the views expressed in this paper.