14. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • The President
  • Joseph J. Sisco
  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • Emil Mosbacher
  • Harold H. Saunders
  • Abba Eban
  • Yitzhak Rabin
  • Shlomo Argov

The President received Israeli Foreign Minister Eban in his office for fifty-five minutes on Friday, March 14, 1969.

After an exchange of pleasantries and a picture-taking session, the President explained his policy toward the four-power discussions on the Middle East. He frankly admitted that he had been “dragging his feet.” He referred to his press conference statement2 that the US did not wish to enter a negotiating situation where the cards would be stacked against us and added that his main purpose in the current exploratory bilateral talks is to see how far we can go in drawing the other three Governments closer to our position. The Soviets have been refueling one group of protagonists in the Middle East, and the French have been seeking a role as “spoilers.” In a situation of this kind, he felt it was better to draw them into the process of trying to reach some sort of accommodation than to “leave them in left field.” That said, the President assured Mr. Eban that we continue to support Ambassador Jarring but we felt we could usefully engage the other three governments in discussion of what guarantees might be possible for a settlement.

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The President concluded this part of his explanation by asking Eban disarmingly, “Don’t you think we ought to try?” He said he realized that some of Eban’s colleagues would argue that we should stand aloof. The President said he would not question that approach if we were dealing with stable governments and rational people. But we are not dealing with such people, and we feel we have a clear obligation to do what we reasonably can to make the situation less dangerous. We are particularly concerned, of course, with avoiding a clash with the Soviet Union.

The President assured Mr. Eban that we have Israel’s interests at heart and that is why we have wanted to consult with Israel’s representative this week before moving further in the four-power forum. But, he said, “We need your help. Don’t make our role impossible.”

Mr. Eban said that he had deeply appreciated the opportunity for a frank exchange of views. He said he felt that, after his three days of talks in Washington, our positions were close enough for us to work harmoniously together. He said that he had been asked at the Press Club whether he had noticed any distinct erosion in the American position and he had answered that he saw none. When he had been asked whether US and Israeli views were identical, he had replied that the views of two free Governments are never likely to be identical but that there can be enough harmony in the positions of each for close cooperation.

The President acknowledged that there are differences of view and that these differences are natural. “Just don’t hit us too hard,” he said.

The President went on to emphasize that, although he had been accused of many things, he had rarely been charged with being naive about Soviet intentions. “I know what they are up to.” Having no illusions about the possibility of reaching full agreement with the USSR, he still felt it desirable to talk with the Soviets, keeping our guard up all the while, to see what common ground we and they might reach.

Mr. Eban then said he wanted to state his views on three subjects: the issue of war and peace, the four-power discussions, and Jordan.

On the issue of striving toward peace, he said that negotiations must continue; otherwise, a “war psychosis” would seize the people of the area. However, he did not see the present situation as capable of leading to a world conflagration because, first, the Arabs are in no position to wage a war and they know it, and, second, the Soviets do not want war. In a brief exchange on this point, the President pointed out that, while the Soviets may want continuation of enough tension for them to exploit, they had found out in 1967 that they are not capable of controlling their Arab friends and must therefore not draw too fine a line between the exploitable and the dangerous. Mr. Eban went on to say that the current situation is difficult for Israelis—with the persistent [Page 51] border-shelling and the occasional terrorist grenades—but it does not seriously threaten Israel. However unpleasant it may be, the present situation is better than “the great historic mistake” of retreating from present advantageous positions for less than a peace which would assure the existence of Israel.

On the four-power talks, Mr. Eban began by saying that only one of the four is really important for Israel—the U.S. Differences do exist between our positions, but he felt after his talks here this week that we have moved closer and they are close enough to make cooperation possible. The President interjected that it was important for us to engage in this process to give ourselves “some running room with the moderate Arabs.” Mr. Eban nodded his understanding and went on to comment individually on the positions of the USSR and France.

The Soviets, he believed, “want us out without peace.” Israel has a “robust skepticism” about the Soviet position. The Soviets’ purpose is to cement their position in the Arab world and to undercut the US position as completely as possible.

The French position is “more tragic.” A great deal of emotion is involved because the relationship has moved from a “romantic love affair” to a love-hate situation. President de Gaulle, he said, seemed incapable of anything but black or white feelings. Mr. Eban traced much of the current Israeli feeling toward President de Gaulle from his failure in May of 1967 to “understand our peril.” Mr. Eban described how he had tried to convince de Gaulle on May 24, 1967, of the threat which Israel faced.3 He said the Israeli man in the street feels that, if de Gaulle could not understand Israel’s plight in that situation at a time when men in the street from Montevideo to Tokyo knew that Israel’s very existence was threatened, Israelis could not trust guarantees which depended on the French because they would have no assurance that a French government would be any more likely in the future to understand Israel’s peril than the French Government did in May 1967.

The President said he believed that the French position could be moved. He conceded that it would not be moved if the Middle East were the only issue we were discussing, but there are other issues which are perhaps even more important to France. The President did not say it in so many words, but the clear implication was that he felt that the French desire to participate with us in talks with the USSR would influence France to give on the Middle East. At any rate, the President said, “Let us give it a whack.”

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Mr. Eban returned to the question of guarantees for a peace settlement. “If two of the four guarantors are against us, why should we put our trust in guarantees?” Then he went on to argue against “globalizing” the Middle Eastern conflict. He felt that big-power guarantees would get the US “involved too early” in any crisis. He used the analogy of Berlin to point out how the whole world becomes involved by the smallest border incident which involves the US and the USSR. The President nodded seriously that this was “an important point.”

After an off-the-record discussion of Mr. Eban’s views of the possibilities of peace with Jordan, the President said that King Hussein would be coming to the United States on a visit in early April4 and asked Mr. Eban what he felt we should say to the King. Mr. Eban said that what we tell him will be very important to the prospects of a settlement between Israel and Jordan because Hussein feels a need for international support. Mr. Eban suggested that we urge Hussein to enter serious negotiations with the Israelis and to tell him of our feeling—“if you believe it”—that we thought it possible for Jordan to win serious concessions from Israel if it negotiated seriously.

In a brief aside to this part of the conversation, the President asked Mr. Eban his views of the situation in Cairo and whether or not we should resume relations. Mr. Eban said he thought Nasser’s internal situation was shaky—perhaps even more so than Hussein’s. When the President stated his position as not setting conditions on the resumption of relations with Egypt, Mr. Eban said he felt this was exactly right. When the President asked whether we should do more, Mr. Eban said he felt that it would look too much as if we were running after Nasser. When the President asked directly whether Mr. Eban felt it was in Israel’s interest for us to resume relations, Mr. Eban a couple of times avoided a direct answer.

The meeting closed with another exchange of pleasantries and with reiteration of a theme that the President struck throughout the meeting—that we intend to proceed in close cooperation with Israel.

Harold H. Saunders 5
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 604, Country Files, Middle East, Israel, Vol. I. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Saunders on March 17. According to the President’s Daily Diary, the meeting was held from 3:06 to 3:50 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files)
  2. Made on March 4. The text of his statement is printed in Public Papers: Nixon, 1969, pp. 179–194.
  3. Recalling his meeting with de Gaulle in Paris at his office in the Elysée Palace, Eban wrote that he did not believe that the French President took seriously the threat to Israel posed by the withdrawal of UNEF from the Sinai Peninsula and the Egyptian blockade of the Straits of Tiran. ( Abba Eban: An Autobiography, pp. 341–344)
  4. King Hussein visited the United States during the second week of April and met with President Nixon on April 8. See Document 19.
  5. Saunders initialed “H.H.S.” above his typed signature.