217. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Abba Eban, Foreign Minister of Israel
  • Yitzhak Rabin, Ambassador of Israel
  • David Rivlin, Secretary to the Foreign Minister
  • Shlomo Argov, Minister of Israeli Embassy
  • Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President
  • Joseph J. Sisco, Assistant Secretary of State
  • Harold H. Saunders, NSC Staff

After an exchange of pleasantries, Foreign Minister Eban said that the Prime Minister had asked him to convey her respects both to Dr. Kissinger and to the President. He had just concluded a talk with Secretary Rogers,2 and he was sure that Dr. Kissinger would be receiving a full report on that, so he could be brief. His remarks are concentrated on where we go from here. There are two problems: progress in the Jarring mission and the possibility of discussing a partial solution in connection with the re-opening of the Suez Canal.

In connection with the Jarring mission, the Foreign Minister had talked with Ambassador Jarring in New York.3 He had made clear that the Israeli position stands as stated in Israel’s February 26 memorandum to the Ambassador.4 Israel felt that it was necessary to state its position that way. Even with that statement of Israel’s position, however, there are a number of things in Israel’s view that Ambassador Jarring could do. For instance, he could draft paragraphs on those issues on which there is near harmony between the [Page 789] Egyptian and Israeli positions. Or, he could attempt to work from the present statements of

Egyptian and Israeli positions on borders. Israel is prepared to detail its position. Ambassador Jarring could use such a device to begin a specific discussion on the border and withdrawal issue.

The key to Israel’s position is that it cannot say that it will undertake withdrawal of all of its troops to pre-war borders. There is one specific sticking point—Sharm al-Shaikh, from which Israel cannot withdraw.

Dr. Kissinger asked whether, in the light of the Foreign Minister’s last comment, it is reasonable to conclude that Israel means it wants Israeli forces at Sharm al-Shaikh but would be willing to return to pre-war borders on all other fronts.

The Foreign Minister replied that he could not go beyond his statement about Sharm al-Shaikh. There are other issues, such as Israel’s role in demilitarized zones, that remain to be specified. But Israel’s position on Sharm al-Shaikh is already enough to preclude his saying that Israel could accept return to pre-war borders.

Dr. Kissinger asked whether Israel could say that it is prepared to go back to pre-war boundaries everywhere except at Sharm al-Shaikh.

The Foreign Minister said that he would not be correct if he said that. The Israeli position is not yet that concrete.

Dr. Kissinger asked the Foreign Minister’s opinion on two propositions: (1) that Israel should tell the US what its position is and (2) that Israel should tell Ambassador Jarring something so that there would exist an Israeli position on borders which he could use to keep the negotiations alive.

The Foreign Minister said he had the impression that Ambassador Jarring is not interested in hearing anything from Israel but acceptance of his memorandum seeking Israeli agreement to withdraw to the international UAR-Israeli border. Jarring has certain suggestions that Israel had put before him. One is that he try to have a concrete discussion on the issue of withdrawal and boundaries.

Dr. Kissinger said he had never understood whether Eban was saying that Israel would not commit itself on withdrawal prior to negotiations or whether Israel was saying that it would not ever commit itself to withdrawal.

The Foreign Minister said that at the moment the first statement is true—that Israel will not commit itself prior to negotiation. However, later on if discussions begin, Sharm al-Shaikh will become a sticking point. Also there will be other problems that will need to be negotiated. But Sharm al-Shaikh is a “national sticking point.” Dr. Kissinger asked whether this was more of a sticking point than other possible issues. The Foreign Minister said that Prime Minister Meir in her recent inter [Page 790] view5 had tried to indicate that there might be others, but Sharm al-Shaikh is “on top of the list.” Many national interests converge at that geographic point. For the moment however the principal Israeli concern is that Israel be given freedom to negotiate.

Dr. Kissinger asked why it would not be possible for Israel to tell Jarring that it is prepared to discuss anything except Sharm al-Shaikh. Eban replied that Israel had not said it refuses to discuss any issue. Mr. Sisco said that the difficulty is that we need a concrete proposition from Israel for discussion. Ambassador Rabin said that Israel has stated a concrete proposition—that there be no withdrawal to pre-1967 lines. Moreover, Israel cannot say that Sharm al-Shaikh alone solves all of Israel’s border problems.

The Foreign Minister said that the long and short of it is that Israel, at this point, cannot give a more concrete definition of its position than it has already stated.

Dr. Kissinger asked whether an Israeli proposal on re-opening the Suez Canal fell in that category. The Foreign Minister replied that Israel has received the working paper passed to Ambassador Rabin by Mr. Sisco.6 Israel has decided not to reply with a critical analysis of that paper but to develop a paper of its own. In response to Dr. Kissinger’s question, the Foreign Minister said the Israeli paper would be ready in another week or ten days.7 The Israeli bureaucracy was working on the subject. [At this point there was a brief and partially humorous exchange on the nature of bureaucracies.] The Foreign Minister concluded his comment on the forthcoming proposal in connection with partial withdrawal from the canal by saying that Israel recognized it had to keep discussions going. It had taken the Egyptians three years to decide that they must make a “peace agreement with Israel.” It may take Egypt more time to adjust to the notion of Israel in borders different from those of 1967.8

[Page 791]

Dr. Kissinger asked what about the proposition that unless the Egyptians can show some progress, they are likely to relapse into a renewal of hostilities?

The Foreign Minister said he did not see any evidence that President Sadat was preparing to move in that direction. The US had done a good job on the military balance, and there are ways Ambassador Jarring can move forward. He hoped that concrete discussion on the issue of borders could move on. He had made suggestions to Ambassador Jarring which had been passed on to the Egyptians, but there had been no reply yet. If the UAR asked Israel to give greater precision to its position on borders, that would be a legitimate question to which Israel would have to respond.

Dr. Kissinger said he saw two problems:

—at what point Israel becomes more concrete with the UAR;

—at what point Israel becomes more concrete with the US about its position.

The Foreign Minister said that he was obliged to point out that Israeli thinking, when concrete, will not coincide with the US positions of 1969. Israel hoped that the US would be prepared to look at the Israeli positions with understanding. However, Israel would develop them out of its own convictions and recognizing “the full implications of solitude.”

Dr. Kissinger said he was sure that Secretary Rogers had told the Foreign Minister that there is no disposition in Washington to force a confrontation with Israel. It would be presumptuous for the US to give Israel its answer on how to balance territory and security. It is difficult to resolve the questions of what is the best mix between physical safety and the moral, bilateral, international and legal guarantees that may also provide some measure of security. We need to discuss this mixture with Israel.

The Foreign Minister replied that Israel is clear about one fact—that the moral, legal and other such arrangements cannot be a substitute for territory. What disturbs Israelis now is the apparent view that geography does not matter. In the Israeli view it is not the only issue, but it is “one of the things that matter” and Sharm al-Shaikh “matters very much.”

Mr. Sisco said that he wanted to make clear that whatever the US has said on specific guarantees, it is important to understand the frame [Page 792] work within which the US has been talking. The press in recent days has spoken as if guarantees would be a substitute for a peace agreement or a substitute for Israel’s own means for self-defense. That is incorrect. The US has always spoken about guarantees against the background of an assumption that Israel’s own deterrent strength is of central importance to any settlement. Nothing the US has ever said has indicated that the US considers guarantees something that could be provided in lieu of Israel’s own strength.

The Foreign Minister replied that strength consists of two elements: (1) there are the elements of military strength itself and (2) there is the question of where that strength is deployed. Dr. Kissinger added that there is also the question of where the enemy deploys its strength, and that raised the question of demilitarized zones.

Ambassador Rabin said that there are three elements which Israel considers important:

—There is the peace agreement itself.

—Since a peace agreement can be broken, Israel wants the capacity to defend itself in local conflict by itself. Israel does not expect anybody to come to its defense in a local war. In this connection, on the one side, Israel needs the US supply channel to remain open. On the other, Israel needs defensible borders.

—Israel needs enough of a guarantee to protect it against the direct involvement of Soviet forces.

Israel’s position is an exact exemplification of what is outlined in the Nixon doctrine.9 In summary, Israel wants peace negotiated in the normal way, an Israeli ability to defend itself and recognition of the fact that Israel is not the only country that cannot defend itself against the Soviet Union.

The Foreign Minister endorsed the Ambassador’s comment on the importance of US deterrents against the USSR.

Dr. Kissinger summarized his understanding of Eban’s position as follows:

—Israel is going to make a specific proposal on re-opening the Suez Canal soon.

—Israel believes it has opened the door to discussion of the border issue in the Jarring talks.

—Israel does not exclude the possibility of discussing its position with the US.

The Foreign Minister said that Secretary Rogers has requested that Israel discuss its position with the US, and this request will be taken seriously. In fact, however, the Prime Minister has already opened dis [Page 793] cussion of this issue with the President and the Secretary of State in September.10

Mr. Sisco said that he did want to inject one point in connection with a statement the Foreign Minister had made earlier. The US judgment remains that the UAR will not make another step in the Jarring talks until Israel makes one. The Egyptians feel that they have laid their cards on the table. We do not expect a UAR response to the Israeli suggestion that detailed negotiations now begin on the basis of positions as stated to date.

Foreign Minister Eban replied that there is another option for Ambassador Jarring. He could put questions to Israel to “elicit our position.”

Dr. Kissinger said that the US would find it helpful if Israel would put forward a position that had a reasonable chance of starting discussion. Mr. Sisco added that the US has never told Israel it must say “yes” to Ambassador Jarring’s memorandum.

Dr. Kissinger said that he wished to reiterate that the US is not steering this issue toward a confrontation with Israel. The Foreign Minister replied that a confrontation is certainly not in Israel’s interest. He added that in accord with the desire not to move into a confrontation, it was desirable that not only that bilateral steps be avoided but that an international climate of confrontation not be created. This has a great deal to do with how the US posture is reflected to others.11

Harold H. Saunders12
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 656, Country Files, Middle East, Middle East Nodis/Cedar/Plus, Vol. I. Secret; Nodis; Cedar Plus. Drafted by Saunders on March 22. The meeting took place in Kissinger’s office. All brackets are in the original.
  2. Eban met with Rogers at 11 a.m. that morning for an hour and 45 minutes. According to telegram 47428 to Tel Aviv, March 20, the Secretary said that the United States and Israel “differed on questions of emphasis and timing but not on basic positions” and that “no agreement was acceptable” to the United States that did not provide for “security for Israel in all of its aspects, including Sharm el-Sheikh, Golan Heights, and West Bank.” Rogers added that the Nixon administration recognized that it “could not force Israel to accept something unacceptable from security standpoint.” It would not “press Israel,” he said. (Ibid., Kissinger Office Files, Box 129, Country Files, Middle East, Middle East—Nodis/Cedar/Plus)
  3. Eban met separately with Jarring and U Thant on March 18 to discuss Israel’s position on withdrawal. (New York Times, March 19, 1971, p. 1)
  4. See Document 211.
  5. Reference is to a March 12 interview that Meir gave in her office in which she outlined her views on the borders that should be established between Israel and its neighbors to prevent another war between them. Specifically, she said that Israel would not relinquish control of Sharm al-Sheikh, the Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem; that the West Bank border would have to be negotiated; and that Arab troops could not be free to cross the Jordan River. (New York Times, March 13, 1971, p. 1)
  6. In telegram 38126 to Tel Aviv, March 7, the Department reported the March 6 conversation between Sisco and Rabin during which the Assistant Secretary “informally outlined some preliminary ideas” on reopening the Suez Canal in conjunction with a partial Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 658, Country Files, Middle East, Middle East Nodis/Cedar/Plus, Vol. IV)
  7. See footnote 2, Document 224.
  8. On March 17, Sadat informed Bergus that Egypt, Syria, and Libya would form a federal state called the United Arab Republic, with each country having its own President and administration, but with “top-level coordination” occurring “in some way” among the three. The upshot was that the former United Arab Republic would once again officially be referred to as Egypt. (Telegram 588 from Cairo, March 17; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1162, Saunders Files, Middle East Negotiations Files, Middle East—Jarring Talks, April 1–20, 1971)
  9. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume I, Foundations of Foreign Policy, 1969–1972, Documents 29 and 30.
  10. See Document 162.
  11. Upon reviewing “detailed accounts” of Eban’s talks with Rogers and Bush, Bergus wrote to the Department that the “most disturbing element” of the Foreign Minister’s presentation was that Israel’s ‘tenacity’” had “paid off,” that “time is on Israel’s side.” He continued that “such ‘tenacity’ was to a large extent purchased by US at a considerable cost,” adding that “thanks to Israel’s ‘tenacity,’ Soviets have made a quantum jump insofar as their presence and influence in this area is concerned.” Bergus later remarked: “But what troubles us most about Eban’s thesis is that it does not take into account the highly delicate situation which presently exists in Egypt. Sadat has placed a childlike trust in the United States. Perhaps he was mistaken in doing so. It is our considered view that his future, and the future of that diminishing little band of Egyptians who think like he does is in increasing jeopardy.” The United States would suffer the consequences, he concluded. (Telegram 629 from Cairo, March 22; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 129, Country Files, Middle East, Middle East—Nodis/Cedar/Plus)
  12. Saunders initialed “H.S.” above his typed signature.