243. Memorandum for the Record1


  • NSC Meeting on the Middle East and South Asia


  • The President
  • Secretary of State, William Rogers
  • Deputy Secretary of Defense, David Packard
  • Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chairman JCS
  • Richard Helms, Director of Central Intelligence
  • U. Alexis Johnson, Under Secretary of State
  • Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President
  • Brigadier General Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Deputy Assistant to the President
  • Joseph J. Sisco, Assistant Secretary of State
  • Harold H. Saunders, NSC Staff
[Page 884]

The President opened the meeting by pointing out that there are enormous risks in the situation in South Asia for our China policy. There are risks for the Indians and Pakistanis, too. He suggested that the discussion begin with the Middle East and then turn to a briefer discussion of South Asia. That is one problem that must be watched very closely. The Indians are stirring it up. If they mess around on this one, they will not find much sympathy here.

The President then asked Mr. Helms to brief on the situation in the Middle East. [The substance of Mr. Helms’ briefing is attached.]2

At the conclusion of Mr. Helms’ briefing, Secretary Rogers said that State had just gone through another extensive review of the military balance in the Middle East with the Defense Department and concluded that the balance still remains slightly in favor of the Israelis. Mr. Sisco expanded on this point by noting that the Israelis define the military balance as one which gives them a margin of advantage. There is no question that it is impossible to recreate the conditions of 1967 in which the Israelis were able to win an overwhelming victory. Now, although the qualitative advantage remains on Israel’s side, what the Russians have done to improve Egyptian defenses is impressive. In as[Page 885]sessing what equipment Israel needs, it is the old question: How much is enough to deter?

Mr. Helms referred to the statement by Senator Jackson that the military balance had shifted.3 He pointed out that Senator Jackson had based his statement on the ratio between numbers of aircraft. That is not the important thing. The important thing is the number of pilots. Whereas the Israelis have three pilots for every plane, the Egyptians have one pilot for every three planes.

Mr. Packard said that, in addition to the aircraft balance, it must be remembered that the US has given Israel the best electronics counter-measures equipment it has. While the Egyptians have received new equipment from the Soviets, the Israelis are significantly better than they were a year ago.

The President summarized by concluding that the margin is closer.

Mr. Packard said that the big change had taken place when the Soviets moved missiles into the UAR. The situation would never get back to the way it was before that development.

The President asked Admiral Moorer what he thought. The Admiral replied that if Israel has to operate inside the UAR missile envelope, its losses would naturally be greater than prior to the existence of that envelope. Still, the Israelis enjoy qualitative superiority over the UAR air force. The Admiral noted that Israel is now producing its own Jericho surface-to-surface missile. The Admiral noted that the new planes the Soviets were providing to the Egyptians were suitable primarily for air-to-air combat and the UAR ratio in aircraft is superior, but the Israeli pilots are better. The Admiral concluded by saying that photographs indicate that the UAR is making mock-ups to practice canal crossings.

The President asked, “Where does that leave us?”

Secretary Rogers said that, as a result of Mike Sterner’s conversations with President Sadat,4 we believe President Sadat wants the US to continue playing a role in the negotiation of an interim canal settlement. In addition, President Sadat sent word through the Saudi intelligence chief that he still wants a Canal settlement. The Secretary proposed that Mr. Sisco go to Israel to attempt to narrow the gap between the Egyptian and Israeli positions on an interim settlement.5 He said [Page 886] that Israel would “favor” a visit by Mr. Sisco. He hoped that such a trip would permit a narrowing of the gap between now and September when the UN General Assembly will be the meeting point for a number of Foreign Ministers from the area. Then, hopefully, there could be an agreement by the first of the year.

The Secretary continued that Mr. Sisco would not be authorized to make commitments on aircraft, but he would be authorized to discuss the Israeli view of their requirements. He would report back to the President and then we would see where we go next with the UAR.

The Secretary continued that President Sadat said that there is some flexibility in his position. He also had said, with regard to the Soviets in the UAR, that he is prepared to have the Soviets withdraw from the SAM sites, but he will continue to need Soviet pilots to train his own pilots. As far as whether we should resume discussions with the Russians is concerned, President Sadat has said that he has no objection to our talking to the Russians “at the proper time.” The Secretary concluded with the recommendation that Mr. Sisco go to Israel, try to narrow the gap and make no commitments on aircraft.

The President reiterated the Secretary’s proposition that Mr. Sisco take the trip to Israel, return and report to the President and then see whether to go on to deal further with the UAR. He said that we did not want to get into a position where we would trigger a confrontation for which we do not have an answer.

The President went on, saying, “I have a thought.” This is July 16. The Congress will be out of play for the best part of August. He interjected that we are not going to have a policy governed by a domestic opinion, but we do have “more running room” when Congress is out of session, particularly on the aircraft question. Then he asked Mr. Sisco how long he thought the discussion in Israel would take.

Mr. Sisco replied that he thought about a week, but he could spend 10 days. He agreed that this is not the time for a confrontation with the Israelis. That time will come, perhaps in September when we know more precisely what kind of agreement might be possible and what kind of concessions we might seek from Israel. Some of the issues involved are:

—Are the Israelis willing to buy a symbolic Egyptian military presence in a narrow strip east of the Suez Canal?

—Is a zone of Israeli withdrawal possible where the key passes to the Sinai are neither in Egyptian nor in Israeli hands?

—Is it possible to achieve a relatively open-ended ceasefire?

—What can be done with regard to passage of Israeli ships through the Suez Canal?

[Page 887]

Mr. Sisco continued that we have to be sympathetic—and to show sympathy—in meeting Israel’s concern about arms. Still, it is difficult to respond to the Israeli requests without destroying the one diplomatic thread still in play. However, we should adopt a sympathetic posture on arms and on an interim settlement. Both sides have put forward some interesting propositions.

The President recapitulated by confirming that Mr. Sisco’s thought was that Mrs. Meir would talk about arms and Mr. Sisco would talk about a settlement.

The President then said that we had to put this into the context of the “announcement last night” [that the President would visit Peking]. We do not want to have a fight develop with the Israelis now. That would overshadow the China announcement. So it is very important to schedule the trip to Israel so that Mr. Sisco would still be talking when Congress gets out of town.

The President said he knew how “this lobby” [Zionist] works. There is George Meany;6 there is the group in New York; there is Senator Jackson; and Senator Muskie has to get back on this issue since he is “hurting for money.” Israel plays a shrewd, ruthless political game. They will egg on the Presidential hopefuls as well as their usual friends (like Congressman Celler). The President said he saw this blowing up into strong Israeli pressure. The argument would be that we are allowing the Russians to fish in troubled waters.

Turning to the USSR, the President said that if one puts oneself in the Soviet position, one would be concerned about US initiative toward China. The Soviets will be looking for places to irritate the US. They may send some nuclear submarines back to Cienfuegos.

The President said that, with regard to Mr. Sisco’s trip, he would like “a very low-profile.” Rather than go out to Israel the first of the very next week, the President suggested that Mr. Sisco go out the following week and then stay there until Congress gets out of town.

The President then said, “Don’t promise a damned thing. This is not going to be a free ride this time. From now on it is quid pro quo.”

The President reiterated that the visit should be low profile, that Mr. Sisco should be conciliatory on the question of Israel’s arms needs, but on the other hand, firm about the need for some diplomatic progress. Then Mr. Sisco would come back and report in Washington. Then we would see whether he would go on to the UAR later in August. At that time we could decide whether it was useful to do anything with the Russians. We have been careful not to bring in the Soviets again, although the Russians would like to play a role. We don’t know [Page 888] what kind of role they would like to play—whether they would like to mess the situation up or what.

Mr. Sisco said that, looked at from the Mid-East viewpoint, the advantage of the trip would be to keep negotiations alive until mid-September when the UN General Assembly meets. We know what a reasonable settlement on the Canal would look like. At that time—mid-September—in the context of the Secretary’s bilateral talks with Foreign Ministers at the UN, the US could make a major effort to force a final interim settlement. But this would have to be done carefully since Israel has said that it does not want the US and the Russians making that settlement.

Secretary Rogers said that this trip would be an effort to “keep the ball in play.” President Sadat wants the US to show it is still active.

The President asked when we have to make the decision on arms for Israel. Mr. Sisco replied that he would be testifying before the Symington sub-committee7 the following week and that he would simply say that he had been authorized to discuss this issue in Israel. Mr. Packard said that he felt the decision should be put off another month or two. The President said that August would be a good month for holding off.

Mr. Sisco said that we could do this consistent with our diplomatic efforts. Domestic pressure might build up, since the Israelis seem to have a case on the merits—that is, the changing military balance.

Dr. Kissinger said that the military balance shifts against Israel when the Israelis can no longer win a war quickly. The Arabs do not have to defeat them; they just have to engage Israel in a prolonged war of attrition.

Dr. Kissinger continued that we have all agreed that at some point we would have to squeeze Israel. The issue is whether we squeeze in making a commitment to provide aircraft or at the time of delivery. If we squeeze in making the commitment, Israel will look at everything in terms of on-going pressure.

Secretary Rogers said, “We can wait a couple of months.”

The President said that for the UAR the fact that Mr. Sisco was going to Israel should be enough. He suggested that Mr. Sisco leave around July 26. Secretary Rogers said that the trip can be announced before President Sadat’s July 23 speech.8 The President said Mr. Sisco [Page 889] could tell the Symington sub-committee on Monday and that would get the word around. He acknowledged that there has to be an “appearance of motion.”

[Omitted here is discussion of South Asia printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XI, South Asia Crisis, 1971, Document 103.]

Harold H. Saunders9
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–110, NSC Meeting Minutes, NSC Minutes Originals 1971 thru 6–20–74. Top Secret; Nodis. The meeting was held in the Conference Room at San Clemente. According to the President’s Daily Diary, the meeting was held from 10:57 a.m. to 12:06 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) All brackets are in the original except those indicating text omitted by the editors.
  2. Attached but not printed.
  3. In his July 14 statement arguing for an increase in the U.S. supply of jets to Israel, Senator Jackson accused the Nixon administration of allowing the military balance in the region to deteriorate by “degrading” the Israeli defense capability, claiming that Egypt alone possessed half of the 600 total military aircraft in the Middle East. (New York Times, July 15, 1971, p. 15)
  4. See Document 242.
  5. Sisco went to Israel from July 28 to August 6. See Document 245.
  6. George Meany, President of the AFL–CIO.
  7. Stuart Symington (D–MO), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs.
  8. The Department of State announced Sisco’s trip on July 19. Sadat delivered the speech on July 23 at the opening of the National Congress of the Arab Socialist Union. Bergus commented that the “most dramatic aspect” of the Egyptian President’s remarks was their “lack of drama.” He wrote: “Sadat unveiled no new policies, set no new deadlines, raised no new issues (and buried no old ones), essentially declared intention of maintaining Egypt on course it has pursued since early months of this year.” (Telegram 1853 from Cairo, July 24; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1164, Saunders Files, Middle East Negotiations Files, Middle East—Jarring Talks, July 16–August 1, 1971)
  9. Printed from a copy that bears Saunders’s typed signature.