310. Memorandum From Director of Central Intelligence Helms to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • Nature of the Exploratory Talks

1. Considerations pertinent to the principal aspects of the proposed talks with the Egyptian government are set forth below, in accordance with your request of 18 September 1972.2

2. President Sadat’s decision to enter into secret preliminary talks with the United States Government to explore the prospects for peace in the Middle East was determined by certain facts of life in the prevailing situation in Egypt and the Middle East, which considerations will also shape Sadat’s approach to these talks. In parlous financial straits and faced with a deterioration of its over-all economic condition that cannot be arrested without peace, Egypt as a whole, at all levels, recognizes its need for peace. Egypt’s leadership recognizes and accepts what it was unwilling to accept prior to 1967, that the price it must pay for its 1967 defeat by Israel is Egyptian agreement to allow Israel to exist as a state and in conditions of genuine peace. The unresolved question for negotiation concerns only that of Israel’s existence within what borders. Sadat unquestionably had the great majority of his people with him when he pursued with the United States in 1971 the possibilities for a peaceful settlement; his political troubles at home began only when those efforts collapsed leaving Sadat and the country in a no war-no peace quandary which it found intolerable to live with indefinitely.

3. The available evidence indicates that the Egyptian leadership recognizes that the regaining of Sinai, which is Egypt’s cardinal national objective, is impossible to achieve by military means because of preponderant Israeli military strength. In terminating recently the Soviet military advisory program, Egyptian leadership was well aware that it was weakening itself militarily for an extended period if not permanently. The Egyptian decision in this regard can only be interpreted as reflecting Sadat’s conclusion that a military solution was unrealistic even with their former military relationship with the Soviets and that Egypt’s main objective therefore can only be achieved through some [Page 1052] form of peaceful negotiating process. Sadat’s whole conduct since his assumption of power supports the conclusion that this has been his belief all along and that for him the chief importance of Egyptian military strength consisted only in developing as much credibility of military threat as was possible for tactical bargaining purposes related to a negotiating process.

4. Among the various considerations that contributed to Sadat’s decision to alter their military relationship with the Soviets, another was his awareness that the Soviet presence in Egypt had long been a factor disturbing to the United States and complicating the quest for peace. Indications [less than 1 line not declassified] suggest that Sadat probably hoped that one of the effects of his decision concerning the Soviets would be to unlock to some degree the existing deadlock and improve the possibility for a renewal of American interest in seeking a peaceful settlement of the Middle East problem. Sadat very likely interprets in this light the timing of the United States Government’s 29 July initiative on preliminary talks.3 Sadat’s termination of the Soviet military program, which evoked a universally favorable reaction in Egypt, eased the internal pressures which had been building around Sadat and bought him time, perhaps as much as a year. But malaise and the same pressures will grow again if the no war-no peace impasse is not eventually resolved.

5. While there is real urgency therefore about Sadat’s need for peace, there are also real limits on how far he can go and how much he can concede to get peace. In public opinion in Egypt at all levels, the emotionalism attaching to the belief that no land lost in 1967 should be permanently yielded to Israel in a peace settlement and to the belief that no direct negotiations should be conducted with Israel so long as it is in occupation of Egyptian soil, is also a fact of life which Sadat cannot cavalierly ignore without political peril.

6. Against this background, Sadat’s approach to the proposed exploratory talks is likely to reflect the following:

a. The Egyptian leadership is so deeply persuaded of the United States Government’s total alignment with Israel that it will be entering the proposed talks without optimism, skeptically, doubtful that any major breakthrough will result—but hopeful, nevertheless, because of its great need for peace, and with the feeling that it cannot afford to pass up any opening or conceivable opportunity for movement towards an honorable peace.

b. It is improbable that Sadat will be undertaking preliminary talks with the illusion that any grandiose, overall plan for a full settlement of the Middle [Page 1053] East problem will emerge from the talks. [1½ lines not declassified] indicated that they are thinking in terms of a partial Israeli withdrawal with concomitant reopening of the Suez Canal as a first step in a gradual piecemeal approach to some eventual final settlement. The Egyptians will be probing to establish what the United States believes to be realistically obtainable from the Israelis in a partial settlement, i.e., the depth of partial withdrawal, Egyptian military presence on the east bank of the Canal, and the nature of the linkage between partial and final settlement.

c. The Egyptians do not believe however that they can afford to acquiesce in partial steps towards final peace, which do not lead to further movement towards that ultimate end. Therefore, the Egyptians predictably will press the United States in these talks for the general lines of the sort of eventual final settlement which the United States envisions. They will endeavor to flush out United States positions on the separate elements of a final peace, such as the final border, the status of Sharm ash Shaykh and of Gaza, the nature of international guarantees for the peace, the extent of demilitarization of Sinai, the presence of Egyptian military personnel there. One of their two principal objectives in these talks will be to seek mutual clarifications of the present positions of both governments on the elements of a peaceful settlement. The Egyptians will not wish to talk in generalities in these talks, but will insist on getting down to brass tacks and talking in specific, clear and concrete terms.

d. Sadat’s second principal objective will be to try to pin down the United States as to precisely how far it is prepared to go in bringing pressure to bear on Israel to accept steps towards peace mutually agreed upon privately between the United States and Egypt. The Egyptians, from Sadat down, have an unshakable conviction which is certain to be articulated in these talks that Israel’s dependence on the United States is so great that the United States can turn Israel off and on like a spigot. They are equally convinced that Israel will yield nothing unless constrained to in one way or another and that only the United States can bring that constraint to bear. This consideration will be uppermost in Sadat’s mind in entering these talks. If private preliminary talks can result in a meeting of minds by the American and Egyptian governments on mutually acceptable steps towards peace, Sadat will insist upon firm assurances that the United States Government will commit itself to a maximum effort to induce Israeli acceptance before Sadat will agree to enter into any overt negotiating process. Sadat’s current preoccupation with this consideration is a direct result of his experience with the United States in 1971 when, he believes, the United States walked away when the going got hot with Israel, leaving Sadat to hold the bag and a shaky political position endangered by the dashing of aroused expectations in his constituency.

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e. Senior Egyptian officials [less than 1 line not declassified] invariably reflect mystification about United States policy objectives in the Middle East. While professing an ability to grasp the depth of the United States Government’s commitment to Israel, they also assert an inability to comprehend why the United States should assume a commitment to Israel to a degree which jeopardizes other interests of the United States in the larger Middle East picture, notably its economic interests in the Arab world. The topmost officials of the Egyptian government surmise therefore that there must be something more, as yet unarticulated to them, which the United States wants and expects of them as a prerequisite to peace and improved bilateral relations with the United States. In one form or another this question will be posed by the Egyptian side in the course of the talks.

7. The holding of these exploratory talks entails two conceivable risks to United States interests. The first of these arises from the possibility that the very holding of the talks might generate unwarranted Egyptian expectations which, if disappointed, could leave the United States’ bilateral relations with Egypt in more disarray than before. It is unquestionably true that the exchanges to date between the two governments concerning preliminary talks have evoked a measure of hopefulness in the Egyptian leadership which has had something of a soothing effect on our troubled relations with Egypt. However, several considerations appear to limit this risk to an acceptable degree. The United States’ relations with Egypt cannot become much worse than they have been in the past half year or so. More importantly, as indicated above, it is doubtful that the Egyptians will embark on these discussions with any undue optimism. Finally, it is not unrealistic to believe that the risk may be containable to some degree by the atmospherics of the talks. At least part of Sadat’s bitterness towards the United States in the past year has derived from his conviction that the United States was neglecting and ignoring him with a couldn’t-careless attitude towards Egyptian needs, aspirations and sensitivities. Part of their evident pleasure recently concerning our 29 July initiative was caused by their reading it as a sign of United States interest and concern with the problem. Even if the talks should yield no tangible results at this time, the Egyptian reaction would not necessarily be disastrous from our viewpoint, could in fact prove to be positive, so long as they at least come away with an impression of genuine United States concern with the Middle East problems at the highest level and of a sincere United States desire to continue the effort to locate some reasonable and fair basis for an eventual solution.

8. The second of these risks relates to the possibility that Sadat, if dissatisfied with the outcome of the talks, might later opt to violate his promise to maintain secrecy by either public pronouncements by Sadat [Page 1055] as he has done in the past or by his revealing the talks to the Soviets. To date the Egyptians give every indication of having taken pains to limit awareness of this development as tightly as we have. Our estimate is that the Egyptians will continue to honor their pledge of secrecy. Sadat’s past conduct is not in itself necessarily a valid indicator on this score. He has never before given an explicit pledge of secrecy beforehand in his dealings with us; he prides himself on keeping his word and Egyptians who know him well and whom we respect contend that Sadat’s personal record in this respect is excellent and that, for example, if he had been president in August 1970 instead of Nasir, the Egyptian violation of the ceasefire-standstill agreement would never have occurred. However that may be, Sadat believes that it was the United States which did not honor its promises to him in 1971 thus releasing him from whatever tacit undertaking there may have been concerning secrecy. A more tangible and compelling reason concerns Sadat’s previously noted conviction that only the United States can solve his problems. This creates doubt for us that Sadat will ever totally abandon all hope of a possible change of heart and policy by the United States; his betrayal of the current pledge of secrecy could occur only if he reached such a point of complete despair with the United States. Revelation to the Soviets by Sadat is less likely, in our estimate, than revelation by public pronouncement or leak to the press. The strains and coolness that have marked the course of Egyptian-Soviet relations in the past six months argue for the unlikelihood of Sadat’s revealing the talks to the Soviets, particularly when such a move would not appear to serve or advance any significant Egyptian national interest.4

Richard Helms5
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 131, Country Files, Middle East. Secret; Sensitive. All brackets are in the original except those indicating text that remains classified.
  2. The request was actually issued on September 19. See Document 309.
  3. See footnote 4, Document 305.
  4. In a September 23 memorandum to Helms, Kissinger asked him to pass a message to Egyptian officials informing them that he believed the time had come to “commence definite planning for the conduct of talks between the designated representatives of the two governments.” Kissinger continued: “The U.S. side does not favorably view overt or covert travel by Dr. Kissinger to Europe or some other location outside of the United States, because such travel would ultimately involve the arrangements with other governments and possible compromise. On the other hand, the U.S. side is impressed with the advantages of the Egyptian Government’s representative traveling overtly to New York with the ostensible purpose of attending the United Nations General Assembly sessions as President Sadat’s personal representative.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 131, Middle East)
  5. Helms signed “Dick” above his typed signature.