57. Memorandum From Harold Saunders of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • Where We Stand in the Mid-East

As you and the President ponder Secretary Rogers’s memo on Joe Sisco’s proposed next step with Dobrynin,2 I would like to throw out these thoughts. In some ways, I regard this as the most important—though not the clearest—memo that I have written since January 20. This is not because I believe that any one decision or any single diplomatic move like this changes the course of history but because I see a series of decisions being made almost tacitly that could.

I am not sure where the President’s thinking stands at this point, so this may not be as pointed as it might be. However, the situation has [Page 195] now reached a point where I feel I owe you the reflections that follow even if they are somewhat wide of the mark.

In short, I’d like to make two points:

1. US Mid-East policy is on the verge of shifting from the strategy of the past twenty years—trying to maintain as broadly based a position as possible—to one based centrally on Israel.

2. If I assume correctly that we do not want to make that shift, the main issue we face is not just how to achieve a peace settlement but how to avoid being forced into a change of policy that is not consistent with US interests.

Our Present Policy

For twenty years, the US has attempted to keep a foot in all camps in the Mid-East. We developed our special friends in the moderates—Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iran, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco. We spent a good deal of effort courting Nasser for better or worse. We stood by Israel.

We have done this because we have interests in oil, encouraging moderate political trends, trying to avoid an exclusive Soviet relationship with the area’s chief troublemaker and keeping Israel afloat.

In following that policy, we rejected a strategy promoted by Israel’s friends in the US. That strategy was built around the idea that Israel—a “bastion of democracy”—was holding the Mid-East for the Free World against encroaching Communism. We rejected it because it assumed that friendly control of a certain plot of Mid-Eastern ground would some how prevent Communist encroachment. We rejected it because we felt we had to meet a political encroachment in political—not military—terms on the ground where it was gaining. We elected to compete in Cairo, Beirut, Amman, Baghdad. By 1967, we were still holding our own.

Now, however, we seem to be on the verge of adopting the strategy of basing our Mid-East strategy exclusively on Israel. I doubt we are doing this because the President wants to, although I don’t know. I assume we are doing it because we cannot see a practical alternative—or because the price of choosing the alternative seems too high.

Whatever the cause, the following steps which Israel and its friends are pressing us to take would commit us to Israel in a way that we have never before accepted:

—Helping Israel to acquire modern weapons and build up its own defense industry to the extent of more than $3 billion in purchases of military equipment and other equipment needed for defense production over the next six years.

—Covering a foreign exchange gap of $1.2 billion (included in the above) through financial assistance over the next five years. [That’s the [Page 196] equivalent of four years of development loans to India—given to a country with a per capita GNP higher than Italy’s.]

—Becoming Israel’s sole supplier of military equipment. (France has stopped sending new end-items, and the UK seems about to drop out.)

—Acquiescing in Israel’s possession of a nuclear deterrent.

—Acquiescing in Israel’s redrawing its map or at least in Israel’s strategy of sitting tight until peace comes.

I realize we have not taken all these steps yet. But the pressure is on, and it would take persistent effort on our part not to slip into them as the path of least resistance. If I assume correctly that we do not want to go this route, then the main issue is to find a way to establish a position independent of Israel with minimum damage to the President’s policies across the board.

Finding a practical alternative to the course we are on is difficult. We do not want to hurt Israel, and we recognize that Israel has a real security problem with its unpredictable and none-too-trustworthy neighbors. Even if we wanted to press Israel, it is not clear we would succeed. If we tried, the domestic damage to the President’s program—and his freedom of maneuver on Vietnam—could be extensive. The broad choices are:

1. Stop where we are, act as Israel’s lawyer and underwrite Israel’s stand-fast strategy.

—The arguments for this are that it may best reflect our impotence in breaking the current impasse and it would best assure support of Israel’s friends in the US for the President’s policies.

—The argument against is that it would increasingly—and in the end exclusively—tie the American position in the Middle East to Israel. This would be a major shift from past US policy not consistent with the present view of US interests. It would tie us to an Israeli strategy which the President has described as “unassailable short range, disastrous long range.”

2. State’s alternative would be to adopt a position we regard as balanced and to see how far we can get with it without forcing it on Israel.

—The argument for doing this is that we would at least be standing on a position consistent with US interests, not just Israel’s. There may be an outside chance over time of persuading somebody else to buy it, but in any case it would put us in a position of not backing Israel regardless of what it does.

—The argument against this is that it would carry the continuous risk of angering the Israelis and their US friends while not entirely pleasing the Arabs.

3. Adopt a balanced position and then by a combined use of the carrot and stick—the promise of military support and over $1.2 billion in financial help—to try to bring Israel to a settlement.

[Page 197]

—The argument for this is that only a settlement can create conditions conducive to US interests. We have more leverage with Israel today than at any time in the last decade.

—The strength of the argument against is in direct ratio to the scale of the Israeli counterattack we estimate. It also depends on the extent of the President’s promise to Mrs. Meir not to apply pressure.

Each of these approaches has serious disadvantages, so I see our job as picking the least dangerous and then moving ahead with the best safeguards we can build for ourselves at each step.

For me, the first course—stopping where we are—is ruled out because it is potentially the most dangerous both to our interests and in building over the long term a situation where the US and USSR would confront each other over Israel. Stopping where we are would gradually put us in a position of tying our Mid-East policy almost exclusively to Israel. (I am speaking here of US Government policy; US oil interests might survive some time beyond the USG as they are now in Cairo.) Also, this would leave the US as Israel’s ultimate defender against more than 60 million Soviet-backed enemies who, as you have said, in any historical period must prevail unless the US is to defend it.

Similarly, any abrupt move in the direction of the third course is probably too dangerous for the President in the absense of a real Arab peace proposal. I would leave open the option of relating our military and economic help to peace moves, recognizing that it is too early to consider this as an active choice. There’s no point in having a confrontation over a mirage (no pun).

That leaves us with the problem of how to stake out an independent US position while minimizing Israeli reaction. As I see it, the key to avoiding the worst pitfalls lies in our taking a substantive position that we can say does not hurt Israel.

The question is whether Joe’s formula provides that safeguard. What it really does is put us on record as saying that we do not believe Israel should keep any part of the Sinai provided the UAR will negotiate satisfactory security arrangements for Sharm al-Shaikh and the Sinai along with a final Arab government for Gaza. This may weaken Israel’s negotiating position, but the US interest is in Israel’s security, not its expansion. We would be opposing expansion provided security can be gained another way.

I see this as a necessary step if we are to move toward a position consistent with US interests—and not move to a position tied exclusively to Israel. I believe, too, that it is a defensible stand to take in this country to say that we will support Israel’s security wholeheartedly but not Israel’s expansion.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1169, Saunders Files, Middle East Negotiations Files, Middle East Settlement—US–USSR Talks. Secret; Nodis. Sent for action. A typed notation at the top of the page reads: “This is the version that went to Joe Sisco 10/27/69.” All brackets are in the original.
  2. In an October 14 memorandum to the President, Rogers wrote that, “taking advantage of the atmosphere created by the recent round of talks in New York,” he intended to present the Soviet Union with a UAR-Israeli settlement based on the following: “a) a binding commitment to peace and specific obligations to maintain the peace; b) acceptance of the principle of withdrawal of Israeli forces from UAR territory to the pre-June 5 lines conditioned on UAR willingness to negotiate with Israel,” which would include “practical security arrangements” in Sharm el-Sheikh and Gaza, demilitarized zones and freedom of passage through the Strait of Tiran and Suez Canal for all vessels, including Israel, and Israel’s right to live in “secure and recognized boundaries.” Rogers concluded by saying that “only an unabashed optimist can predict agreement between ourselves and the USSR on the above proposition, let alone agreement of the parties. However, it is clearly in our interests to move to this position whether or not the Soviets buy. It is a position that both sides will criticize, but neither can really assail effectively.” (Ibid.)