66. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • The Middle East—Where We Stand

As we wait for the Soviet response to Sisco’s latest formulation of our position on a UAR-Israel settlement,2 I want to put down some general reflections on where we stand in the Mid-East. When we have that response, it would be a logical time for another NSC session to take stock.

The arguments for going ahead with the Sisco initiative were that:

—It is essential to the US position in the Mid-East to take a position more consistent with US interests. We have been too much Israel’s lawyer. As a result, we are on the verge of a major policy shift—by force of circumstances, not by design. For twenty years, we have tried to maintain a broadly based position in the area. Now we are looked on as basing our position exclusively on Israel.

—The new formula would position us where we ought to beholding out for Israel’s security but not for Israel’s expansion. Until now, we have seemed to be holding out for Israel’s freedom to negotiate for major changes in its borders.

—The overriding US interest is in a peace settlement. If the Soviets responded positively, we might just have some chance of getting a negotiation started. If they responded negatively, we would have a clearer measure of their intent. The alternative was the certainty of a continued impasse.

—While the Israelis would not like this move, we would still be in a defensible position domestically as long as we held out for Israeli security. Israel’s expansion is not one of our interests if security can be provided otherwise. Israel’s long-term security depends in part on a US position in the Mid-East to hold off the USSR, but Israel’s present strategy of standing fast is creating conditions which hasten the erosion of our position.

My reservations on the Sisco initiative are as follows:

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—I am not sure that a diplomatic move like this can any longer affect the deep-rooted forces at work in the area. It seems to me that the fedayeen movements have now become an almost autonomous force which the moderate governments will no longer be able to control. It has already become an explicit point in the US–USSR negotiations that the UAR cannot (or will not) commit itself to clamp down on the fedayeen. What I am saying is that (a) we should not be overoptimistic about our ability to bring about a peace settlement but (b) we should not allow ourselves to think that even a peace settlement would set things right for us in the Mid-East. The fedayeen would still be there working—if not to undercut the settlement—against moderate interests.

—But even if continued Israeli occupation of Arab territory—and not the fedayeen—is still the main cause of pressure on governments friendly to US interests, I believe we are off on a wrong tangent in concentrating on a UAR-Israel settlement. We have a much greater interest in Hussein than in Nasser and—what is even more important—the real issues in resolving the Palestine problem are on the Jordanian side. The West Bank is part of Palestine; there will be no solution without a refugee settlement; the refugees are a Jordanian not an Egyptian problem; Jerusalem is an issue for the entire Moslem world but is part of a Jordan settlement. We have focused on a UAR settlement first on the theory that Nasser’s agreement would make Hussein’s easier, but I have long felt that we should shift focus. While I hesitate to say this because of the complications it raises, there will be no settlement until Syria comes into the process. In essence, the roots of the 1967 war lay in Syrian support for fedayeen attacks on Israel. There is no reason not to expect that to continue.

—I am afraid the step we have taken, even if we make our position known, will gain us little in the Arab world if we then go on supporting Israel with arms and money after it rejects our position. At the same time, the Israelis will dissociate themselves from it.

What we are doing, I fear, is helping to build a case for greater Arab militancy—since we have backed slightly away from Israel—and making it more likely that Israel will rely more heavily than ever on its military strategy. We are doing too little to have a chance of success but enough to divert indigenous forces from reaching their own decision.

I see three choices:

1. Get out of the way and take no position (as Acheson recommended).3:s100/100

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This would have the advantage of recognizing the situation as it is—that peace is unlikely and the US is unable to force it—and disengaging from responsibility for forces beyond US control.

The counter argument is that it may not be possible. First, the only way to do this and preserve an independent position would be to take our distance from Israel. In effect, a passive US policy favors Israel. We would have to cease our support for Israel if we were really going to dissociate ourselves. Second, we would be virtually disengaging and leaving our friends—including large private US investors—and the field to the USSR. Whether the US likes it or not, it is held responsible for Israel’s existence. Whatever the US might do, it will be associated with the Israeli issue as long as it persists.

2. We could pursue what we are doing now with whatever modifications the evolving situation suggests.

The argument for doing this is that doing nothing leaves no likelihood of a settlement, while our present course at least keeps alive the possibility of constructing a diplomatic alternative to the present military course. As in any other difficult negotiating situation, there is something to be said for third-party efforts to give the contestants an honorable way out. As long as the diplomacy is not completely sterile, there is an argument for continuing to chip away at the problem.

The arguments against are those I have noted above.

3. We could come down hard on Israel and try to squeeze her back to pre-war borders if we once had a viable peace proposition with Arab backing.

The first argument for is that there probably will be no peace settlement without this kind of pressure in the end. The more basic argument is that Israeli strategy and peace terms now are inconsistent with US interests. We have come to the point where Israel would be content to see US Mid-East policy tied exclusively to Israel, reversing twenty years of US effort to maintain a broadly based policy. Israel is following a strategy detrimental to our interest—and, as you have said, to their own in the long run. Unless the US takes an independent stand, its options in the Mid-East will be increasingly narrowed.

The argument against includes jeopardizing the headway we have made with the Jewish community on Vietnam. But the principal ques [Page 220] tion is whether the US could win in this sort of confrontation. This is not only a matter of whether we could follow through in any persistent application of pressure in the face of strong domestic reaction. Success would depend on Nasser and Hussein standing by a reasonable position. It would not be reasonable for us to try to force on the Israelis a settlement that lacked a fair chance of providing security for Israel.

If we were going to try the third, I would consider trying it initially at least as part of a global deal with the USSR on Vietnam.

The reasons why the Soviets might be interested are their inability to get their friends’ land back, their own concern about radicalization of the area and their interest in getting Suez open. While they may prefer riding out the present situation a while longer to pressing Nasser hard, they are less than completely comfortable and see serious risks for themselves.

There are two questions in this approach: (1) Do the Soviets feel they are in a worse position in the Mid-East than the US is in the Mid-East? (2) Do they feel they are in as difficult a position in the Mid-East as the US is in Vietnam?

They would certainly like us to force Israel to give Nasser back his territory. On the other hand, while they are in a difficult position as long as we refuse, they can see US options continually narrowing in the area. The US position is not improving relative to theirs. At the same time, they may feel the US is far more seriously weakened by its involvement in Vietnam than the USSR is in the Mid-East.

The alternative to a global deal with the USSR is a straight Mid-East deal in which we would press Israel if Moscow pressed Nasser. This, of course, is implicit in our current course. My reservation with this, as I have said, is that we will end up pressing Israel on behalf of the Soviet client when our interest is really in settling the Palestine question—in contrast to the UAR-Israel geopolitical contest—which is a Jordanian issue.

Recommendation: That as soon as we have had a chance to evaluate Moscow’s reply to the Sisco formulation, an NSC meeting be scheduled to discuss where we stand and next steps.4

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 651, Country Files, Middle East, Middle East through December 1969. Secret; Nodis. Sent for action.
  2. See Documents 58 and 61.
  3. In an October 27 meeting with Nixon at the White House, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson recommended that the United States “should not intervene either directly or by supplying military items to such a conflict.” Acheson was “sure that the Government could find ways of letting the Russians know that our purpose was not to be involved and would be greatly facilitated by their adopting a similar course.” He concluded by telling Nixon that he “saw the only hope of being a willingness of both Arabs and Jews to accept a more live-and-let-live policy as a result of a sharp and painful experience.” (Memorandum of conversation with the President, October 27; Yale University, Sterling Memorial Library, Acheson Papers, Group 1087, Record Group IV, Box 68, Folder 173)
  4. Nixon approved the recommendation on November 15.