22. Conversation Between President Nixon and his Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1
Kissinger: Now, we have one other thing, which has to do with the Middle East. Now, I have the impression that Rogers and Sisco are again cranking up one of their wild charges. Now, I agree we have to do something, but we don’t have—we have, now, after years of effort, gotten the Arabs into a situation where they’re coming to us.
Nixon: Yeah.[Page 56]
Kissinger: We mustn’t give the impression that every time there’s a crisis in the Middle East, it’s our crisis. It’s a hell of a lot better to get the parties pleading with us to engage themselves—to be engaged, because we’ve got the Russians pleading with us now; we’ve got the Arabs pleading with us. I mean, today, the Israelis shot down a plane, a Libyan plane. It was a passenger plane.2 It’s inexcusable. And, I approved messages of condolence on your behalf to Qadhafi and Sadat.3 But on top of them, now, Rogers has issued a statement.4 He’s called Ismail in London, and that makes an impression of panic. When the Israelis shoot down a plane it isn’t our business. I mean, it isn’t—we didn’t shoot down—
Nixon: He called him, huh?
Kissinger: He called him in London. Now, you know that Ismail is coming over here, anyway; he was afraid to lose the visit. The Arabs need the bloody visit more than we do. And, I really hope we don’t give anybody exclusive jurisdiction, because he’ll [Rogers] get us into the same mess he’s gotten us. Your methods—the methods you and I, on your behalf, have used—work because we never get ourselves in. We move slowly, deliberately. Now, what I plan to do with these Egyptians on Sunday and Monday, so that you know, is to say this: “Look, for four years you’ve been talking. If the Israelis could have designed your strategy, they couldn’t have done it better, because you come up with all these high-sounding formulae, which cannot be accepted, and [Page 57] which leads only to a stalemate, the result of which, then, is that the Israelis stay exactly where they are, which is what they want.
Kissinger: “If you—I think that if you want to talk to us in the White House, come up with a formula we can accept. We are willing to bring a lot of pressure on the Israelis, but we are not willing to have a war. And we are not willing to press the Israelis to a point where they’ll go to war, but we’re willing to press them just short of that. Now, if you can work with us in that framework, we can—”
Nixon: Well, let me—let me suggest one thing else. I—I see this as a situation where we’ve got to give both sides a little prick.
Kissinger: That’s right.
Nixon: Now, what I would like for you to push on with them is to make to them—you say, “Now look, you know the President is a man who keeps his word.” And I [unclear] “We can’t tell you this, you can’t use this [unclear], but the President is interested and he’s committed to a permanent settlement. [unclear] He wants it to be accomplished while he is President.”
Kissinger: That’s right.
Nixon: “But, the way to get that is to have an interim settlement, and let’s have this Arab settlement. Let’s get what we can.” And, you see, basically we have to know this: The Israelis do not want a permanent settlement, and the other people do. The thing to do is get the Egyptians to agree to a half-assed settlement, and that’ll cool the thing. But the Egyptians are gonna—will only do that if they think we’re going to continue to push the Israelis. So, I’d tell them that, “Yes, we’re for a permanent settlement.” And then, we can get us two years if we buy—I think with a—if we can—well, if we can get an interim settlement, you know, opening the Canal and then start relations with the Egyptians, we can turn them away. But they don’t want—they don’t need this goddamn land. You know what I mean? It’s all a bunch of desert anyway.
Kissinger: No, it’s—it’s a symbolic thing for them.
Nixon: I know it is. But, they’ve got to get part of it; they’ve got to get some of it. You know what I mean? And they—
Kissinger: And I have had an idea, Mr. President, which—
Nixon: Which you—my advice: Use them, then—then kindly say, “Well, look: I’d make a private deal with you, you know, on this.” They’ll do something. That’s right.
Kissinger: If we can do, for example, we could separate the issue of sovereignty from the issue of security, whereas if we said they can get back the territory, they can get sovereignty back to their old frontiers.
Nixon: Yeah.[Page 58]
Kissinger: But they’ve got to give the Israelis some special security zone. They can have the police, but the Israelis can have some bases there. There’s no population, so a lot of complex things are possible.
Kissinger: So then they don’t lose face.
Kissinger: And—but I’m not going to come up with any plans on that at this meeting, anyway. I think we, at this meeting, we should, should just talk. Now, almost certainly, that meeting is going to get out, and that’s unavoidable. Now, he’s going to come in to see you.
Nixon: When he gets back?
Kissinger: Well, I thought it was best if you and I see him alone, and you just mention—I mean, with whoever and whatever Egyptians he brings with him—
Nixon: All right.
Kissinger: You should just mention to him that you’re fully behind his meeting with me.
Nixon: Oh, yes. Sure.
Nixon: Then he’s going to have lunch with Rogers?
Kissinger: Oh, then he’s going to have the whole day with Rogers. So, it’s—but, they’ve—
Nixon: But Rogers doesn’t know about his meeting with you?
Nixon: That’ll get out, though.
Kissinger: Certainly. But we can say they [unclear]—
Nixon: [unclear] Huh?
Kissinger: [unclear] it’s—the way we can handle that is Rogers is leaving Saturday morning.5 We can then say the Egyptians asked us on Saturday and that I decided—that you decided that I should see them, just to hear what they have to say.
Nixon: Yeah. I wouldn’t say a damn thing unless we have to say something. Or, do you think we should say it?
Kissinger: Well, my judgment—
Nixon: You think it’s better to say it, yeah?
Kissinger: My judgment is that they’ll say it.[Page 59]
Nixon: They’ll put it out?
Nixon: So, therefore, the thing to do is to just say you’re going to see them in New York. They asked to see you in New York [unclear]—
Kissinger: I think we should, yeah. I think if it’s clear to me that they’re going to say it, we’re better off making it as a joint announcement or something, or at least confirm their announcement.
Nixon: So, the way to visualize this is they would have a meeting with Rogers, too.
Kissinger: Friday night. And I’m seeing him Sunday afternoon and Monday.
Nixon: Yeah. [Pause] And, you’re spending that much time?
Kissinger: That’s what they want.
Nixon: Well, it’s worth it if anything—you just don’t know. They’re probably just, you know, the damned Arabs just talk.
Kissinger: It’s probably not going to work, and I think if it isn’t going to work, we’d better not get you that deeply involved.6
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation No. 860–15. No classification marking. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Nixon met with Kissinger in the Oval Office between 4:44 and 5:30 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) The editors transcribed the portion printed here specifically for this volume.↩
- Israeli fighter planes shot down a civilian Libyan jetliner over the Sinai desert on February 21, killing 106 passengers and crew members. In a telephone conversation with Kissinger that same afternoon, Rabin acknowledged that the attack was “really a blunder on our part.” He said: “I don’t believe that any Israeli pilot would have taken the decision on himself. I’m quite sure that it was on instructions on a relatively [low] level.” (Ibid., Kissinger Telephone Conversations, Transcripts (Telcons), Box 18) President Nixon called the incident “unbelievable” and instructed Kissinger to tell Rabin that he felt “very strongly” that “they ought to really compensate [the victims].” (Ibid., White House Tapes, Conversation No. 43–157) He also expressed concern that the incident could affect his upcoming meeting with Hafiz Ismail. In a telephone conversation on February 21, he asked Kissinger whether he believed Ismail would still proceed with the visit in light of the recent event. “No question about it,” Kissinger replied. “They’re getting more out of the visit than we are. We don’t need the visit.” (Ibid., Kissinger Telephone Conversations, Transcripts (Telcons), Box 18)↩
- Nixon’s condolence letter to Sadat is ibid., NSC Files, Box 751, Presidential Correspondence 1969–1974, Egypt, President Sadat.↩
- Rogers’s statement reads: “We are saddened today to learn of the shooting down of the Libyan airliner resulting in the loss of some 70 lives. We extend the sympathies of the U.S. Government to the families of those who lost their lives in this tragedy.” (The New York Times, February 22, 1973) Kissinger called Sisco to protest the wording of the statement. Sisco replied that the statement was an effort “to keep the situation cool.” He added: “I think the danger in this situation at the present time is that Sadat will feel himself under pressure from [Qadhafi] to take some counter military action. And, I think the purpose of this statement is basically to disassociate the United States from this action.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Kissinger Telephone Conversations, Transcripts (Telcons), Box 18)↩
- February 24. Rogers traveled to Paris to attend a conference on Vietnam.↩
- Kissinger spoke on the telephone with Sisco, February 22, 6:30 p.m., to voice his objection to the State Department approach in the Middle East. “Joe, I have to tell you I think you guys are going crazy again. . . . I mean calling ambassadors, calling Ismail—I mean, goddamn it, it took us two years to get the Egyptians in the frame of mind where they were pleading with us to get into it and now we are acting like puppy dogs. . . . I will tell you something—I haven’t lost one of these yet.And I’m not losing it—I will not tolerate it—and you remember this—I will not tolerate any area being segregated as the exclusive jurisdiction of anybody.” Sisco replied: “Henry, you ought to have enough experience to know that I am a goddamn lowly assistant secretary with practically no influence and Henry, you can call and bawl me out—I just don’t have this kind of influence—I don’t have this kind of power in the state department. . . . 9 times out of 10 you call me and bawl the hell out of me—I agree with you and you are putting me in an absolutely impossible position, I don’t know what to do—you’ve gotten me to the point—I’m saying to myself I might as well get the hell out of here. . . . Henry, get off my back.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Kissinger Telephone Conversations, Transcripts (Telcons), Chronological File, Box 18)↩