26. Memorandum for the President’s Files by the President’s Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs (Scowcroft)1
- The President’s Meeting with Hafiz Ismail, President Sadat’s Adviser for National Security Affairs
- The President
- Hafiz Ismail, National Security Affairs Adviser to President Sadat of Egypt
- Muhammad Hafiz Ghanim, Political Advisor to President Sadat
- B/Gen. Brent Scowcroft
- [Henry A. Kissinger joined toward end of meeting]
The meeting began at 11:22 a.m. During the photo opportunity, the President told Mr. Ismail that he had visited Egypt three times and had great affection for the Egyptian people. He pointed out that instant peace was only a dream and that permanent peace cannot be assured. What we hope to have as a goal is some movement off the present dead center. We do not know what can come of our discussions but it is important for us to have frank talks and exchange honest opinions. Mr. Ismail then handed the President a letter from President Sadat [attached]2 and said that he brings Sadat’s greetings and the high appreciation of the Government of Egypt and expressed his own honor to be received in the White House. At this point [11:27 a.m.], the press departed.
The President began the discussion by expressing a personal regret that in his first four years in office, he did not make progress toward normalization of relations with Egypt. He said that he was very fond of the Egyptian people and that the present status was a loss for both sides. Nevertheless, the President understood why it had not been possible to move toward more normal relations and he expressed his understanding of the Egyptian Government’s position and requirements in this regard.[Page 73]
He then said he wanted Mr. Ismail to know that we approach these talks with no illusions whatever, and that we do not know what, if anything, can come of our discussions. He said he had made the same comment to King Hussein during his recent visit and would say the same thing to Prime Minister Meir. The important thing was to see where we stand to explore the possibilities that there might be some movement which could take place. The President announced as his goal that Egypt and the United States be friends. With this goal in mind, he thought it important to be very candid and to talk frankly with each other.
Mr. Ismail responded that his Government appreciated the opportunity for the visit very much and felt that it could be the starting point for a new relationship between the United States and Egypt and, as well, a start on the way to peace in the Middle East. Mr. Ismail said he considered that Egypt’s relationships with the great powers should be balanced and that Egypt wanted good relations with both the Soviet Union and the United States. Egypt sought U.S. friendship and the removal of all barriers to that friendship. He emphasized that Egypt makes its decisions in Cairo and that it was not a satellite of any country and intended to remain that way—and on good terms with all. Mr. Ismail felt that the President’s meeting in Moscow and Egypt’s termination of the Soviet military presence in Egypt provided a basis for Egypt to normalize relations with the U.S. He felt that Egypt was now in a correct position for steps to be taken by the U.S. He observed that for 15 years Egypt and the U.S. had not seen eye to eye. The President interjected that he felt that the decision on the Aswan Dam had been a mistake.
Mr. Ismail said that Egypt was proud of its role in the Arab world, that Egypt promoted independence of the Arab States and supported the welfare of the Arab people. This position of leadership had been forced on Egypt as a result of its population size, geographic position, and its ancient culture and tradition. The President interrupted to say that he understood this point very well and that on his first trip to the Middle East in 1955, what had impressed him in all the countries that he visited was that most of the teachers were Egyptian. The cultural impact of Egypt throughout the region was profound, and the President wanted Ismail to know that he knew that and respected it. Mr. Ismail responded that Egypt had tens of thousands of teachers, farmers and other professionals and technicians all over the Middle East making a contribution. He felt that the U.S. should encourage such activities because a strong and vigorous Middle East could be a strong, positive partner in the world and not a burden.
The President said he wanted to speak very candidly and to point out that Nasser, who was a strong and good man, was so strong that Egypt’s neighbors feared him and the possibility that he might be ex[Page 74]porting revolution. The President said he had the feeling that that was no longer the case and that Egypt was not thought of in that way. Mr. Ghanem agreed with the President, pointing out that Saudi Arabia used to fear that Egypt was exporting revolution but that they now welcomed Egyptian teachers to their land.
Mr. Ismail next moved to a discussion of peace in the Middle East. He pointed out that if Egypt were strong, the Middle East was strong, and that if Egypt were weak, the Middle East was weak. Egypt wants peace. It has had now a decade of almost constant military activity, but Egypt cannot accept peace at the expense of its sovereignty, territory, or pride. Egypt will not be humiliated and the Egyptian leadership would take no action for which its children would blame it in the future. Peace, said Mr. Ismail, must be as just as it is stable. Otherwise, it simply sows the seeds of another war. He said he noted with care the recent U.S. position; the President had declared a decade of peace. The President had brought peace to Vietnam and now was giving priority to the Middle East at the beginning of his second four years. The U.S. is an extremely important factor in the world and no peace in the Middle East is possible without U.S. participation. Time, said Mr. Ismail, is not on the side of peace, and he pointed out that just two days ago, 110 people (hostages) were shot down in cold blood. He compared this with the Egyptian diplomat in Bangkok who had rescued Israeli hostages at considerable risk.
The President said that Mr. Ismail had undoubtedly seen his statement on the recent tragedy and observed that no statement was adequate at such a time.3 He said he was very impressed that, despite this tragedy, Mr. Ismail had kept on with his trip. The President felt that showed real statesmanship. Mr. Ismail responded that before starting his recent journeys, the Egyptian leadership had felt that they were in a dangerous stage of confrontation with Israel. There were certain parties not in favor of peace and they would attempt to dynamite any efforts. Egypt was therefore prepared for provocative acts and prepared to continue its efforts.
Mr. Ismail next stated that 30 months of ceasefire was no reason for congratulations. The ceasefire was becoming a burden and a strain, and that it was necessary either to break it or to establish peace. He said that Egypt had not been at fault in obstructing peace, and that Egypt had accepted and itself proposed peace initiatives. Israel, he felt, did not want peace because it has not achieved its goals. It wishes to wait another 10 years until further immigration and its own efforts enable it to establish its position in the occupied areas. What helps Israel to persist in this po[Page 75]sition—the President interrupted and said he knew what the rest of the statement was going to be, that it was the support that the U.S. gives to Israel. He urged Mr. Ismail to be frank and to openly state that he felt that U.S. support was what made Israel intransigent. Mr. Ismail responded that Egypt did not understand the U.S. policy of balance of force. This policy permitted Israel to hold on to Egyptian land, and Egypt thought it was not a fair policy. At one time, the Soviet Union was in Egypt, but the Soviet Union has now left and Egypt saw no further genuine motive for its support of Israel. Mr. Ismail said he was not suggesting that the U.S. could stop that support tomorrow, but it was time for the U.S. to begin a shift toward Egypt in the Middle East and to readjust accordingly its relationship with Israel. Otherwise, said Mr. Ismail, how can we move toward our goals?
Mr. Ismail said that Egypt saw a settlement in the Middle East in light of the origins of the conflict. If a settlement was seen in terms solely of the Suez issue, or a small agreement on one or another detailed aspect, there would be no solution. The origin of the conflict is in the Balfour Declaration4 and the emergence of two communities in Palestine—the Jewish and the Palestinian communities. This is the core problem which must be solved. Egypt is not a part of this core problem and complete disengagement between Egypt and its neighbors would offer a means to a solution. Mr. Ismail said he was aware that Israel was not offered by the Arabs a homeland in Palestine but that was not a reality. He felt that Israel’s wave of expansion must be stopped or it would continue to go on and on. If it were possible to disengage parties to the international conflict the Palestinian core problem would be solved on the basis of self-determination between the Jews and Palestinians. Once this fundamental problem is solved it would be possible to recognize new relationships in the area. If Israel would agree to withdraw to its borders, Egypt could agree to safeguards and guarantees and then it would be possible to work out the details of moving toward the resolution of the core issue. If we attempt to reach a settlement by step-to-step actions, said Ismail, we will bog down. We must have a final goal clearly in mind and move firmly and rapidly toward it.
According to Mr. Ismail, security was much more of a need on the Arab side because of the Zionist objectives of expansion at the expense of the Arabs. As long as Israel has these objectives, there is a serious threat and the Arabs were on the defensive. In illustration of this, Ismail pointed out that within 10 years, his people would all be liquidated in [Page 76]the Gaza area. When Israel would be willing to recognize itself simply as a Middle East country, the Arabs would recognize it as such. But so long as it continued to bring in immigrants and money and to fight for expansion, there was no possibility of any solution. He pointed out that Prime Minister Meir had challenged President Sadat to say that he would sign an agreement. She promised that if he would do so, she would put her cards on the table. He did so and there is no response from Mrs. Meir. Mr. Ismail pointed out the development of long-range missiles and atomic weapon research going on in Israel. He asked rhetorically if Egypt could rest in peace when a sick member of the Middle East club across the river was doing such things. Mr. Ismail felt that the Arabs had offered all the security measures they could, but that the Israelis have offered none.
The Israelis tell us to sit down with them and negotiate an agreement, said Ismail. Our response, he said, is that Israel must sit down with the Palestinians and the refugees and resolve that issue. With Egypt, there is nothing to negotiate about with our land occupied. Egypt will negotiate, but not at the expense of its land. He pointed out that if Egypt could get an international commitment to a date of Israeli withdrawal, Egypt would negotiate. Otherwise, however, the talking would be still going on in 1983, with Israel still holding Arab land.
The time has come, said Mr. Ismail, when the United States and Egypt should start improved relations. Egypt is not hostile to the United States, and he hopes that the U.S. is not hostile to Egypt. He repeated that, because of their actions with respect to the Soviet Union, they are now in a position to be receptive toward movement by the U.S. in the direction of Egypt. It is time, said Mr. Ismail, for the U.S. to move toward an even-handed policy in the Middle East—to define objectives, and to tell Israel it is in the interest of all to get along. Ismail said he had no illusions about the prospects but he hoped that his visit would be the point of departure for some new movement.
At this point, Dr. Kissinger entered the discussions. The President noted that the Egyptian position was very firm, and so was that of the Israelis, and that the situation was analogous of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. He said that Mr. Ismail’s trip had aroused much interest and that the press will tend to believe that this diplomatic activity would bring an early solution. Both sides, said the President, know that is not so. The President said that the U.S. goal is to work for a solution, not to procrastinate, and not to be content to let the situation continue for five to 10 years, although it was possible that it could continue that long. The President expressed his concern about the present situation, noting that Egypt and Israel were far apart and the situation was very explosive.[Page 77]
The President then said he wanted to speak on very sensitive matters and that notes should not be taken. He said he thought discussions with Egypt should move on two tracks—a public track with the State Department,5 and a private track with Dr. Kissinger. If the private track was to produce any benefits, it would be absolutely essential to keep it private. In responding to Mr. Ismail’s previous statements, the President pointed out that Israel sees a security threat from radical elements in the Arab world and that this threat was, to Israel, a very serious one. As the President sees it, the big issue is between Egyptian sovereignty and Israeli security. The two sides, he felt, were very far apart and their positions were very hard. The President did not think that it was possible to solve the entire Middle East problem all at once and perhaps not at all. He expressed his understanding of Mr. Ismail’s point about interim solutions turning into final solutions. The President gave his word that his goal was a permanent settlement, but he reiterated that he did not think it was possible, in view of the gulf between the parties, to reach such a settlement all at once. It may, therefore, be necessary to consider interim steps along the way. He said that perhaps the Egyptians would reject such an approach, but he urged Mr. Ismail to discuss it with Dr. Kissinger and he stressed that we were committed to a long-range solution to the problem. No possibility should be overlooked in our search for a way to move toward our goal. The President said he hoped that this would be only the first, and not the last, meeting. This should be the beginning of a dialogue, and if nothing concrete emerged, he hoped Mr. Ismail would not report back to Sadat that the effort had failed. Once again, the President pointed out the sensitivity of the private channel negotiations—they must be kept quiet and private if they were to succeed.
Dr. Kissinger observed that he and Mr. Ismail would explore all possibilities during their meetings on Sunday and Monday.6 Mr. Ismail responded that he had received Dr. Kissinger’s note about a possible second meeting in March, and he understood that the exchange must continue for some time.
The President said he had asked his daughter, Tricia, where she would prefer to go if she could go back to one of the countries she had visited. Her response was that she would like to return to Egypt, and the President said that he would like to visit Egypt during his present term of office. It was, of course, premature to talk of it now, but his statement was an earnest of his good will to improve Egypt-American relations. Mr. Ismail observed that with respect to those relations, every [Page 78]phase exhausts itself and that diplomatic relations will come when the situation is ripe. Egypt would look forward to a visit by the President because that would signify that the Middle East problem was solved. The President responded that such problems are never really solved but that it would mean that the situation was under satisfactory control.
The meeting concluded at 12:29 p.m.7
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 131, Country Files, Middle East, Egypt/Ismail, Vol. III, Feb. 23–26, 1973. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting was held in the Oval Office. Brackets are in the original. There is a Presidential tape recording of this meeting ibid., White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation No. 862–10.↩
- Not attached, but printed as Document 21. Kissinger described the message in his memoirs as “the polite phrasing” that “contained a threat backing up a request for an overall settlement,” and noted that Sadat warned that “the situation in our region has deteriorated almost to the point of explosion.” (Years of Upheaval, p. 213)↩
- See footnote 2, Document 22.↩
- In November 1917, the British Government announced in a letter signed by Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour that it favored “the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people” and that it would use “its best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this objective.”↩
- Ismail also met with Rogers, Rush, Sisco, and Atherton on February 23. See footnote 3, Document 27.↩
- February 25 and 26.↩
- Kissinger recalled: “As was his custom, Nixon expressed himself face to face with Ismail much more elliptically than in his marginal comments to me.” He added: “Nixon, always uncomfortable with detailed negotiation, used my scheduled secret talks with Ismail as a device to avoid a clear-cut reply. Indeed, he pushed a program somewhat at variance from his marginal note to me. To my astonishment, he seemed to favor an interim Suez Canal settlement after all.” (Years of Upheaval, p. 213)↩