310. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Meeting between Secretary Kissinger and Syrian Vice Foreign Minister


  • Secretary Kissinger
  • Assistant Secretary Joseph Sisco
  • David Korn (NEA/ARN)
  • Syrian Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mohammed Zakariya Ismail
  • Mr. Diyallah El Fattal, Director, Office of UN Affairs, Syrian Foreign Ministry

Secretary Kissinger: I am leaving for various Arab capitals, as you know. I have never had the personal pleasure of any contact with Syrian officials.2 I want to have what will be a very preliminary talk with you. In planning my trip, we did not propose a visit by me to Damascus because we thought it would be rather sudden in terms of our previous relations. However, I want to assure you that I did not intend any discourtesy. Mr. Sisco could stop in Damascus on his way back if your government thought it useful.

Did you come to New York for the General Assembly?

Mr. Ismail: Yes. I came intending to stay only a short time, but then the war broke out.

Secretary Kissinger: I tried to reach you the day the war broke out but could not. What I was going to ask you would not have done much good anyway.

Mr. Ismail: I remember hearing that you were trying to get in touch with the Foreign Minister; they said you wanted to see the Minister. He was already gone.

Secretary Kissinger: There was some confusion. Well, would you like to speak first or do you want me to go ahead?

(Mr. Ismail indicated he would prefer that the Secretary speak first.)

Secretary Kissinger: What I wanted to say is that relations between the U.S. and the Arab countries have been very difficult, partly because the Arab countries have considered us the lawyer and chief defender of [Page 850] Israel. That is partly true. We are committed to maintaining the existence of Israel. To the extent that it is the Arab position to destroy Israel, we will be in opposition. On the other hand, we have a long history of friendship with the Arab countries. I spoke to several of your colleagues before the outbreak of the war and expressed the view that I recognized that the conditions that then existed were intolerable and could not continue. I suggested that the U.S. would be prepared after the Israeli elections to make a major diplomatic effort. This remains our view. We recognize that there are legitimate Arab concerns that have to be satisfied, but we cannot do everything for the Arab countries. There are limits, but up to these limits we are prepared to make a serious effort. However, on the Arab side there must be some understanding of our problems. Most Arabs seem to think that all we have to do is order Israel to do something and Israel will do it. The people who think this have not had the opportunity of meeting with the Prime Minister of Israel several times this week as I have; otherwise they would not think this way.

What I am prepared to do is to make an effort. What I want to ask from the Arabs is cooperation in developing a serious program. I think I am in a position to make a serious contribution: I cannot be accused of anti-Semitism, and I have some experience in negotiating difficult matters. Now, that is our attitude and I wanted to communicate it to you and to tell you that we are prepared to have serious discussions with the Syrian Government. The U.S. and Syria should not be cut off from each other.

Mr. Ismail: The meaning of my presence here this evening is that we agree that there should be discussions. Of course, after I received your invitation I was in contact with Damascus. Damascus agreed to my coming here, since we accepted Resolution 338. The acceptance of Resolution 338 was conditional on two essential elements: Withdrawal of Israeli forces from all of the occupied territory, and the safeguarding of the rights of the Palestinians. This was all contained in the letter which I sent to Secretary General Waldheim.

I was deeply impressed this morning when I visited the Lincoln Memorial to read the words cited from Lincoln’s inaugural address: He said the U.S. wants a just and lasting peace at home and abroad.

Secretary Kissinger: I think Lincoln’s second inaugural address was really his greatest speech, not the Gettysburg Address as is often cited.

Mr. Ismail: This morning I saw in the news a declaration by (Israeli Finance Minister) Sapir that Israel wants to establish a city in the center of the Golan Heights. Such declarations by Israel do not give us encouragement regarding talks with Israel.

[Page 851]

Secretary Kissinger: Mr. Minister, one of our problems is that many people say many things for many reasons, particularly for domestic political reasons. Leaders have to prove that they are not giving anything away. What we have to understand is that unless there is a settlement the possibility certainly will exist that Israel will construct a city in Golan. We must not allow ourselves to be deflected from our purpose by what various people say. There is, of course, plenty of reason for suspicion on both sides, but we have to keep this in perspective.

Mr. Ismail: The Israelis have the habit of saying the Arabs want to destroy Israel. This is not true. I have had to answer (Israeli UN Ambassador) Tekoah on this several times. I have said that all we want is to get back our territory and to insure the rights of the Palestinians.

(At this point the Secretary was called from the meeting for several minutes.)

Mr. Sisco: We believe what the various parties say and think that everybody is committed to the proposition that Israel is here to stay. We accept what the Arabs say in this regard.

Mr. Ismail: Maybe Sapir was speaking for domestic consumption, but there are 19 Israeli settlements in Golan and Dayan and others have said that Golan is not negotiable, Jerusalem is not negotiable, Sharm-el-Shaikh and the West Bank are not negotiable. How can they reconcile all these things with Resolution 242?

(The Secretary returned to the meeting.)

Secretary Kissinger: As I was saying when we broke off, there will be a lot of things said that will be objectionable because everyone will want to prove he has not yielded anything; this will be the case, especially in the end.

I have no precise idea of all the elements of a settlement, and I would like to wait on that matter. But we are prepared to make a serious effort and to lend our good offices. We will insist, however, on not being blackmailed while we are doing it.

Mr. Sisco: Mr. Secretary, while you were out the Minister asked a question about our discussions with the Egyptians on the cease fire.

Secretary Kissinger: We have talked to the Egyptian Foreign Minister. What we are trying to do is that the Egyptians want to restore the October 22 line—wherever it was. The Israelis want the return of their prisoners and an end to the blockade. We are talking to all of the parties to see if these problems can be bundled together. It is a test case of what can be done. The Egyptian Foreign Minister has not been able to agree to everything that we have proposed, but I want to say that he has made a real effort. In the meantime we have reached agreement on an[Page 852]other convoy. I hope that by the time I get to Cairo this will all be worked out.

Mr. Ismail: Everybody talks about the cease fire on the Egyptian front but nobody mentions the problems on the Syrian front.

Secretary Kissinger: We would be prepared to send an emergency force to Syria if you wanted one.

Mr. Ismail: No, we don’t want that. But we have many complaints.

Secretary Kissinger: We support the strict observance of the cease fire, on both sides. May I make a point regarding prisoners? Israel is very anxious to have an exchange of prisoners.

Mr. Ismail: First we have to exchange lists of prisoners. But Israel refuses to give us the bodies of our dead soldiers. This is in violation of the Geneva Convention. Also, we have 15,000 people who were expelled from their homes in the war zone.

Secretary Kissinger: Would you be prepared to release the prisoners if Israel let those people go back to their homes?

Mr. Ismail: Israel would have to give us the bodies of our soldiers and let the people go back to their homes, then we will exchange prisoner lists. If Israel withdraws to the October 22 line, then we might have an exchange of prisoners.

Secretary Kissinger: May I sum up? If Israel permits the return of the displaced persons and the return of the bodies of the dead, then you will exchange lists. As soon as the October 22 line is demarcated and the Israelis withdraw their forces to it Syria will return the prisoners.

Mr. Ismail: Let me make it clear that this is my own point of view and I cannot guarantee that it would be the position of my government.

Secretary Kissinger: If you could get me an answer on that and we get agreement it would help the stability of the Egyptian cease fire.

Was territory of military importance occupied by Israel after October 22?

Mr. Ismail: Yes. Some very important strategic areas in the Mount Hermon region.

Secretary Kissinger: All informed observers that I talked to said the Syrian forces fought well in the war. Everybody was impressed by your performance.

If you could get me an answer on this idea it may be possible to do something.

Mr. Ismail: Could you please repeat it again?

Secretary Kissinger: This is the proposal. I am not endorsing it, just proposing to transmit it. Israel would let the 15,000 displaced persons come back and would allow the Syrian dead to be handed over. Then Syria and Israel would exchange prisoner lists. After that Israel would [Page 853] go back to the October 22 lines whereupon Syria and Israel would exchange prisoners.

If you could let me know about this by Sunday3 night it would be helpful, but I can be reached easily at any time.

A more basic problem is how we will regulate our relationship in the future on all sides; we are prepared to continue these conversations.

Mr. Ismail: I am in New York and am ready to talk to you any time. We can make contact whenever there is something to discuss.

Secretary Kissinger: That is fine. What will you say to the press as you leave if you are asked about this talk.

Mr. Ismail: I will say that I was invited by the Secretary of State and we had a useful meeting.

I hope this first contact will lead to even more beneficial contact. For our part we will do our utmost to work for peace and good relations. Maybe on future occasions I will be able to say more.

Secretary Kissinger: I hope so. I think we should continue these efforts.

I am told that in all history nobody has ever won a negotiation with the Syrians; maybe with the Egyptians, but not with the Syrians.

Mr. Ismail: (Laughing) Maybe that is because the Syrians always have the best case.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 27 ARAB–ISR. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Korn.
  2. Syria severed diplomatic relations with the United States after the 1967 war. A U.S. Interests Section in the Italian Embassy in Damacus was not established until February 8, 1974.
  3. November 4.