183. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel
  • Simcha Dinitz, Ambassador of Israel
  • Mordechai Gazit, Director General, Prime Minister’s Office
  • Mordechai Shalev, Minister, Embassy of Israel
  • President Ford
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Secretary of State and Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Joseph J. Sisco, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs
  • Lt. General Brent Scowcroft, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs

[The press was admitted for photographs and then dismissed.]

Prime Minister Rabin [pointing out the bust of Truman]: We have very special feelings toward Truman.

The President: He took a big step.

Prime Minister Rabin: Yes. He was instrumental in the establishment of the state of Israel.

Secretary Kissinger: Did you see the play [“Give ’em hell, Harry,” with James Whitmore]?

Prime Minister Rabin: No. I heard of it.

The President: There were two hours of monologue. It was a very good portrayal; even Margaret [Truman Daniel] thought so. There were a few bad cracks, but it was really good.

He was the first President I met and served under. I was on the committee on rebuilding or tearing down the White House. [The President described the reasons for rebuilding the White House and how it was done.]

Secretary Kissinger: I met him as an ex-President, when I was a consultant for Kennedy. He asked me what I had learned working in Washington. I said I had learned that the bureaucracy was the fourth branch of government and that even the President couldn’t always get his decisions implemented. His reply was “bullshit.” It shocked a poor Harvard professor. [Laughter]

The President: It is awfully nice to see you. I have been looking forward to the opportunity to discuss matters with you since the unfortu [Page 673] nate events of last March. I hope we can be open and frank, as we have in the past. As you know, I operate in this way, being categorical and frank, and I would like to proceed on that basis. I want to be open in order to clear the air, so you and I understand each other and so we don’t just hear things from the press. And, if we can do so, it would help us both to work towards what Israel wants and the United States wants.

When I came into office on August 8, one of the first things Henry talked to me about was how to achieve a major step forward to an equitable settlement in the Middle East. You will recall that I met with you and I met with Foreign Minister Allon twice.2 I wanted to be as helpful as possible and to meet the military requests of Israel, so that Israel would have no feeling of insecurity. You will recall that I had received four options; the Defense Department recommendation was the lowest option, but I went for a higher option. I made an analysis and I wanted you and your Government to feel certain that you had the capability to defend yourself. As you will recall, by April, as a result, you received the urgent items, roughly about $700 million worth.3 I know there are several items at this time that have not been delivered for one reason or another. I was trying to create the feeling that Israel should have a high degree of security.

But I want to say to you that I am disillusioned, I am disappointed, and disturbed. I am disillusioned over the results of last March. I believe that Israel could have been more frank in the crunch. I was disillusioned over the inflexibility of Israel at the final testing point. I understand your political problems in trying to be more forthcoming, but I have to say to you that I was disappointed, disturbed and disillusioned over the position taken.

A second point relates to the release of my letter of March 21. I was upset over the release of that letter and the inference that was put on it that I was trying to apply pressure on Israel. I tried to be frank with you in that letter. I do not know whether it was a deliberate leak, but it was very bad. There was also the question of the leaking of the conversation with Chancellor Schmidt of the Federal Republic of Germany. It is important that I get these things off my chest. I cannot talk to a friend if there is something gnawing at me.

You and I worked very closely together when you were Ambassador in Washington. You should have no doubt about my attitude regarding Israel, and yet I get reports that political efforts are being made [Page 674] domestically by Israel and the Embassy. This is not at all helpful—this kind of pressure.

Now let me turn to the substance. I meant what I said when I said we were going to reassess our policy. I meant it. I felt I had made a maximum effort to resolve the problems before, and after the suspension, I had to. So we have begun it. As President I have listened, I have read more, and analyzed more about the Middle East than other Presidents. I have read articles by George Ball, I have talked to Rostow and Goldberg. I have talked to other people and to members of Congress and the Executive Branch to give me their suggestions. The whole process of reassessment is aimed at trying to determine what to do to achieve a fair, equitable and permanent peace. I feel that I have done everything to help assure the survival of Israel, one, with strong military strength and a viable, strong economy.

We have looked at all—not just from State and elsewhere but all the options which in my mind made sense—and my own thoughtful evaluations have been made. And where I come out, even though I have not made any final judgments, where I come out—and I want your assessment as well if I am wrong—I come out on the option of moving to an overall settlement to Geneva, to try to achieve a peace with guarantees, a peace with all of your neighbors that would include agreement on borders. Now, that is where I come out at the moment, and I would appreciate your views and assessment which would help me. My plan would be to make some kind of public announcement this summer, or earlier. However, I have an open mind and I would appreciate your frank assessment and recommendations. They will have a significant impact on what I decide. I feel we have come through three months of agonizing reassessment. This is where I am, but I am saying to you I have not made a firm decision. I want you to be as frank with me.

Prime Minister Rabin: I am glad to have the opportunity to come here at your invitation. It is a meeting which is urgently needed and I hope it will be helpful to you. The only way is for me to talk frankly. Without being frank, all the misunderstanding will come up again.

We in Israel have great admiration for you and we know you are a friend of Israel. As President of the United States, we know that you have to do everything to try to help bring about peace in the Middle East.

We appreciate your generosity in approving all of the arms that have been shipped to Israel. Your action has strengthened Israel. The strength of Israel I believe is one of the elements which might bring peace. We believe we have cooperated in the effort to move towards an interim settlement. We were and are flexible, although perhaps we might not have been flexible enough to meet the Egyptian demands. I [Page 675] feel bad in a way as to how you have put it. I feel we did the best in light of our public opinion. There were limits as to what we could give in response to Egyptian demands.

As to your letter, I brought it to the Cabinet. We do have the problem of leakage. We were disturbed over the leak. Unfortunately it is the plague of most democracies.

The President: We all have our problems.

Prime Minister Rabin: In the future I promise to do everything to prevent this. We will limit the information to a certain number of Cabinet members.

Mr. President, I prefer to go to the problems as I see them. I want to start with this basis: If there is any country eager for peace in the area, it is Israel. Israel has fought many wars and lost many people.

We know we cannot achieve peace by military means; conditions do not allow this. It happened in 1949, in 1956, in 1967, in 1973. We know that force will not bring a political settlement. Clausewitz said that war is the extension of diplomacy by other means, but the objective in war is to destroy the opposing force, to impose one’s will. We cannot impose our will. Military means will not solve the problem. We have no interest in war but we have an interest in defending ourselves. Without being able to defend ourselves we will not survive. When we talk of peace, I mean by this our existence as a Jewish state with boundaries we can defend with our defenses—not to depend on others to send their own troops. That would be the end of us.

International guarantees have no meaning whatsoever with us. We have experienced them over many years. We have tried mixed armistice commissions, UNTSO, UNEF. We don’t believe in putting our defense in the hands . . . To drag a major power into a conflict which is local would be a serious mistake. We have never asked for one American soldier to aid in our defense.

We have tried for peace from 1949 to 1967, without results. There is an accumulation of suspicion, which must be cleared on the way to peace.

We have two specific ways. One is the one you mentioned: we would like to solve all the problems with all of the countries at the same time and bring about a final peace. And even if such a peace could take place it would be first a peace by diplomats and governments and not by people. In order to change attitudes in the area it would take a very long time. Even Sadat does not expect true peace; he distinguishes between the end of belligerency and normalization of relations.

Israel has its position about peace. There are three key issues on which I fear the gap is wide open with respect to an overall settlement and has never been bridged in the past by diplomacy: First, the nature [Page 676] of peace. The Arabs talk about the end of the war, the end of belligerency; for us it is much more. We mean normalization of relations.

Second, the boundaries of peace. The Arabs stress total Israeli withdrawal to the pre-June 1967 lines, which we consider practically indefensible. In the past when they moved their troops, we either had to wait for the attack or preempt. Take Egypt. Their forces have a million to one-and-a-quarter million, without mobilization. This would require total mobilization on our part. A half a million is the most we can mobilize. It is the highest ratio in the world. We mobilized about 400,000 in the 1973 war. We have revised our system to get the utmost. So the problem for Israel as far as an overall settlement is concerned is not to be in a position that in a few years, whenever they move, we have to go to a preemptive war. The real fact that they can move near to our borders means that we would have to mobilize and they then can destroy our economy by requiring total mobilization.

The third issue is the Palestinian issue.

We cannot withdraw to the 1967 borders in the Sinai. We cannot go down from the Golan Heights even in the context of peace. There can be a stationing of forces in Sharm el-Shaykh for example, and there must be a land linkage to it. And on the Golan for example, for a period of say 10 to 20 years, until there is a change of attitudes that occurs with the Arabs. The concept of stationing of forces and changing of attitudes, it is applicable to Egypt as well.

As to the West Bank, it is more complicated. Here there is an issue both of defense as well as the Palestinian issue. What the Arabs say is not new and hasn’t changed since Nasser. They say the solution is creation of what is now an Arafat state. When Arafat is asked what he has in mind, he says he has a dream of a secular state, which would eliminate the Jewish state of Israel. It would require the elimination of all Jews who have arrived since 1923 or even 1948. A Palestinian state would mean that with Strela missiles4 they could shoot down our planes at Tel Aviv airport. Therefore, as we see it, a return to the 1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state means that Israel cannot survive.

I had five meetings with Hussein last year.5 I said to him, “You have proposed a federation as a solution. If we can reach an agreement on a confederation in which Israel would be involved for about 30 years with open borders, with minimum changes—though there is a complicated problem of Jerusalem—we could also include the bulk of the [Page 677] Gaza Strip. We would be prepared to make an agreement with Hussein on this basis. It was refused by Hussein. We also put to him the Allon plan6 as a basis for negotiations and this was refused.

Therefore, in terms of the readiness of Israel for a final peace and the needs for Israel’s security, the 1967 lines with respect to Egypt and Syria do not allow for security arrangements which are required for a small country of three million people against a composition of states who total 60-to-65 million. We are ready to try to achieve peace, but the gap on these three issues is wide. We have not sensed an Arab readiness to come close to the essentials of peace as we see them from our point of view.

I recall that in 1973 Dr. Kissinger was willing to explore the concept of security and sovereignty. But Sadat had probably decided on a war. I wish that we could have reached an overall peace. That is a real peace. I don’t want the Israelis to be like the Christians in Lebanon. The fate of minorities in Arab lands—Christians, Kurds, Jews—is bad. The reason why the French set up the State of Lebanon is that they wanted to save the Christian minority in Syria. Ben-Gurion said Israel can win 20 wars and it will not solve the problem; but the Arabs need to win only once and it would mean the end of Israel.

What I have said is not popular in Israel. There are people who fought three times in the Sinai. Eisenhower, under the threat of the Soviet Union, brought about a withdrawal from the Sinai. And he said he hoped it would bring conditions of peace.

We can consider an overall peace, but we cannot budge from the positions which I have described. If there is a Geneva Conference, we will bring our positions there and we will struggle there, because we believe in our positions.

However, in many realistic appraisals we have concluded that there is another way which is more practical, that is, especially an interim agreement with Egypt. Egypt is the key. I recall that Egypt on its own decided to sign the armistice agreement and the other Arabs then followed.7 Every war has stemmed from Egypt joining and every war has stopped when Egypt stopped. We hoped that through an interim agreement it can be a step towards peace, not just another military disengagement. An interim agreement which might change the realities on the ground, so that after a prolonged period we would not find ourselves in difficult conditions in the Middle East.

If you decide to move towards an overall settlement, there would be no use of any interim agreement, even though we recognize that an [Page 678] overall peace could come by phases. The purpose of an interim is to postpone the overall until the situation becomes more favorable. As we see it, the Sinai is the card to win an overall peace, for in the case of war it gives Israel depth, time and territory against any enemy. I have no emotional attachment to the Sinai and I tell you frankly I see it as a bargaining card to achieve a final peace.

There are three key strategic elements in the Sinai:

1. the southern tip of the Sinai, that is Sharm el-Shaykh;

2. the oil fields (60% of Israel’s oil comes from there, making us mostly independent, and it saves about $350 to $400 million); and

3. the strategic passes.

[He takes out a map.]8

Once we are out of the passes, we have to reestablish a very long defensive line which takes a considerable amount of time. Egypt keeps five divisions and two armored divisions along the Canal. We have to bear in mind that what we give in an interim agreement has to be related to what we hope to achieve in a final peace. We will have to give much more in a final agreement. [He illustrates a final line on the map.]

Secretary Kissinger: In this concept of security and sovereignty, would you want a change in the borders and also a different deployment line?

Prime Minister Rabin: A deployment line [pointing to a map] would be defensible if combined with a political line which would be the final border. We don’t claim Sharm el-Shaykh; we just want to be there, until we see a commitment to peace which is solid.

We have to decide in which direction to go. One way is to solve it in one act, or another way is one that tries to change the realities by an interim agreement. We cannot see the relation between an interim agreement and other factors; for example, Syria. We cannot evaluate the agreements in the context of an interim settlement with Syria.

As to the Golan Heights, we have not definitely decided on any line as it relates to an overall settlement but the same idea of security and sovereignty could be applied both to Golan and Egypt. [With the map on the floor he shows as it relates to Egypt a deployment line which was forward of what presumably would be a final political line.] In the Golan the chances are so small. [He shows on a Golan map.] We cannot evacuate settlements in an interim agreement. I am being frank. That is not true in an overall settlement.

[Page 679]

Secretary Kissinger: Mr. President, what you should know is that there is no way in which the Israelis can make any kind of a small withdrawal, even of a kilometer or two, without touching the settlements.

Prime Minister Rabin: That is right.

The President: What is the line for an overall settlement?

Prime Minister Rabin: I can’t give an exact line. It wouldn’t be fair.

Secretary Kissinger: You have the same theory about security and sovereignty as in the Sinai?

Prime Minister Rabin: Yes. I said it publicly.

In 1965 Jordan got tanks on the condition they would not cross the Jordan.9 They crossed.

All we can do in the Golan would be cosmetic.

Secretary Kissinger: Even three kilometers? How many settlements would you have to move?

Minister Gazit: At least half. About six or seven.

Prime Minister Rabin: It is not only a question of settlements. It is also the destruction of our defensive line which would have to be rebuilt and would take at least two or three years.

Secretary Kissinger: But six or seven settlements are within three kilometers. How many people is that?

Prime Minister Rabin: There are about 100 or 200 people in a settlement. But I will be frank. In the context of an interim settlement it is impossible to move any settlements.

The President: What about an overall settlement?

Prime Minister Rabin: I have said that this would involve both changes of the boundary line, as well as deployment to a defensible border. But I have no Cabinet decision. I would be willing to take something like this to the Cabinet for a decision, even though this would bring about probably an election in Israel.

The President: We have both been getting stronger, I see [referring to recent polls].

Prime Minister Rabin: We appreciate very much the handling of the Mayaguez incident by the United States.10

Now, what are the problems? One, what will be the relation between the interim agreement to the Syrian issue? Secondly, in terms of duration what does it mean with respect to efforts to achieve an overall peace at Geneva? We need several years to change the realities and the [Page 680] environment. I do not know what the United States’ position is regarding the Syrian issue. And I do not know what the relationship is between the duration of the interim agreement to the overall settlement. There is no purpose served for Israel to go to an interim and lose one-and-a-half of our three cards and then have a weaker situation for an overall. Why should we give up the passes for nothing and end up negotiating an overall settlement in six months from a weaker position? We have to know what is to be done regarding Syria and Geneva. The defense line based on the passes is very important. Almost everything we have built in the Sinai is attached to the passes here [in the eastern part] and if the passes are not in our hands, then it is not defensible. The UN is no defense.

Secretary Kissinger: Would that situation be changed if you were one kilometer out of the passes?

Prime Minister Rabin: Being one kilometer out of the passes would completely change the situation. It would mean the total disruption of our defense system for two or three years and the need to have to rebuild it.

Secretary Kissinger: How about the Egyptian idea of Egypt being in one end of the pass and Israel in the other?

Prime Minister Rabin: This would be complicated. There would be an argument as to where the western and the eastern end of the passes are. We have to view the Sinai in the context of an overall peace. We want the Sinai to be demilitarized in a final peace.

As to the question of duration, how long is the agreement to last; what is its relationship to the Syrian matter; what is its relationship to the Geneva Conference and an overall settlement? In the previous American plan the time period was too short. It was one year. The Russians are also talking about phases.

Secretary Kissinger: It is conceivable that one could talk about a five- to seven-year period as it relates to an overall agreement but the problem would be, as you know, that the Russians would want to know what the final line was before one talked in terms of a five- to seven-year period to carry out a final agreement. Our approach, as you know, has been that we have sought an interim agreement so as to avoid stating a final position on a final peace.

Prime Minister Rabin: Yes, I know. I need the kind of duration at least between the United States and Israel applicable to Egypt that would give me enough time that there would be no activity undertaken which would be counterproductive.

[There was discussion of various lines on the map on the floor.]

Secretary Kissinger: This map shows various lines that were given to us by Egypt. Actually, if you look at that last line, the Egyptian and [Page 681] the Israeli lines are not too different. The fundamental difference is that Egypt was talking about that line in the context of an interim agreement whereas the Israelis are talking about it in the context of a final agreement.

The President: As to an interim agreement, talking about the duration point, what is your idea?

Prime Minister Rabin: It has two implications: First, the period between the signing of the agreement and the deployment to a new line. This would take somewhere between six to nine months. That is because we would have to move all of our defense positions.

Secretary Kissinger: If Israel were willing to give up the oil fields in the first two months, the six- to nine-month period for the passes might be soluble.

Prime Minister Rabin: The withdrawal from the oil fields could be done sooner than two months. But in terms of the duration of the agreement, we have talked in terms of four years. This is a very complicated problem. Secretary Kissinger said Egypt would never agree. In 1967 the UN was indefinite and the budget was annual. Once Egypt would give you a commitment for a number of years, that is fine with us. There are two options—the interim and the overall—and it is difficult to make these two options one. There are great risks in an interim agreement. We have an émigré coalition of the right and left against the Government that argues that to go to an interim agreement means Israel weakens its bargaining power on an overall settlement.

The President: What you want in an interim agreement is a line plus security.

Prime Minister Rabin: We want something that helps move towards peace. The alternative is stagnation, which we don’t want. Also, the problem is in relation to Syria and when we would be expected to deal with an overall settlement.

Secretary Kissinger: Do you have any concrete ideas on these problems?

Prime Minister Rabin: It is probably possible to get talks on an overall settlement.

Secretary Kissinger: The dilemma is what to do or how do you face the problems of an overall agreement with Syria once they begin? The dilemma is that if you decide on talks on an overall settlement with Syria, you cannot avoid talks on an overall settlement with Egypt. Therefore, you in effect face talks on an overall settlement per se.

Prime Minister Rabin: Exactly.

The President: If you can get an interim agreement in which you have security and adequate warning, there would be a problem be [Page 682] cause we could not say that we will not go to an overall settlement or to say we cannot expect some discussions with Syria on an interim basis.

Prime Minister Rabin: That is the problem. We do not know what the Syrian attitude is. We do not talk to the Syrians.

Secretary Kissinger: Khaddam will not be a reliable indicator when he comes here next week. He is always tougher than Asad.

Prime Minister Rabin: I am not saying that additional diplomatic activity is not necessary. The developments after the suspension were not too bad. I am not saying it can last.

The President: The problem is how much longer can the status quo be maintained without political movement? It is a volatile situation. Either we have an interim settlement in a quick period of time—within two or three weeks—in which there would not be a lot of shuttle back and forth; it would be necessary to firm up things, to move fast, which would give us another span of time. Either we move in this way, or my choice—with all of its pitfalls as you suggest—is to move towards an overall settlement. The only way to bring about continued stability in the Middle East and keep all the parties reasonably satisfied, to give all the parties some hope of a permanent settlement being possible, would be to move in this way. Your thoughts have been helpful. If we were to move in the direction of an interim agreement, we would have to do so rapidly, otherwise we lose that option and I would have no alternative but to go to an overall settlement. Time is of the essence. We would have to work out all of the practical details. Quite candidly, looking at more of these options, they may have some possibilities, but to drag them out is not possible.

Secretary Kissinger: And it has to be worked out before I go there.

Prime Minister Rabin: There can be no attempt at shuttle diplomacy and have it fail again. I agree that unless we can get agreement on the details no new shuttle diplomacy should be undertaken. The purpose of Dr. Kissinger coming should be just to finalize the interim agreement.

Secretary Kissinger: Mr. President, I will be seeing the Prime Minister tomorrow morning. You will see him also. And I wonder if he and I could have a talk and see whether we can find something practical to put to the Egyptians, which the Prime Minister could then put to his Cabinet and we could then put to the Egyptians. Then we could see whether there was any basis for a shuttle.

I don’t know if an interim solution is possible on the passes with you remaining there.

Prime Minister Rabin: I think many Israelis would be happy if they hear we are moving toward an overall settlement route.

Secretary Kissinger: They don’t know the problem!

[Page 683]

Prime Minister Rabin: Recalling the previous position developed by the United States on an overall settlement, the United States could have played a great role if it had not committed itself so specifically. President Johnson had said that the parties to the conflict had to be the parties to the peace.

The President: I want to say to you, Mr. Prime Minister, and I want to make this clear, that for me to make an overall proposal without being specific would be meaningless. I would intend to be more definite and more specific than past Presidents and I understand the difficulties that this might cause with the parties as well as at home domestically. For me to speak in generalities would be meaningless and not worthy of the Oval Office. I am willing to gamble with all of the parties and domestically if I think it would be constructive in holding the situation while we get to Geneva or wherever negotiations would take place. For me to talk platitudes is not my style and I do not believe it would be helpful. I would intend to be specific in what I would announce and that is the option and the other, of course, is the interim agreement.

I believe Henry’s suggestion is a good one, to see whether there is anything practical that could be worked out by the two of you.

Prime Minister Rabin [reluctantly]: I’ll try.

The President: You have to understand that perhaps an interim agreement is a better gamble but if it can’t work, I have to take the other route and I will be specific and not talk in terms of platitudes. I think you ought to see if you and Henry can come closer. I would certainly have to be specific on any overall view we expressed.

Prime Minister Rabin: I still believe, Mr. President, there is more time than you indicate. I agree that the last phase of a negotiation on an interim agreement should not start unless there is prior agreement on the details. And there is the Syrian problem and the relation to the time for an overall settlement. If we do not reach such an understanding, we would find ourselves in a very difficult position. We have got to see the realities and what we are headed for.

Let’s talk it over.

The President: Good.

[The President escorted the Prime Minister to his car.]

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of Henry Kissinger, 1973–77, Box 11, Nodis Memcons, June 1975, Folder 2. Secret; Nodis. The meeting was held in the Oval Office at the White House. Brackets are in the original.
  2. Ford met with Rabin on September 10 and 13, 1974, and with Allon on December 9, 1974, and January 16, 1975. See Documents 99, 100, 123, and 127.
  3. See Document 101.
  4. Strela missiles are portable, shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles.
  5. For further information on these meetings see the detailed list in the Note on Sources.
  6. See footnote 7, Document 168.
  7. A reference to the 1949 Armistice Agreements. See footnote 5, Document 123.
  8. The Israeli maps are not attached.
  9. Under the U.S. military assistance program, the Johnson administration provided 50 to 100 Patton tanks to Jordan. (New York Times, December 29, 1965, p. 1)
  10. For documentation on the Mayaguez incident, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume X, Vietnam, January 1973–July 1975.