23. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Paul Ziffren
  • Sol Linowitz
  • Simon Rifkind
  • Elmer Winter
  • Lawrence Tisch
  • Albert List
  • Morris Abram
  • [See biographies at end]
  • Henry A. Kissinger, Secretary of State
  • Peter W. Rodman, NSC Staff

Ziffren: Judge Rifkind can start out and give you a fill-in on how we all got started.

Secretary Kissinger: Good. I appreciate the paper you left the last time.2

Rifkind: It is simple, Mr. Secretary. In the fall of last year, almost by spontaneous combustion, many of us began to worry about developments in this country—all the Arab propaganda on the scene, with Madison Avenue methods, the oil companies activity with their ads, an anticipated scarcity of fuel—which has now become a reality—meaning travel restrictions and shortages.

We thought all these might combine and pose a threat to the Jewish community in the United States. We thought we would address ourselves to this problem. We would form a low-key, low-profile group to follow the true situation in the Middle East and the oil situation, and try to persuade that our interest in the Near East was an American interest, not a Jewish interest, and that American strategy was for American interest not Israeli interest, and that the fuel situation was a long-term problem. We tried to put ideas down on paper and see if it could be fed into the American media stream and try to keep a protective cover over the situation. We were not too hasty. An ad in the Wall Street Journal yesterday—by Alfred Lilienthal, who has long been an Arab sympathizer and, I believe, an anti-Semite—reads: “Do arms [Page 113] for Israel mean no fuel for Americans?” The answer is supposed to be yes.

This is the situation we are trying to gain control of. Therefore, I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak with you.

Secretary Kissinger: I appreciate it. That effort is in no way inconsistent with our policy. On the contrary. Apart from the merits of the dispute, American policy cannot be affected by the withholding of raw materials by raw material countries. For example, on Israeli-Syrian disengagement, we favor it, but it is my intention to halt all our efforts if they don’t lift the embargo. Because we can’t be in the position where they say they forced us to do it—even if we would have done it otherwise. We cannot be forced to curry the favor of the raw material countries, because once we start it, it is an endless process.

In 1955 I believed that the first country to take Soviet arms should be made to pay for it. Because otherwise it would start a trend.

Rifkind: It was true.

Secretary Kissinger: It turned out to be true. If we do it now, it is the same with the Energy Conference.3 But given the cravenness, cowardice and cupidity of the Europeans, we won’t do what we should. We can use it as a pretext for disassociation.

I am assuming this is entirely off the record.

Rifkind: Of course.

Ziffren: If the question comes up, we will say that any comment should come from you.

Secretary Kissinger: I don’t object to your acknowledging you met with me. And you can tell the Israeli Embassy of anything we discuss.

It is good that this is happening when there is no real issue. There is nothing I want, except on MFN, which I mentioned.

I want to give you my analysis of the situation.

The problem you are addressing in your committee hasn’t been acute, partly because the Arabs are not too skillful and partly because we are somewhat skillful here. But the problem could become serious. I must say that the Israelis themselves were in no position to help themselves without our active intervention.

The situation is this. At the end of October, Israel was in a desperate situation. Technically she won some victories but lost the war strategically. Prior to October 6, Israel’s security was assured by the conviction of everyone that Israel could win any war and would win [Page 114] quickly, overwhelmingly, without the problem of resupply except after the war. Therefore she didn’t have to negotiate. I met with Eban on October 4 at the UN.4 I said: “Is there anything to discuss?” He said: “We never had it so good. The best thing you can do for us is to leave us alone.”

That was the valid Israeli assessment. It was completely shattered by the war. By the end of the week Israel was in desperate straits because of the exhaustion of supplies. Without the airlift, they would have lost. Starting the airlift was an unusual decision, and absolutely cannot be counted on as normal procedure of American policy—and so quickly. And it depended on the accident that we could blackmail the Portuguese into letting us use their islands. Third, we had a leader in Egypt whom we could keep quiet while we did it, and fourth, the oil situation was not yet perceived here.

It needs an extremely well-disposed Secretary of State and a President willing to do it. This is a fact that has to be faced—we simply cannot expect an airlift during combat, and this is a new fact.

The Arabs don’t have to win; they only have to survive as a fighting force and they can impose a dangerous attrition on Israel. Such a level of casualties as they took in October cannot be sustained at that level at regular intervals.

Moreover, the political situation has changed because of the oil situation. Israel faces the United Arabs, the Europeans, Japan, and the Soviet Union in total opposition to them, and only the U.S. with them, in a UN forum with only two votes for them. They would face an unending series of resolutions which Israel wouldn’t carry out, and then there would be sanctions. It is an irony that Israel, conceived as an escape from the ghetto, would become a ghetto itself. This is the situation as it is.

And the peculiar qualities that made Israel what it is would have hastened Israel’s doom. To go to Israel 50 years ago, when it was only a dream—this is something achieved by extraordinary endurance, not by flexibility. It required an almost peasant-like doggedness and an almost provincialism that is not usually associated with the Jewish people. These qualities served them well until they are now faced with this international situation where they need flexibility and maneuver—indeed, the qualities of the ghetto. But their instinct was to dig in. If it led to a new crisis, the whole world would turn on them. The reason they needed disengagement was to create belts so that any attack couldn’t take place without attacking the UN. Of course they can’t trust them. It [Page 115] is not based on trust. But there is no way they can do it without breaking solemn international agreements. That the American people understand, and it even gives some standing in the international community.

And we sought to break the coalition of the Europeans and the Arabs. Why did we attack the Europeans at the end of October?5 First, to show the Arabs they couldn’t bring pressure on us by putting pressure on the Europeans, and second, to show the Europeans we didn’t want their free advice. Otherwise we would have been pressed to heed them in the name of Atlantic unity. It was essential for what came later. This is why we were so brutal to the Europeans—not that they didn’t deserve it on other grounds!

The other reason is that Sadat is by far the most moderate Arab leader. He is an Egyptian nationalist rather than a pan-Arabist, and he probably wants to make peace with the Israelis. Whether he can do it on terms the Israelis can accept, I don’t know.

With the Syrians, it is much harder. Then there is the problem of the Palestinians and then Jerusalem.

So each success only gets you to a harder problem.

The strategy is to keep the Arabs in some disunity and to keep the issue out of international forums. This is why we need some Soviet cooperation, and why we set up the Geneva Conference. The Soviets could have wrecked it by providing the propagandistic forum and military muscle for a radical policy.

First, it is essential to get some progress on the Syrian-Israeli front, primarily because if the most radical Arab state bordering Israel has made an agreement, whatever it is, it will change the moral pattern, separate Syria from Iraq, and make it easier for Sadat to take the next step. An Egyptian territorial settlement will take them out of the war.

This is why a Syrian settlement is essential, and some Soviet cooperation is needed.

The American Jewish Community is now quiescent, but in my experience it is volatile. The problem is that they seek to prove their manhood by total acquiescence in whatever Jerusalem wants. The second problem is in Jerusalem. They couldn’t in a million years have led the way to the settlement which brought them temporary salvation—given their Parliamentary situation, their Cabinet distrust, etc. At the end, they were grateful. Yet time and again they ran incredible risks, making proposals that were outrageous.

[Page 116]

They can’t risk a negotiation like this on the issue of 30 versus 50 tanks, at a time when they had 1,000, and it made no difference because even 100 couldn’t give the Egyptians the capacity to launch an attack.

Sadat, for his reasons, didn’t rise to the bait. He asked me “Could I do better?” I said “Yes, if you want three weeks of haggling and the risk of a blow-up.” It worked with Sadat—but it won’t with Syria because Asad is a madman. It would be suicide. Basically, the Syrian assessment of Israel’s position is better than Sadat’s. He first said: “Don’t talk to me about disengagement. Sooner or later you’ll get tired of them. Then we will kill Israel.” Asad wants to kill Israel. Faisal wouldn’t object to the destruction of Israel. So Sadat and Hussein are only two forces on which you can build a settlement.

The tactics with Syria should be entirely different than with Egypt. The fact of Syria’s signature on a piece of paper makes it possible to get a settlement with Egypt. That is all they should want from Syria.

At the moment, it is hung up on prisoner lists, and we won’t do any more if they don’t lift the embargo. So I don’t need anything from you now, but I may later. It is essential we keep close ties to Egypt because they legitimize the whole thing. I want you to understand.

The second problem is: I predict that if the Israelis don’t make some sort of arrangement with Hussein on the West Bank in six months, Arafat will become internationally recognized and the world will be in a chaos. But at the moment in Israel the balance of power is held by the religious party. Hussein wants only a foothold on the West Bank so he can claim he speaks for somebody. But no one has an interest in pushing it, and this will enable Israel to ignore it for six months, maybe a year—at the price that at the end of the year, the terrorists will dominate. If I were an advisor to the Israeli Government, I would tell the Prime Minister: “For God’s sake do something with Hussein while he is still one of the players.” But it is not an American interest, because we don’t care if Israel keeps the West Bank if it can get away with it. So we won’t push it.

The third issue is the Soviet Union. What I have done is a tightrope act to break up the coalition of Europeans and Japanese, to keep it out of international forums, and for this we need the cooperation of the Soviet Union. If you look at the record, it is a myth that we sold anything for détente. The wheat deal was the product of election-year politics and bureaucratic bungling.6 What we do from the White House—like credits—we dole out in driblets. The wheat deal is not the result of [Page 117] détente. Aside from this, Brezhnev’s colleagues can say he was taken to the cleaners. We settled the Vietnam war on substantially our terms—we kept the government there in power and got out with our prisoners and beat on a Soviet ally. And we got a Berlin settlement,7 and pushed their naval base out of Cuba, and pushed them out of the Middle East.

Winter: Could we have gotten more for the wheat? Not in dollars.

Secretary Kissinger: Yes. We could have gotten more in political benefits. It was bureaucratic bungling. But now we have, for prestige reasons, to get MFN. I was present at [during] Politburo meetings where it was clear that MFN was in return for Vietnam. That was the debate. Now at the end of three years of détente they’ve got nothing. If they lose credits too, they will take a more intransigent course.

We are more than willing to work it out so Jackson can take the lead in reformulating it. I have a good personal relationship with him, too.

This is one area where a group like this could help us.

Tisch: When did you last speak to Jackson?

Secretary Kissinger: I deliberately speak with him when the environment is right. I have waited until, say, some group comes to us. I know we can settle it amicably and in a way that he gets credit. If he is interested.

Rifkind: Would it be helpful that he be made aware that if he settles it in a compromise, he won’t get flak?

Secretary Kissinger: Even more, that his standing in the Jewish Community would be enhanced. I am afraid that if I approach him prematurely, it will be an issue between him and me. Sol, you are more of an expert on Washington.

Linowitz: Jackson sincerely thinks he has succeeded with his amendment and his policy, and he is right.

Secretary Kissinger: The fact that these guys are brutal bastards is irrelevant.

Linowitz: Yes.

Secretary Kissinger: The fact is that these brutal bastards have thousands of megatons and we have to reduce the danger of nuclear war and they have the power to prevent a Middle East settlement. And they have let out 35,000 Soviets Jews last year—even during the war—and we have it in writing that it will continue at this rate. Our policy signifies no moral approbation whatever. Twenty years ago Solzhen[Page 118]itsyn and Sakharov would have been killed.8 So in their peculiar way it is an amelioration.

Abram: Right.

Secretary Kissinger: Given the nuclear danger, it is essential. Given the vulnerability of Israel, we must keep the Soviets from mobilizing anti-Israel pressures. For this we need MFN.

Up to now I have been able, at great cost in emotional wear and tear, to get the Israelis to go along with saving themselves. When the disengagement with Egypt was done, they agreed it was good for Israel. I don’t exclude that when we get to the much more emotionally difficult issue of Syria, it will be more difficult.

As long as I am here, we will not knowingly do anything that injures the possibility of the survival of Israel. We can make an error of judgment. If so, this office is open to those with whom I have always been willing to speak.

It is important, if it happens, that the Israelis don’t think they can automatically count on mobilizing support here.

It hasn’t happened yet. I thought it would happen over Egyptian disengagement. They, because of domestic reasons, lived dangerously in the negotiations.

Tisch: What is the timing on the oil embargo?

Secretary Kissinger: My position on the oil embargo—which I may not be able to hold—is that if no lifting takes place, we will stop. The Syrians can’t do it [go to war] without Egypt, and I don’t think Egypt will go to war. They will see if they can get anything. But it will be a rough period.

Tisch: You are on the right course.

Secretary Kissinger: We are not doing it for Israel but for the United States. We will pursue Syrian disengagement regardless. If we can get an Egyptian territorial settlement, then we are out of the Middle East problem.

Ziffren: Then Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Syria.

Secretary Kissinger: Yes, but who will be the spokesman? If the Israelis can get a settlement with Jordan—which will only take giving him Jericho, which is three kilometers from the line—if we get a settlement in Jordan, we won’t hear about Jerusalem for three years.

Ziffren: What about Faisal?

Secretary Kissinger: But what can he do?

[Page 119]

Ziffren: You are right.

Secretary Kissinger: The problem is the religious party.

Tisch: Golda is negotiating with the Likud.

Secretary Kissinger: Really? That is a problem. If we hadn’t had disengagement, the issue would have gone to the UN . . .

Tisch: The problem is personal animosity between Golda, Begin, Tamir.9

Secretary Kissinger: Begin is intelligent. I have never dealt with a government in which any change in negotiations has to be a Cabinet decision.

Tisch: Government by committee.

Rifkind: It is a coalition situation.

Secretary Kissinger: But the British, who have a Cabinet system, start with a position and go back to the Cabinet later, just before concluding it.

Abram: What signals do you get from the Israeli Government on MFN?

Tisch: None. I had a discussion with General Yariv. He is happy with disengagement.

Secretary Kissinger: That they like.

Linowitz: They don’t think it [MFN] is their issue. But they are somewhat concerned that we are using up credits that might affect their situation.

Secretary Kissinger: With MFN we can moderate Soviet behavior while MFN is being considered.

Tisch: Do you see a possible détente between Israel and the Soviet Union?

Secretary Kissinger: If there is a Syrian disengagement, the Soviets will be driven to that.

List: If you back out of the Syrian negotiations over the embargo, that leaves Israel in a difficult position.

Secretary Kissinger: I haven’t stopped yet. But I will. Golda will be glad if they don’t have to decide.

Tisch: They are nowhere near forming a government.

Secretary Kissinger: That shows they have no sense of the tragic. As soon as there is a deadlock, the Europeans will pour in there and show that they are better friends of the Arabs. They [the Israelis] don’t have all that time. We have kept up the illusion by our momentum.

[Page 120]

It is impossible for the Europeans to pay for the oil they need by trade, at the current prices. They would have to sell 200,000 Mirages to pay for one year’s oil bill—if a Mirage costs three-and-a-half million dollars.

The shortsightedness of the Europeans now is pathological.

We called a conference for next week which is almost unilaterally in Europe’s interest and with nothing in it for us except a cooperative international system—and the Europeans are determined to commit suicide. We have so much more to offer them [the Arabs]—not only resources but assistance against Arab radicals. Saudi Arabia and Iran couldn’t survive without American good will. And third, only we can get progress in the Arab-Israeli area.

List: When Paul and I met with you, we brought up the idea of counter-measures, what effective means there are throughout the world. Can we move in that direction, through legislative or other means? In view of your view on blackmail, what does this mean?

Secretary Kissinger: We will get it lifted, though it will be a few rough weeks. If the newspapers keep screaming it was deception by the President, the Arabs will get tough. But they don’t have the nerve for a prolonged confrontation. If we have a moderate amount of public support . . .

Rifkind: I think we know where we can be helpful.

Secretary Kissinger: Can you let me know if you do something on MFN?

Ziffren: Can we talk about that for a minute?

Secretary Kissinger: I have refrained from doing anything because I don’t want to force a confrontation.

Linowitz: Next step should be discussed without the Secretary.

Secretary Kissinger: Yes. I talked with a group headed by Klutznick,10 who shared the sense of this group.

Linowitz: We should coordinate [with him].

Rifkind: Our job is to make Jackson feel he won’t be left out in the cold if he makes an accommodation, or that it will be to his credit.

Secretary Kissinger: And I will do it in a way that it doesn’t look like he retreated.

Everything I have said to you I have said to Dinitz. This is not to maneuver around Israel.

[Page 121]

Tisch: It is to help Israel.

Secretary Kissinger: That is the intention.

Ziffren: Does Dinitz agree with this?

Secretary Kissinger: He and key members of the Cabinet share this analysis. But even so, they can’t generate the moves. It is ironic for Jewish leaders not to know how to maneuver.

So there is no disagreement now. Maybe down the road there will be, when we get to an Egyptian territorial settlement. It will be hard.

Ziffren: What about the Syrian POWs?

Secretary Kissinger: The Syrians made a move which I can’t tell you, because only the Prime Minister knows. It puts a floor under Israel’s list.11 I think I can get the lists. The problem now is that the Israeli Cabinet now decided it needs Red Cross visits too. You know, you are dealing with a bunch of maniacs in Syria, who worry about their own position.

I have put a very complicated proposition to Golda, which she says her Cabinet will approve if she can tell them Syria has accepted it.

Ziffren: [Laughs] It sounds like a typical Kissinger proposal.

Secretary Kissinger: It is very complicated.

My prediction is: the way to sell any scheme to the Syrians is to tell them they are getting exactly what the Egyptians got; i.e. something more than the October 6 line. Even if it is three kilometers. Even if they put the UN there. So I could easily dream up a proposal. But in the present composition of the Israeli Cabinet, they won’t agree to 100 yards beyond the October 6 line. Even though it makes no conceivable difference.

But it hasn’t happened yet because there are no negotiations going on.

The mere fact of the Syrians negotiating with Israel is a change in the Middle East situation.

All I am asking is that the Israelis don’t think they can count on automatic support from you everytime some junior Cabinet member there cries we are anti-Semitic.

I think the Israeli Government exaggerates the support they have in this country. It is one thing to vote $2.2 billion;12 it is another for a Congressman to vote for another war, after Vietnam, and have the energy crisis pinned on Israel.

[Page 122]

[The meeting broke up at 5:40 p.m. with effusive expressions of appreciation for the Secretary.]

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of Henry Kissinger, 1973–77, Box 1, Nodis Memcons, September–December, Folder 3. Confidential. The meeting was held in the Conference Room on the Seventh Floor of the Department of State. Brackets are in the original. A list of the attendees, which includes their positions in the business community, is attached but not printed.
  2. Not further identified.
  3. The Washington Energy Conference was scheduled to convene on February 11. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXXVI, Energy Crisis, 1969–1974, Document 318.
  4. According to Kissinger’s memoirs, Kissinger spoke with Eban in New York on October 4, 1973, and received assurances that Egyptian and Syrian military movements were routine. (Years of Upheaval, p. 464)
  5. A reference to forceful statements made by the Nixon administration against NATO allies after tensions arose between them over U.S. support for Israel during the October war. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXXVI, Energy Crisis, 1969–1974, Document 236, footnote 3.
  6. A reference to the 1972 U.S.-Soviet grain deal in which the Soviet Union used credits provided by the U.S. Government to purchase nearly a billion dollars worth of grain. With the Soviets buying so much U.S. grain, the price of grain inflated in the United States, leading to criticism concerning the lack of government oversight.
  7. The Berlin settlement was an agreement, signed in September 1971, among France, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and the United States to normalize trade and travel between West Germany and West Berlin. It also aimed to improve communication between East and West Berlin.
  8. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian novelist and historian, was deported from the Soviet Union on February 13. Andrei Dimitrievich Sakharov was a Russian nuclear physicist and dissident.
  9. Shmuel Tamir was a founding member of the Free Centre Party, which joined the alliance of right-wing parties that formed Likud prior to the 1973 Israeli elections.
  10. Philip Klutznik was Chairman of the Governing Council of the World Jewish Congress. The “Klutznik Group” was comprised of a number of prominent American Jewish academics, businessmen, and community leaders. For a list of these men, see “Conversation with Kissinger,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Spring, 1981), pp. 194–195. See also Document 189.
  11. According to Kissinger’s memoirs, Kissinger received word on February 7 that the Syrians held 65 Israeli prisoners. (Years of Upheaval, p. 940)
  12. In December 1973, Congress approved $2.2 billion in emergency aid for Israel.