256. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • The President
  • Secretary Kissinger
  • Mr. Joseph J. Sisco, P
  • Mr. Brent Scowcroft, NSC
  • Ambassador Malcolm Toon (notetaker)
  • Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin
  • Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz
  • Mr. Eiran
  • Mr. Bar-On

The President: I would like to welcome you again Mr. Prime Minister to Washington and to tell you that I look forward to continuing the efforts toward peace which we began together in 1975. Before we begin our substantive exchanges I would like to inform you that at the end of our meeting Mr. Scowcroft will turn over to you a list of military equipment which we are prepared to supply Israel.2 The list contains a number of highly sophisticated items in which I understand you are particularly interested.

You know, of course, that tomorrow you will have breakfast with Secretary Kissinger, and I assume that detailed discussions of the problems that face us will be carried on at that time. At this time, however, I would like to make a few general observations and then ask you Mr. Prime Minister to give me your views on the situation in the Middle East. I feel that our two countries should be proud of the progress we have made over the past year; I have in mind particularly the successful conclusion of the Sinai Agreement last fall. I feel, however, that we should build on this agreement and make further progress toward peace. Meanwhile, it is my understanding that you too are satisfied with the progress we have made so far generally and with the way in which the Sinai Agreement is being implemented.

Rabin: Since we give and they take, we are encountering no problems in the implementation of the agreement.

[Page 901]

The President: We must do what we can to make further progress in 1976, either at Geneva or through some other approach. While you are here we should discuss frankly what you are prepared to offer the Jordanians and the Syrians in exchange for nonbelligerency. Perhaps we could have a general exchange of ideas on this theme now with detailed discussions to take place tomorrow between you and Secretary Kissinger.

Rabin: I would like to thank you again Mr. President for your kind invitation to visit the United States. I feel that this is a proper time to assess the present situation in the Middle East and what we might face in the future. I would like also to reiterate my invitation to you to visit Israel whenever you happen to be in the area—an invitation which I extended when we last met.

The President: If the primaries should go well I think a visit might be possible in the late winter or early spring. As you know, I have never been in the Middle East.

Rabin: I am glad to hear, Mr. President, that you have included in the list of weapons which you mentioned sophisticated items since we Israelis feel that access to the latest military technology is vital to our continued security. With regard to the situation in the Middle East, I feel that we will inevitably face in the very near future an increase in terrorist activities. Our evidence is that all groups encompassed by the PLO are now cooperating with each other; for example, in a recent raid across our borders we apprehended a number of terrorists each representing different elements within the Palestinian ranks. I should also tell you of a rather alarming development which was uncovered by cooperative efforts on the part of our and Kenyan intelligence services in Nairobi. We had received a report that two terrorists equipped with two Soviet Streletz missiles (the equivalent of the RedEye) were given the mission of shooting down an El Al plane on its approach to Nairobi. The Kenyan intelligence services on the basis of information supplied by us apprehended the agents with the missiles in their possession. This is simply an example of the sort of thing I think we must face in the near future, and this means that the increase in terrorist activities will take place not only in the Middle East but elsewhere around the world.

The President: We ourselves had a recent serious incident of terrorism at La Guardia airfield, and we are now engaged in a massive effort to discover who was responsible for the incident, and our best lead now is that it was carried out by a “hired hit man” and not an organized group.

Secretary Kissinger: Do we yet know by whom the hit man was hired?

The President: We have not yet ascertained this.

[Page 902]

Rabin: You asked for my views Mr. President on the situation in the Middle East. As the Secretary has pointed out many times it was not the detailed provisions of the Sinai Agreement which were of primary significance but the approach and changed attitude which Egyptian accession to the agreement reflected. We had a difficult time in our relations after the March breakdown, but that is past history and the important thing now is that agreement was reached and its provisions are now being carried out in a reasonably satisfactory way. We Israelis are not happy at everything that has happened, with everything that the Egyptians say and do, but generally speaking we are not disappointed with their behavior.

On the negative side, I think we must recognize that the Soviets in their struggle to regain their sphere of influence in the Middle East have launched a concentrated effort to undermine the Sinai II Agreement. It is our belief that the Soviets—working with the Syrians and the PLO—are determined to frustrate and if possible reverse the new trend which was started by Sinai II. So long as the Syrians have the support of the Soviets there is no prospect that they will change their approach. Meanwhile, the PLO is completely under Syrian control with the Palestine Liberation Army headquartered in Damascus.

It is for these reasons that we hope the United States decision to exercise its veto in the Security Council yesterday3 will give a clear sign to the Arab world that the Syrian approach and tactics will not succeed. It is too early, however, to judge what the Soviet and Syrian reaction to your veto will be.

Meanwhile, it is our view that the Syrians are becoming more extremist as each day goes by, and it seems clear that as they continue to make extremist public statements their behavior is going to be increasingly more committed to extremist action. It is generally regarded in the Arab world that the cease-fire which has been reached in Lebanon is a Syrian achievement, and it seems likely that Syrian stock will rise as a result. We must remember that the Syrians blocked all possible action in Lebanon by other Arab countries, either singly or in combination, and in this way retained their influence over the situation. Their instrument was the PLO, the strongest, best organized force in Lebanon today. The Christians themselves were not well organized and, moreover, lacked courage. All of our efforts with the various Christian groups were thus doomed to failure, and without a political partner in Lebanon there was no possibility of successful military action.

The Soviets have shipped huge quantities of arms to the Syrians and according to evidence available to us are committed to ship even [Page 903] more. This sort of support simply encourages the Syrians to continue their extremist policies. Our only sensible course of action is to match Syrian increased military power with increments of the most modern weapons to our own arsenal. Only in this way will we be able to minimize the possibility of blackmail by the Syrians in the upcoming renewal of UNDOF.4 It is clear that the Syrians have no appetite for negotiations, and this will continue to be their attitude so long as they feel they have a chance to make substantial political gains in 1976 with their blackmailing tactics. Their aim is to convince the Arab world that their course is right and that the Egyptian course symbolized by Sinai II is wrong and doomed to failure.

The American veto in the Security Council might provide a new signal to the Syrians, but we can not be sure. Our best strategy is to call now for a reconvened Geneva conference, although we should recognize that the Syrians with their pattern of nonparticipation in past political negotiations are not likely to respond positively to an invitation.

I do hope Mr. President with regard to the supply of arms to my country we can work out a long range projection and not simply rest on the list which you mentioned earlier.

With regard to Jordan, it is our belief that the Jordanians are now in a relatively good position. Their economy is in good shape primarily as a result of the increased world price of phosphates and also because of a shift of business from Lebanon. The Jordanians thus feel that because of their ties with Syria they are no longer isolated, and this plus their good economic situation has persuaded the Jordanians that there is no need to rush into negotiations.

The President: Are you concerned about the closer relations between Jordan and Syria?

Rabin: Jordan obviously has concluded that it is tactically wise to improve its relations with Syria, but King Hussein has not forgotten the past and he will not permit reestablishment of a PLO presence in Jordan. While the Jordanian Army is not irrevocably committed to Syrian command, all the necessary steps have been taken on the infrastructure level to make this possible. Incidentally, Mr. President, we have had reports that a Jordanian military mission will soon travel to Moscow.

Kissinger: The Jordanians are already there.

Rabin: We have also heard that the Syrians will acquire Soviet missiles for the Jordanians, but we are not sure of our information. Returning to the relationship between Jordan and Syria, I think that we should recognize that while King Hussein sees the need to be cautious, the momentum of cooperation may bring him closer to the Syrians than [Page 904] even he would consider healthy. We are informed that in some circles in Jordan the feeling is that now that the Jordanians are respected in Damascus the relationship between Amman and Damascus may be worthwhile; and this may be for the Jordanians a dangerous [illegible].

Concerning Lebanon, the Syrians have full control over political events there and Lebanon’s ultimate fate depends on Syrian decision. No other Arab country has any significant influence in Lebanon. Deterrence to a Syrian takeover is provided only by the threat of Israeli intervention. It seems likely that the Syrians do not plan any basic change in the Lebanese political structure, and their aim for the present is primarily to solidify the impression that only their proposals, only their influence, carry weight.

The President: What are the prospects for the Christian elements in Lebanon?

Rabin: The prospects are far from good. The Lebanese Army, which is primarily Christian in composition, has not been permitted to play any significant role. The strongest Christian faction, the Phalangists, have not cooperated with other Christian elements although the situation now in this respect is better than it has been. The civil war has been a disaster for Lebanon; it has resulted in 10,000 deaths, the loss of 40 percent of the national GNP, mass emigration, and the departure of business firms which had their headquarters in Beirut.

Kissinger: Where, according to your information, do the Christian elements get their arms?

Rabin: From Lebanese colonies all over the world. The arms are funneled into Lebanon through a port about 50 kilometers north of Beirut.

Kissinger: Why don’t the Palestinians choke off the supply?

Rabin: They have made the effort but it has not been successful. The Christians are not short of arms but they are far less well supplied than the Moslems who have access to sources throughout the Arab world. We should not exclude the possibility that Syria will use Lebanon to increase tension in the Middle East and create an atmosphere not conducive to peace talks. If the cease-fire should not be maintained, for example, the Syrians could then increase their intervention by camouflaging their units as units of the PLA. We think this is a real possibility.

The President: What are the prospects for renewal of UNDOF?

Rabin: It is always difficult to predict Syrian behavior. We are reasonably sure, however, that Syria will not start anything that might lead to an outbreak of war unless they are certain of Egyptian and Jordanian support. Meanwhile the Syrians must be taught that the blackmail route does not pay. This is not easy since they have full Soviet sup[Page 905]port for almost everything they do or say, primarily because the Soviets attach great importance to maintaining their influence in the Middle East through Syria.

The President: It seems obvious that Syria can control the PLA in Lebanon. Can they also control PLO activities generally in the area?

Rabin: A principal element of the PLO is Saiqa which is completely under the control of the Syrians.

The President: What role does Arafat play?

Rabin: Arafat is head of the PLO and the PLA is under his titular command. But, since the PLA is headquartered in Damascus it is completely under Syrian and not Arafat’s control.

The President: If Israel were to offer territorial concessions what would the Syrian reaction be?

Rabin: I don’t believe the Syrians would consent to an interim agreement without major territorial gains.

The President: What in your view would be Jordan’s attitude toward a reconvened Geneva Conference and an overall settlement?

Rabin: If Jordan could be sure of recovering all of the territory lost in 1967 they would be prepared to enter into a meaningful agreement. It is our view that the Jordanians are not interested in recovering territory with the idea of surrendering it to the PLO, and this is con-sistent with the current Jordanian policy of not permitting the re-establishment of a PLO presence on its soil.

The President: Has there been any substantial effort by the PLO to infiltrate Jordan?

Rabin: The PLO has tried to use Jordan as an infiltration route into Israel, but the Jordanians have consistently frustrated these efforts.

The President: What are your ideas about a positive approach in the wake of our veto in the Security Council?

Rabin: A call to reconvene the Geneva Conference on the basis of Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 we feel is the best approach at the present time. We doubt if discussions of an overall settlement can be carried on with Egypt alone; Egypt would consider this unwise and we doubt if the Jordanians would join with Egypt. With the Syrians little can be done.

The President: You mean that the Syrians would oppose Geneva?

Rabin: Yes.

Kissinger: We must be realistic in our approach. We must recognize that reconvening the Geneva Conference is impossible without consenting to a PLO presence. The Soviets have already rejected Geneva without the PLO.

[Page 906]

The President: Has there been any change in the PLO attitude toward Israel?

Rabin: The PLO attitude is now a good deal tougher. PLO prestige is now higher, primarily as a result of developments in Lebanon as well as in the United Nations.

The President: What can be gained by calling for a reconvened Geneva Conference without a more flexible attitude?

Rabin: We do not believe that flexibility by our side is wise at a time when the Soviet-Syrian position has hardened.

The President: If we should call for a reconvened Geneva Conference and the Soviets and the Syrians reject this approach, what would happen then in Lebanon and what would happen to the PLO?

Rabin: There would be no change in the PLO’s attitude or behavior. As far as the Syrians are concerned, they could move militarily before the end of May, but we feel that the Egyptians and the Jordanians would not support them. Our belief is based on the assumption, of course, that Egypt will not change its basic attitude after the implementation of Sinai II. I should point out particularly, Mr. President, that the role of the United Nations in resolving differences which have cropped up between ourselves and the Egyptians has been outstandingly helpful.

The President: If Geneva should not be possible, the Egyptians will then be under increased pressure from other elements in the Arab world to change their attitude.

Rabin: Sadat has said publicly that he would attend a Geneva Conference even without a prior commitment to PLO participation. He said this at a press conference in Cairo during the visit of the Canadian Foreign Minister. With regard to the Syrian attitude, we should recognize that the main aim of the Syrians is not to gain territory but to change the rules of the game, and they will do everything short of war to bring this about. I would like to emphasize again, Mr. President, that while I am reasonably confident that the Syrians will not invoke hostilities, I cannot be sure of Syrian behavior.

The President: In my view the situation in the Middle East remains extremely explosive.

Rabin: We don’t necessarily agree. In any case we doubt if anything can be done with Syria in 1976, primarily because they have been led to believe they can count on Soviet support for anything they do.

The President: Would an attempt to negotiate with the Jordanians be a sensible move tactically and strategically?

Rabin: With the Jordanians we have the sort of relationship which makes it easy to exchange views. But the key question is the Syrian ma[Page 907]nipulation of the PLO with Soviet support. What we do with Jordan will not affect the Syrian attitude.

The President: Do you anticipate that the Syrians will renew UNDOF in May?

Rabin: It is too early to tell. If the Syrians should conclude that they can gain further political concessions [illegible] the end of UNDOF they will not renew the mandate.

The President: Would you anticipate that May would be a good time to reconvene the Geneva Conference?

Rabin: This would be the best time.

Kissinger: We must be sensible about the idea of reconvening the Geneva Conference. It is perfectly clear that Geneva is impossible without resolving the PLO participation issue. Either we set up procedures for talking with the PLO or we in our letter to Geneva participants indicate that the PLO will be welcome at the Conference. Otherwise the exercise is useless; we gain at the most only two weeks time. This is not something that will take us through 1976.

Sisco: In any case a letter of invitation must come from the co-chairmen and the Soviets have already said publicly that they won’t agree to a reconvened Geneva Conference without the PLO.

Kissinger: We must have some concept for getting through 1976. Geneva is not the answer unless we can tell the Soviets and the Arabs what they will gain from the Conference.

Dinitz: You mean you have in mind telling them what they will achieve in return for something?

Kissinger: Of course. But the important thing for us to recognize is that the other side will not agree to a reconvened Geneva Conference without the PLO unless they are promised something in advance. They do not have to have promises of gains from Geneva if we agree to PLO participation. Even in the latter case it is conceivable that the Syrians might not attend. In a word, it is impossible to have a Geneva Conference with the Soviets and Syrians in attendance without PLO participation. In my view the situation will become increasingly dangerous if the Soviets by our failure to act are in a position to dominate the pace and direction of events in the Middle East. This is the sort of thing that the Prime Minister and I must discuss tomorrow.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of Henry Kissinger, 1973–77, Box 16, Nodis Memcons, January 1976, Folder 3. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Toon. The meeting was held at the White House. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Ford welcomed Rabin to the White House on January 27 at 10:25 a.m. and met with the Israeli party from 11:15 a.m. until 12:40 p.m. (Ford Library, Staff Secretary’s Office Files)
  2. See Document 260.
  3. See footnote 2, Document 255.
  4. The current UNDOF mandate expired on May 31.