[Page 908]

257. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • The President
  • Secretary Kissinger
  • Mr. Sisco, P
  • Mr. Scowcroft, NSC
  • Ambassador Toon
  • Prime Minister Rabin
  • Ambassador Dinitz
  • Mr. Eiran
  • Mr. Bar-On

The President: I understand that you and Henry had breakfast together2 and discussed the problems facing us in greater detail than we did yesterday. I have not yet had an opportunity to be briefed on your meeting since I had an urgent meeting this morning with the Congressional leadership. Perhaps Henry can now bring us up to date.

Secretary Kissinger: Most of our discussion at breakfast related to the strategy that we should follow after our veto in the Security Council earlier this week.3 As I see it and as I told the Prime Minister, there are two basic conceptual approaches. First, a reasonable view of terms on which a consensus might be possible would require dealing with the PLO either through informal contacts or through some other means. Secondly, negotiations leading to an overall settlement which, in my view, means that the consuming problem we must face is that once the PLO is at Geneva the creation of a Palestinian state is almost inevitable.

It has always been my view that the Palestinian issue—in whatever form—should be left to the last in order to avoid radicalization at an early stage. I have always consistently felt that we must have some program permitting us to dominate the debate and the negotiations, and this would include agreement on possible gains in advance of Geneva so that the other side would have some reason for attending the[Page 909] conference without the PLO. My impression from our discussions at breakfast was that the Prime Minister thought this concept was worth exploring. He feels that it would work well with Egypt and Syria; concerning the latter the removal of some settlements in exchange for nonbelligerency would be conceivable. Regarding Jordan, however, the approach would give rise to serious domestic problems in Israel. This question therefore remains unresolved but we agreed that during the Prime Minister’s stay in the United States we would meet again in order to pursue the issue further. Both the Prime Minister and I feel that our objective should be to crystalize a diplomatic initiative within the March–April time frame.

Rabin: The Secretary has accurately described the two options we discussed at breakfast. There is, however, Mr. President a third option which I think should be brought to your attention. This option involves resisting the Syrian attack—I mean resistance in political terms not military terms. The purpose would be to convince the Arab world and others that the Security Council cannot be used to bring about changes in the negotiating ground rules. I doubt that Syria plans to return to the Security Council following your veto, but it is possible that toward the end of May she may pursue this option. If this should be the case, I doubt that Syria would go to Geneva, and as I said yesterday, Syria has not in the past followed the pattern of participation in any political negotiations except for the cease-fire agreement and the Israeli-Syrian interim accord. I doubt that Syria would try to use Lebanon as a pretext for increasing tension, but I can not be sure of this. My feeling is that Lebanon is not seen by the Syrians as an immediate instrument for implementing their strategy. I think that the Syrians would prefer to threaten the end of the UNDOF mandate rather than use Lebanon to increase tension. But I believe it would be a mistake to take this threat seriously since I feel strongly Syria is not prepared to go to war. If the Syrian bluff is called—as I think it should—then Syrian credibility as the spokesman of the Arab world and the protector of basic Arab interests would collapse.

I believe our best course is to reconvene the Geneva conference without the PLO. If we do this then there is no need for us to consider any diplomatic initiative until after the end of May. If the Syrians extend the mandate, this would be evidence that they are powerless to dictate events in the area and this would improve the posture of the more moderate elements in the Arab world.

The Secretary: I would like to stress as I did yesterday that an invitation by the Co-chairman to reconvene the Geneva conference is out of the question since the Soviets won’t agree to such an invitation without PLO participation.

[Page 910]

Rabin: We still feel that our best option would be to call for a reconvened Geneva conference on the previously agreed basis. As to what the reaction of others might be to this course, Doctor Kissinger’s judgment is better than mine. As far as Israel is concerned it is impossible to accept participation of the PLO at Geneva. As Dr. Kissinger has said in the past, this would lead to creation of a third state, radical in outlook and supported by the Soviets. In my view PLO participation at Geneva will directly focus the attention of the conference on the Palestinian issue, and this would result in competition for leadership among the extremist elements and would consequently lead to the defeat of the moderate elements.

If we pursue the conference option we should make clear initially that the purpose of reconvening the Geneva conference is to achieve peace: the purpose cannot be to work out further interim agreements. If this effort should fail then our fallback position should be to work toward an end of the state of war. But this cannot be confined to Jordan and Egypt alone; to pursue this course would simply increase tension in the area since it would invite acceleration and intensification of the Syrian-Soviet-PLO efforts to undermine our initiatives. We must understand that the PLO cannot tolerate any ties with Jordan, and the Syrians if we should focus on Jordan and Egypt alone would feel isolated. I doubt that either Jordan or Egypt would wish to assume the responsibility for isolating Syria. The focus therefore should be on the two key Arab states—Egypt and Syria. This may not be possible in 1976, but perhaps it would be in 1977. Our minimum goal should be the formal end of the state of war with Geneva preferably the forum for negotiations. In exchange for this we would not exclude significant territorial concessions, with one or two exceptions. In this connection, you should know Mr. President, that the most difficult sector for Israel is the West Bank.

The President: This is a more serious problem for you than Golan?

Rabin: Yes, since the West Bank is adjacent to the principal centers of Israeli population.

The Secretary: I am sure the Prime Minister does not mean to infer by his statement that Golan would be easy for the Israelis. (With a smile) We should not mislead the President on this point.

Rabin: Of course Golan would not be easy. For the purpose of clarity, let me restate the Israeli position. We should call publicly for a reconvened Geneva conference for the purpose of achieving peace. If peace is not achievable then we should pursue the alternative route of seeking an end to the state of war. For this it is essential for us to focus on both Egypt and Syria since without Syria nothing can succeed.

The Secretary: The Prime Minister’s first option reminds me of a game of chess in which the whole strategy is based on the opening[Page 911] move. Geneva can be reconvened tomorrow with the PLO; alternatively, it is conceivable that the conference can be reconvened if we agree in advance that PLO participation would be the first item of business. The Israelis, however, say no to both options.

Rabin: I beg to disagree with the Secretary. Concerning the second alternative we have never excluded discussion of participation by additional groups as set forth in the original letter of invitation.

The Secretary: We should recognize, however, that if we should reconvene Geneva on this basis we would face precisely the problem before us now—i.e., the question of PLO participation.

Rabin: I continue to favor the option of convening Geneva for the purpose of achieving peace.

The President: In extending such an invitation would it be possible also to state that territorial adjustments would be made in the context of peace?

The Secretary: With all respect Mr. President, this is not the issue. The issue is the participation of the PLO.

Rabin: The Israeli side does not oppose discussion of the Palestinian issue at Geneva; but we do oppose participation of the PLO. I felt it was important to clarify this point.

The Secretary: But the reality is the need for PLO participation. Unless the Arab states have a clear understanding in advance of gains that will be derived from Geneva then they will not accept Geneva without PLO participation. We know that an invitation without the PLO would be rejected by the Soviets and the PLO. It might possibly be accepted by Egypt and Jordan; Syrian acceptance is highly unlikely.

Rabin: The Secretary may be right. I think, however, we should make the effort to reconvene the Geneva conference. If this should fail then we should focus on Egypt and Syria. Jordan must be postponed until 1977.

The President: Let me make one or two observations. It is important that both of our countries adopt a positive approach and this must be done in 1976. I must in all honesty make my position absolutely clear to you. In my approach to foreign policy issues I have consistently done and said what I think is right even though my actions may not be popular and may be politically disadvantageous. This has been our approach to Angola; I think we were right, and I hope that Congress ultimately will realize this. Similarly in the Middle East, as the President I must do what I think is right, and I am prepared to take the consequences of my actions even though these might work to my political disadvantage. It is vital for our two governments to work together regardless of the political ramifications for either you or us for our actions. As unpopular as Angola and other issues may be, I am deter[Page 912]mined to do what I think is in the basic United States interests. I feel strongly that a positive approach on the Middle East issue is right substantively and right politically. We must create a situation in the Middle East in which progress seems to be under way, since otherwise the area can be potentially explosive. Whatever we decide, our approach must be a positive one and must reflect movement in some form. You, Mr. Prime Minister, and the Secretary should devise a strategy for 1976 and 1977 aimed at this objective. This may require tough decisions by both of our countries—decisions that may have difficult repercussions both domestically and with regard to other relationships—for example, with the Soviet Union. We must convince the world that our strategy involves and is designed to promote forward movement. We must keep the momentum going. In this process Israel and the United States must stay together. Moreover, it is not to our mutual advantage to be isolated from all others.

You should understand Mr. Prime Minister that anything we can work out together which is designed to make progress in the area I will back to the hilt even if such a course should have disadvantageous political implications for me. We have made the right decisions in the past; we should be able to do the same in the future. I gather from Dr. Kissinger’s report on the breakfast discussion and other remarks made here that we have at least a blueprint for action and we should now focus on fleshing out agreed proposals.

The Secretary: I would like to clarify one point. If we should pursue the option of seeking an end to the state of war in exchange for territorial concessions, this would force us to take on the Soviet Union and others. To do this we cannot confine the option to Syria and Egypt; this would simply be regarded as consummate cynicism.

Rabin: If our main purpose is to prevent an explosion in the Middle East then our best course is to focus on Syria and Egypt.

The Secretary: I agree, but our approach must include Jordan as well.

The President: When can we move on this strategy?

Rabin: I must first discuss the strategy with my colleagues in ac-cordance with the Israeli political process and then resume discussions with the United States.

The Secretary: Nothing that we have discussed this morning must be implemented within the next month or two except for the call to Geneva on which we agree. The process of discussions with individual Arab leaders can extend over many weeks.

Rabin: I wish to make clear Mr. President our position on this option. We feel strongly that the Syrians and the Egyptians must be involved; an approach to the Egyptian and the Jordanians is impossible.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of Henry Kissinger, 1973–77, Box 16, Nodis Memcons, January 1976, Folder 3. Secret; Nodis. According to the President’s Daily Diary, the meeting was held in the Oval Office at the White House. (Ford Library, Staff Secretary’s Office Files)
  2. The breakfast meeting between Rabin and Kissinger took place on January 28 from 7:48 to 10:10 a.m. at Blair House. Their discussion focused on aid requests, Jordan, Lebanon, and their strategy for the next phase of negotiations. (Memorandum of conversation, January 28; National Archives, RG 59, Records of Henry Kissinger, 1973-77, Box 16, Nodis Memcons, January 1976, Folder 3)
  3. See footnote 2, Document 255.