48. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Hafez al-Asad, President of Syria
  • Abdel Khalim Khaddam, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs
  • Maj. General Hikmat Shihabi, Chief of Staff
  • Mr. Daboul, Presidential Adviser
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Secretary of State and Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Joseph J. Sisco, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
  • Harold H. Saunders, NSC Staff
  • Isa K. Sabbagh, American Embassy, Jidda (Interpreter)

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to the Arab-Israeli dispute.]

Kissinger: On the disengagement negotiations, I wanted to review the difference between the Egyptian and the Syrian negotiations, and the Israeli and American domestic situations, so we can make a common assessment, if that is all right with you. Then you can understand the pressures on me and on the situation rather than talk about abstract lines.

In Israel demonstrators are now showing signs with my name in Arabic. I can’t call on the Prime Minister because her house is surrounded by demonstrators.

My assessment is as follows:

First, the Syrian negotiation is much more difficult than the Egyptian negotiation for many reasons. For one thing, the territory involved is much smaller. Also, there is a civilian population. The territory is much closer to the security centers of each country. It raises an emotional and psychological response in Israel.

And the military situation is different: The “pocket” that Israel had across the Canal had a narrow supply route in a corridor 15–20 kilometers wide. It was pinched by two Egyptian armies. It was in flat country at the end of a very long supply line. They had a great sense of vulnerability. In the Syrian pocket, they don’t feel as vulnerable. I am just assessing the situation, not defending it. They have a line of hills behind it and Mount Hermon beside it. They are not eager to give it up.

If you study the Egyptian agreement, they (the Israelis) didn’t withdraw from any place where there were not Egyptian troops. There [Page 242] were five Egyptian divisions across the Canal. In Egypt, we established a line on the existing line of control and the withdrawal of the pocket. There was a UN zone in a flat place with no population.

In Syria, we are doing separate things: One, to restore Syrian civilian administration. And secondly, we are talking about Israeli withdrawal from newly-acquired territories. In Egypt, they withdrew from no new territories.

Asad: What is the area of the pocket?

Kissinger: We will check that.

Asad: On the West Bank, the Israelis said it was 1700 square kilometers.

Kissinger: We will send you a message. That adds a particular complexity to the negotiation.

Secondly, the problem of the Syrian-Israeli negotiation also has to be seen on one hand as a geographic issue and on the other as an issue of political orientation.

I repeat, I say this analytically.

I have thought a lot about where we are. I must admit that it is very difficult for me to work in this atmosphere. This part of Syria we are talking about is seen in Israel as an extension of Israel. They never thought of the Sinai this way.

What is involved now is the basic question His Excellency raised the other day: Whether Israel will live in peace with its neighbors or behave like the Americans toward the American Indians.

There is a tremendous psychological battle in Israel which the older generation cannot understand.

I have met them on three separate visits for seven hours each. The older generation is in tears. In Israel, which is friendly, the atmosphere is much tenser than here, where we have no relations.

The reason is that what we are trying to bring about is to move the body politic in Israel from war towards peace and from a military to a political conception. I believe it is the policy we have pursued since October that has removed the present government. If Israel had had our support, it would and could have stayed in the occupied territories whatever the USSR did, as it did for six years.

Now your courage and the heroism of your soldiers has made possible the change in Israel which now realizes that peace cannot come from a policy of strength alone.

It is important now to keep in mind what is the first step. I have been an admirer of what deGaulle did in Algeria. I believe the independence of Algeria became inevitable the day deGaulle gave independence to the black African nations. It was inconceivable he [Page 243] could deny independence to Algeria. That was the crucial decision. In any political process, you have to understand the crucial issue. The crucial decision now is for Israel to decide to come back.

Let me tell you what a senior minister told me Sunday:2 “The worst things you are doing to us are: (1) after every war so far, we have extended our territory and you are asking us to contract it; (2) after every war we created a new permanent situation for a reasonably long period. You are wishing us to take a step you say is only a first step toward implementing Resolution 338.”

So this is the problem in Israel.

It is compounded by the fact there is an old government that is daily losing authority but a new group is not yet established. The new group is more realistic, less emotional, less wedded to a policy of colonization. They will be no easier to deal with.

I was thinking of bringing the Prime Minister today.

We will reach a point in the talks with the Israelis where we will have to judge, one, whether there will be a total political immobility, or two, adoption of a stance of total militancy. Out of this chaos there will be a victory of the right wing military.

I believe a disengagement agreement brought about by the kind of pressures we are using will bring about a change in Israel in a favorable direction.

Let me talk analytically about the American political situation.

In the past any Secretary of State who tried to do anything on the Arab-Israeli problem has been either destroyed or immobilized.

The reason is this. I know no situation in the United States where a Secretary of State had a political following of his own. Therefore, Israeli strategy has always been to attack the Secretary of State who was more vulnerable. Right now the opposite is true as a political fact. Secondly, in the past, our policy has not been conducted in an intelligent adaptation to the American scene. The Arab tendency has always asked for so much it was easy to mobilize pressures against the policy. We have succeeded in splitting the issues so much that it was harder for Israel’s friends to use the media to focus pressures on us. We have also always moved so fast that something was finished before it could be criticized. We have, therefore, been able to move step by step. For example, yesterday both the Senate majority and minority leaders made speeches in support of my policies. Honestly, I don’t think the minority leader knew what he was saying; he wanted to benefit from my popularity, not from the negotiation.

[Page 244]

In terms of the American political situation, the strategy is to push the Israelis as far as possible without raising a general uproar. If we push it too far, given the situation the President faces, we could face months of paralysis. We have to use my prestige to put this over. If we fail, a campaign will say that the Secretary of State is colluding with the USSR to impair Israeli security. It is already starting. Joe Kraft3 says I got the Soviets to have Syria to attack Israel so I could score a success by stopping the war I started.

Asad: Kraft?

Kissinger: He was here. His point is: For my own purposes, I worked with the Soviets to start a war so I could get it stopped diplomatically. But that is only the beginning. If we could succeed, all this we could sweep away.

What is important is whether we can keep the momentum of Israel going backward or whether we are going to have another stalemate.

There cannot be another military change. In a political situation where Israel is going back, a point will be reached as in Algeria where a decision will be inevitable.

Gromyko wants to put a solution into the context of an agreement with me. It isn’t that kind of a problem.

The big change in the last six months is in political mobility. The Israelis can no longer count on U.S. support on all issues. The American Secretary of State is urging Israel to move back.

This is the general assessment I wanted to share. After lunch we can go into details.

From my own selfish viewpoint the best thing for me would be for the negotiations to fail. I would be criticized for three weeks, but then I could withdraw. If I succeed and continue—as I will—I will suffer great attacks. But if we succeed, we can generate political support for what we are doing.

(The party moved to lunch.)

Kissinger: Sisco is the only individual who is a conspiracy all by himself.

Asad: He is a phenomenon!

Kissinger: I have studied the purges in the USSR in the 1930’s. Stalin developed a definition that had a curious aspect: A person didn’t have to have done something; he just had to have the potential to harm Stalin. On that basis, I would have to purge my whole staff.

Sisco: I am still here. I must be not so bad, or else I’m inefficient!

[Page 245]

Kissinger: Did you see an article by Prof. Morgenthau? He compared me to Chamberlain. The campaign being made against me is that I am working with the Soviets and Arabs to destroy Israel.

Asad: Does he work in political science?

Kissinger: Yes.

Asad: Is he a good American if he makes enemies of the Arabs?

Kissinger: No. He is wrong. We each pursue our own interests. I believe it can’t be in the U.S. interest to have Arab enmity, especially for a third country.

Saunders used to press me to be more friendly to the Arabs. I told him the time wasn’t right yet. Without the war it would not have been possible yet.

Asad: In order to make a judgment, these professors should make an assessment of the losses and gains for the U.S.

Kissinger: Next time, I am planning to bring Mrs. Kissinger.

Asad: Yes, we are planning on it . . .

Khaddam expected that on Cyprus you would agree with Gromyko to postpone discussion of disengagement until Moscow.4 Does Gromyko want to discuss this in Moscow?

Kissinger: If I go to Moscow, it will not be to discuss the Middle East.

I think the situation by early next week will be: We will either know whether we can agree, and then we should move very quickly. We will know by Saturday or Sunday5 what is the maximum I can achieve. Then you will have to decide whether it is enough. If it is enough, we will have to move very fast before they can organize against us. If I can return with a success, I can explain it as a movement toward peace. If I come back with a stalemate, I will have to explain who is at fault. Gromyko couldn’t help one iota. The worst thing I could do would be to make an agreement with Gromyko and sell it in America. Why should I make concessions to the Soviets and not to you? We want friendlier relations with Syria.

So if we have a stalemate and if I go to Moscow, I will not talk with them about the Middle East. If they told you they could do better in Moscow, that is wrong. They tried this at two summits and failed.

Asad: We are aware of these things.

Kissinger: I think it is unlikely I will go to Moscow in two weeks. But if I do, no matter what you are told, the subject will be SALT. In Moscow at the end of March, they were discussing their participation, [Page 246] not the substance of a disengagement.6 That was the argument with Brezhnev. I told him if he could settle the disengagement, I would not ask to participate. I am not trying to talk against the USSR because we know you have to get your military equipment there.

Asad: If you started giving arms to the Arabs, you would be better able to control the arms.

Kissinger: Just in this room, we are starting with Saudi Arabia. They are sending a mission to Washington in June on general cooperation. We will have a military section to that.

Asad: The nations here need arms. The need, of course, would be lessened, given peace.

Kissinger: What we want to do is establish a pattern. We are starting on economic cooperation, including technical and scientific cooperation. And that can expand. We may do it with Egypt next. After the disengagement or after a reestablishment of relations, we would be prepared to do it with Syria.

Asad: We are anxious that, as fast as possible, things go back to normal. But sometimes, one lets go emotionally sometimes. One sees certain proposals that make me angry. We are in earnest, Dr. Kissinger. For your own ears, if you are worried about 1–2000 demonstrators in Israel, there are many more in Syria who would march against us for cooperating with you.

The Syrian difficulty is that people here who have been nurtured over 26 years on hatred, can’t be swayed overnight by our changing courses. We would never take one step except in the interests of our own people. We are all human—we all have our impulsive reaction to things. But in leadership, we have to restrain ourselves and analyze and take steps in our own interest. A just peace is in the interest of our people.

Kissinger: And of Israel and of all people in this area.

Asad: Wars waged for aims other than to establish justice should not be waged.

Kissinger: The extraordinary thing last October was that people who were bold enough to make a war against all odds were moderate enough to follow a restrained policy in peace.

Asad: On the first day—October 6—I made a speech saying we are entering a war to stop bloodshed. We want peace. So, of course, we have to bend every effort for peace.

Kissinger: I agree. That is why I tried to explain the framework.

[Page 247]

Last November, we thought Damascus was physically dangerous for an American to visit and we didn’t even propose a visit. That was before I knew the Foreign Minister. I have invited him to come to Washington when he comes to the U.S. next. Our hospitality is not as advanced as Syria’s.

Shihabi: I protest.

Kissinger: We know what tremendous efforts you have made to entertain such large parties. You’d be less well equipped if you hadn’t had 2000 years of barbarian invasions. Our security people operate; arrest them.

Asad: Relations are improving.

Kissinger: Whatever happens on disengagement, we are prepared to try to continue improving relations.

Asad: We too. Will Rabin form a Cabinet?7

Kissinger: Yes. I think they’re waiting for these negotiations. If they succeed, they’ll speed the transition to a more political position.

The best one in Israel is Dayan.

Asad: Will Eban be in the Cabinet?

Kissinger: The present Cabinet will almost certainly not be in the Cabinet—but not for this reason. They’re looking for a scapegoat. Eban will probably be in the Cabinet.

Shihabi: Dayan may come back later. He is still young.

Kissinger: If we do not succeed, the right wing will gain more and more the upper hand. In a year or two, Dayan may come back.

Asad: I heard Eban make a good statement after the war that wars aren’t going to help. They should follow a policy of making the Arabs desirous of not going to war any more.

Kissinger: That is the overwhelming issue. That is why this is such an important phase.

(At 5:15 p. m. everyone rose from the table. While the group reassembled, Dr. Kissinger noted a reviewer’s comment on his first book “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy.” The reviewer said he could not tell if Dr. Kissinger was a great writer but anyone finishing the book was a great reader. Seriously, some of the considerations in that book were dated and some were coming back. It pre-dated the era of missiles.)

[Page 248]

Asad: Seriously, we wish that peace will reign all over the world, and that competition will be peaceful. It is one of the traits of this world that conflict remains.

Kissinger: I think we have an important opportunity for peace.

Let me show you now where we stand in our talks with the Israelis—if you won’t get too angry. I think I can get some more, but the objective situation is difficult unless you want to accept this. Let me show you, and then I’ll tell you what I’ll try to do. When I come back Saturday or Sunday we can take stock. You should make your decisions in terms of the overall analysis I gave you.

(Showing a map.)8 Israel has now agreed to go back to the October 6 line everywhere but Mt. Hermon.

Asad: This is the October 6 line?

Kissinger: No, this. They agreed to leave October. We will not show anything as a UN zone. They want a zone with no military forces but it will be Syrian. I’m saying they have to go back on Mt. Hermon and they must find some other stretch along the line where they can go back.

They haven’t agreed.

Asad: (Followed the line.)

Kissinger: They want all points on top of Mt. Hermon. I’ve told them they must reconsider this.

Asad: This configuration is creating a dovetailing. Last time we asked for a straighter line—irrespective of the terrain. We would decide on a line and then discuss adjustments one way or another. They’re not going back behind the October 6 line generally.

So I make these observations: Observation # 1: There is no return behind the October 6 line. Observation # 2: There is no straight parallel line. Thus complicates the situation. Observation # 3: They keep points they occupied after October 22. For example, on Mount Hermon, where they had no positions. The only observer post they had was on the October 6 line. Observation # 4: There is no significant area of land from which they are withdrawing. There is no withdrawal of any substance.

Kissinger: The pocket and Quneitra.

Asad: They are not giving back Quneitra. They have just split Quneitra.

Kissinger: That’s what they started out doing. Now the line is just on the Western edge of Quneitra. They started dividing the city. We refused the idea.

[Page 249]

Asad: The city is important because we want to return the civilians. We can’t do it unless the military situation is good. As it stands now, it is not good.

Kissinger: I’ll report every point you make. It took a letter from our President9 to move them from the middle of Quneitra. The United States is interested in return of civilians to Quneitra and would do everything it could to assure a return of civilians and its rehabilitation. We would be prepared to say we would give strong support if the civilians are harassed.

Asad: The civilians will be up in arms against us.

Kissinger: This we would not permit.

Asad: I hope this is clear to Dr. Kissinger: We cannot agree to a disengagement of this kind. This indicates the Israelis are insisting on war. We would not take Quneitra back in this form. We would only agree to a line near the line we have indicated. If we agreed to this kind of disengagement, we could not return to civilian life. This does not suggest Israeli seriousness. First, we want a straight line. We could say let’s go back to the October 22 line (in the north?). Of course, Dr. Kissinger knows we can’t possibly accept.

Kissinger: Let me give my personal view. I know you can’t accept. I think we should ask Israel to withdraw some other distances along the line and in Mt. Hermon. Even Qunietra—it was first just a little corner.

Asad: I believe you.

Kissinger: I agree they must do more. I’ve already told them my thinking.

I believe in addition that, if they were very wise, they would make it much easier for you because I believe you have been very reasonable. However, you should keep in mind that whenever I say I’ve pressed them to the maximum, we will have to consider where we are.

Even this brings the line very close to their settlements and will create great insecurity. It will create a tremendous political situation there.

Asad: I’m with you. Your thoughts are clear. Yes, but look at it from our point of view. It doesn’t inspire a belief that they are earnest. It would not help us continue. I could not send the civilians back. The situation there is worse.

Kissinger: Why?

Asad: We would have to redeploy. It would cost us money. It is weak on some political points like a recognition of the October 22 line. It would be as though we were projecting an untruth on our people.

[Page 250]

Kissinger: I understand.

Asad: I hope you will understand my remarks are directed at Israelis. We want a just peace. We say this to everybody around the Arab area. We don’t want to fall into traps. We can’t understand peace as a realization of gains for the Israeli people. We don’t want to deceive our people.

Kissinger: This I understand. On the other hand, leaving aside details, look at the concept. Once the 1967 line is broken, for the first time, the Israelis would have withdrawn from strongpoints and territory which they did not lose in conflict. Therefore, Syria would have achieved an actual Israeli withdrawal under political pressure under the pressure of Syria and the United States. Particularly with some more territory. In the pocket—you will know—the Israelis claim the present line is easier to defend.

I will go back and explain your considerations and your attitude. I will try to continue the strategy that I’m pursuing—to use maximum political pressure short of a political explosion in the United States. I’m not yet under full-scale attack. The way the Israelis present it in the U.S., they treat Syria as part of USSR and say I’m making concessions to the USSR and what am I getting in return. So why do I want Israel to withdraw?

You have your own political requirements and maybe we cannot succeed. I will make an effort to improve the map. The significance for the Israelis is that this is an encroachment on their settlements for the first time.

Asad: My retort is that their settlements can be shelled by us now.

Kissinger: The best way to get them off the Golan Heights is to put pressure on the settlements in Golan.

Asad: I am suggesting point counter point.

Kissinger: The Egyptians are not emotional. The most useful thing is for me to go back to Israel. There is no sense in discussing secondary issues—UN, etc.—until we have a line.

My job is to see whether I can improve the line.

May I bring Mrs. Meir here?

Asad: We’ll be occupied twice!

Kissinger: You want to come with me tonight?

Asad: It would be a strange historic event.

Kissinger: What is maddening about negotiating with her, is the emotion. She thinks an injustice has been done to her. She says: You started the war therefore you have to lose territory.

They say “You started the war, you get the pocket back and some territory behind the ’67 lines.”

[Page 251]

Asad: You may keep the map.

Kissinger: Never give away a free map. Is that the motto of the Director of Intelligence? I’ll make a maximum effort. I’ll give them two days. I’ll come back Saturday or Sunday, depending on what I can achieve. You know how long it took me to get this.

Asad: We could have demonstrations. I fear our people.

Kissinger: If it turns into a contest between demonstrators, I’ll just leave the area, go to Washington and lead my own demonstrations. I’m losing.

What I said to you about the Israeli domestic situation is not based on the demonstrations but on the basis of what is going on there. If they lose this battle—and lose the pocket—they will be discouraged. If they keep the pocket, their strategy will be justified. They want to make it a U.S.-Soviet dispute. We want to decouple it. Success cannot be measured in territory. We’ve spent days and weeks bringing pressure on Israel.

Now what should we say to the press?

Asad: We cannot say we’ve reached agreements with regard to certain elements. We could say we discussed certain elements.

Kissinger: I’ll say we’ve discussed some elements, and made some progress, but we should avoid an impression of a rupture.

Asad: Neither this nor that. Neither cause them to be optimistic nor pessimistic. Not create an overexpectation.

Kissinger: Your brothers in Egypt always predict total success for me without being told anything by me.

Asad: I’ve had contacts with Sadat.

Kissinger: While the Israelis are deliberating, I may go to Riyadh and stop in Cairo to pick up my wife for a few hours. I won’t show maps to the Arab leaders but I will talk in a general way of what I’m trying to do in pushing the Israelis back. I’ll say what I did before lunch but with less precision.

Asad: I sent them summaries. They said the Israeli plan is confined to the pocket and that Dr. Kissinger is going back to Israel.

Kissinger: What we discussed after lunch, I won’t say. The details are your business. I have to leave time for King Faisal who always gives me religious instruction for half an hour.

Asad: Communism and Zionism. You never know. There may be a relationship.

Kissinger: He thinks Moscow is controlled by Tel Aviv.

Asad: Isn’t Mrs. Meir Russian?

Kissinger: Can we say to the press that we brought some Israeli considerations to Damascus? We’re now going back with some of your [Page 252] considerations. I’ll return here Saturday or Sunday. For my press, I’ll say we’re making some progress, but we’re not near an agreement.

Asad: Yes. We are not near an agreement. You have to say there is progress. You give same nuance.

Kissinger: Let’s agree on something else. If they say, “Did you bring a map?”

Asad: Yes.

Kissinger: I’ll say I brought some geographic considerations. In all seriousness, I appreciate your spirit. This is painful for you. We are talking about your territory.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of Henry Kissinger, 1973–77, Box 8, Nodis Memcons, May 1974, Folder 1. Secret; Nodis. The meeting was held at the Presidential Palace in Damascus.
  2. May 5. See Documents 43 and 44.
  3. Joseph Kraft was an American columnist.
  4. A reference to the Moscow Summit scheduled for late June.
  5. May 11–12.
  6. Kissinger went to Moscow at the end of March for talks with Soviet officials, including General Secretary Brezhnev. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XV, Soviet Union, June 1972–August 1974, Documents 167170.
  7. After Golda Meir’s resignation as Prime Minister on April 11, Yitzhak Rabin was nominated to be Prime Minister. He negotiated with various Israeli factions to form a new Cabinet while Meir continued to head a caretaker government. On June 2, the Knesset approved his new government.
  8. The map has not been found. It is presumably one the Israelis gave Kissinger the day before. See Document 47.
  9. Document 41.