91. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • President Richard M. Nixon
  • Bipartisan Congressional Leadership
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Secretary of State and Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Major General Brent Scowcroft, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs


  • Dr. Kissinger’s Middle East Briefing

President: Before the briefing, I would like to make one comment about the difficulty of these negotiations. I told Henry I thought that next to the Vietnamese negotiations, these were the toughest. He said that is a tough call.

He spent over 30 days out there. Several times it appeared to be about to break down. Through perseverance and some assurances, we finally made it. As Kissinger will say, the last point was cosmetic—an Israeli insistence against terrorist action across the zone and the Syrian refusal. As late as Monday2 it was 75–25 against agreement on that point.

As Henry will point out, the Egyptian-Israeli disengagement and Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreements are important diplomatic achievements but they only open the long road toward a permanent settlement. No one should have any illusion that that won’t take a long, long time. We owe to Henry and his team for 30 days of excruciating negotiations—our Arab friends can talk well into the night, and Henry went to bed at 5:00 a.m. many times. Henry—

Kissinger: Let me first explain the setting and then the details. Then where do we go from here.

In October, all the Arabs were united against the United States, supported by Europe, with the Soviet Union as their principal spokesman. We were pushed into unilateral support of Israel and faced with an oil embargo. Had that continued, Europe and Japan would [Page 375] have been hostage to the Arabs and the radicals would have triumphed.

The first breakthrough was with Sadat in November.3 He decided to go piece by piece, in diplomatic rather than military moves, and to rely on the U.S. rather than the Soviet Union. This produced an Israeli-Egyptian disengagement.4 It was a diplomatic revolution. Egypt embraced the U.S. and reduced Soviet influence. It was a triumph for the moderates. But this brought Sadat under radical pressure. Since then, there has been a contest between the radicals and Sadat. The question was, would the situation move carefully? Or in one great move by the radicals supported by the Soviet Union, which would result in war?

Syria was the most radical of the Arab states. In November, I didn’t even think of visiting Syria. The Syrian Ba’athists, the governing group, are somewhat left of Soviet Communism. Their hatred of Israel is proverbial. When I first went there their newspapers said “Kissinger arrived from occupied territory”—meaning Israel. Now the headlines spoke of “Syrian-Israeli disengagement”—which is the first mention of Israel’s existence. They are the most militant of the Arab states. If there was no settlement, the war would have resumed. Egypt couldn’t have stayed out, and the Soviets would have had to help. Sadat has been a great help in this process. In February, Syria first indicated it would talk.

There is a big difference between the situation on the Suez Canal and the Golan. The Suez is desert; the Golan is populated by Israeli villagers. It is a more constricted area, and there is the problem of Mount Hermon. There is a complex domestic situation in both countries. In Syria, there is division between the civilians and the military—with the civilians more militant, with Soviet wings, Iraqi and Palestinian wings. They are not sophisticated in military planning. Egyptian military experts had to educate them.

In Israel, the Cabinet was changing. The old Cabinet didn’t want to go out under a cloud and the new one didn’t want to come in under a burden.

Much of my technique was a seminar explaining to each what the others thought. One of the most moving things at the end was to see some appreciation of each other’s concerns.

In Syria, the government hadn’t made a formulated decision to agree, and was not under firm control.

[Page 376]

On Monday I had given up.5 Asad and I were alone and we were drawing up my farewell statement. He said it was a shame; couldn’t we do something?

Then another hang up, as the President said, was on terrorism. There was great emotion coming from Maalot.6 We solved it by assuring Israel that we would regard terrorist attacks as violations of the ceasefire.

[Dr. Kissinger gets up to the map.]

In March the Israelis grabbed Mount Hermon which dominated the area. In Suez, Egypt had seized Israeli-held territory; here there is no Syrian-held territory, and Israeli settlements had been built near the line and Mount Hermon was crucial. The Syrians wouldn’t discuss it because it was seized in March. The Syrians are obsessive about foreigners on their soil—they won’t even allow Russians in Damascus—so to have a UN force there was to them an insult. They were hung up on issues of sovereignty and wouldn’t accept limitations of police.

The initial positions were far apart. The Syrians originally wanted the whole Golan back, or two-thirds of it. The other Arabs said they would be satisfied with Kuneitra. But there are Israeli settlements right near it, and the Israelis were reluctant to move out of Kuneitra.

The President authorized me to make a U.S. proposal—so that each side would accept a U.S.—not an enemy—proposal. The Israelis were allowed to keep the hills they needed outside of Kuneitra, but Israeli forces won’t be visible to the Syrians in Kuneitra.

President: You may ask, why couldn’t we start with a U.S. proposal? Because each would have said we were favoring the other and they would snipe at us. We had to move slowly.

Kissinger: Here is the final red line. The squiggles are to keep some Syrian villages under Syrian control. On Hermon, two-thirds went to the Syrians and one-third to the UN. The Syrians wanted 80 UN observers and Israel a force of 3,000. We came out with an “observer force”—so each got its name in—and with the same charter as the force on Suez.

Then we got into a wrangle on limitation of forces. Again the President authorized a U.S. proposal. There are two zones of 10 kilometers. The first zone is limitation of personnel and the second is limitation of equipment. There is a limit of 6,000 troops, 75 tanks and 36 artillery. In the second zone there can be 162 artillery pieces with a range of 20 kilometers and no SAMs. (This is all classified, by the way.)

The result is that it is harder for them to go to war. A surprise attack now is impossible.

[Page 377]

President: There may be incidents. The leaders will have to understand that. But it will be less than in Vietnam.

Kissinger: I think there will be few incidents. The Syrians haven’t let the terrorists loose. They have come mostly from Lebanon.7

This is an important first step, but we have monumental problems ahead of us—Jerusalem, Palestine. If there is no movement, this front could erupt again, because the Syrians are unstable. However, failure would have meant immediate hostilities, Syrian pressure for a new oil embargo, and international pressures against us. Now the Arabs know that only the U.S. can bring a solution. It was very important to Sadat, because it meant a radical regime did the same as he did, and it ratified U.S. participation in the process. One reason Sadat wants the President to visit is to symbolize the American presence and participation and to begin movement to peace.

It could blow up in six-to-nine months. But we now have maneuvering room. We have completed the military phase and can move into a phase of political advance. And we did it with Israeli blessing.

President: And the U.S. commitment to Israeli security.

Kissinger: But that is in the U.S. interest, because only a strong Israel makes the Arabs turn to us.

President: Our relationship with the Soviet Union in the Middle East is a pragmatic one. We don’t want a confrontation with the Soviet Union like we had last October.8 The only thing the Soviet Union can promise is arms and war. As for us, we are not imposing a settlement on Israel, but the Arabs now see that a settlement without war can only come through the U.S. Soviet help could work only through war.

Kissinger: That is right. The only way to achieve objectives through the Soviet Union was conflict. We are moving the Soviet Union out of the Middle East but pragmatically cooperating. It is détente . . .

President: Expand that—the Soviet Union could prevent a settlement, but at cost of other fish they fry with us. We shouldn’t knock the Soviet Union.

Kissinger: What has happened is a major defeat for the Soviet Union. Take what happened to Gromyko in Damascus on Monday. He was to come in the morning. They delayed him ’til two, then kept him circling until he ran out of gas, and then he was met by their Deputy Foreign Minister. Then on Tuesday, Asad wouldn’t meet with Gro[Page 378]myko because he was waiting for Sisco. Then when I came instead, Asad cancelled the dinner he had prepared for Gromyko and served it to me!

President: It is not the purpose and intent of U.S. policy. The Soviet presence hangs over the Middle East, and they can prevent progress if they have no other fish to fry. So don’t characterize this as a Soviet defeat.

Kissinger: To carry this off requires détente. Why were they restrained? Because of their commitment to détente. We need MFN and credits to give them something to show. We could do this precisely because of détente.

A word about commitments. It’s the same as on the Suez agreement. It doesn’t imply a continuing military commitment on limitation because it’s part of the agreement. There is also an Israeli commitment about stationing arms on the hills. The only U.S. commitment is to continue two-week reconnaissance flights over the area.

Every U.S. assurance—I have given them orally and they will be given to the Foreign Affairs Committees to look at. They are U.S. proposals which they signed with us which will be appended to the agreement.

Scott: What nations are in the UN force?

Kissinger: Permanent members are excluded. Probably it will be Nepal, Austria and Peru—because of the mountains there.

O’Neill: Do you now have to move to the Palestinian issue?

Kissinger: There are three issues: frontiers, the Palestinians, and Jerusalem. We would like to stay with the frontiers a bit more. The Palestinian issue is related to the Jerusalem issue—if Jordan could represent the Palestinians, that would help. But somewhere we must face the Palestinian issue.

Fulbright: Where, in Amman?

President: That is what you should say publicly. But nothing will be done in a public forum. The Soviet Union is pushing for a Palestinian state. There must be much quiet discussion.

Kissinger: The Soviets and Romanians want a Palestinian state—each is playing its own game. We will try to handle it so it doesn’t blow up the negotiations yet still gives them some hope.

President: Our relations with the others were of great help—Boumedienne, Sadat, Feisal each sent emissaries to Asad.

Kissinger: Boumedienne, being a radical himself, was a big help.

O’Neill: How many terrorists?

Kissinger: The numbers aren’t the issue. And there has been little activity across the Syrian borders since 1967. It was a symbolic issue in Israel.

[Page 379]

President: Tell them about the Economic Commissions.

Kissinger: Sadat thought it was important to move our relations away from technical military affairs. He wanted the President to visit and not only due to the disengagement. Also there will be an Oil Ministers meeting coming up and we want to give them some incentive for moderation. This cooperation is for a commission to explore maximum cooperation in the economic, scientific and cultural areas. The purpose is plan long-range cooperation between Egypt and the United States. It is part of Sadat’s attempt to reorient away from the Soviet Union and to establish the U.S. as a force in the Middle East for progress and moderation. We wanted to wait, but he wanted the President to visit there to symbolize the line in terms of U.S.-Egyptian relations rather than Israeli-Egyptian relations.

President: We will have to furnish Israel with items they feel essential to their security, or else they will think the territory essential. We can’t move if Israel feels insecure. The other side of the coin is more difficult. I have heard grumbles from some of you Israeli supporters. If we can exercise a leavening influence, we can’t do it just by talk, but by economic and other means which gives them a stake in relations with the U.S.

If your goal is peace in the Middle East and the survival of Israel, we have to have some stake with Israeli neighbors.

Kissinger: For Sadat to move to the U.S. as he has took enormous courage, in the face of the Soviets and the radicals. If we attach too many conditions, Sadat will be undercut. We have an enormous opportunity now. It is better not to break the fabric through onerous conditions. For example, Israeli flags through the Canal—he can’t quite do it yet but he’ll let cargoes through if we shut up about it.

Albert: Some of our Jewish friends will have to stop the publicity on this.

Frelinghuysen: I will do everything I can for a balanced program.

Kissinger: You know there is this $100 million fund in the budget. If Syria behaves, if we could commit something for the reconstruction of Kuneitra, it would have great symbolism. They get plenty of Soviet money, but if we don’t do this, we could force them to turn only to the Soviets.

Stennis: Was there a manpower commitment?

Kissinger: No manpower commitment. Only that we would view their long-term military needs sympathetically.

Frelinghuysen: How about M–60’s from NATO?

Kissinger: The Soviet Union has poured equipment in. Israel has to be so strong that the Arabs can’t defeat it. The M–60’s were a previous commitment.

[Page 380]

President: We must maintain the balance. Weapons for Israel and PL 480 for Egypt are an investment for peace.

Hebert: We have manpower there for the Canal now. What if one gets killed?

Kissinger: That is not for military purposes.

President: It is the U.S. interest to have influences in the area.

Hebert: I’d like to get our boys out of there.

Mahon: This is an impressive picture. How can we convey this to our colleagues to get their support and votes?

Zablocki: We hope the President will go to the public and explain.

Hebert: The only way to get votes is to ring the bell and knock heads.

President: Sadat has recommended my trip. There is nothing to announce today. We have to examine what activities there will be, when and where to go. I’ll make a decision early next week. We are also announcing my 27 June arrival in Moscow.

Aiken: From the discussion, one might think the Suez clearing only benefited Egypt.9 I thought it benefited the world, and shouldn’t we say so?

Kissinger: The Suez is an investment in peace. It is a physical barrier to conflict and an economic help to Egypt. It does help Soviet ships, but we can follow them. And our work has so influenced the moderates that the Soviet Union may not have any ports.

Tower: Say a word about Diego Garcia.

Kissinger: We need a presence in the Indian Ocean and a better means of operating there.

President: The Soviet Union is all over the area.

Question: It is cost-effective if we have ships there.

President: Thank you for coming. Both the disengagement agreements are interim settlements. They are essential to working out a permanent settlement over a long time.

The momentum must continue—whether clearing the Suez, economic measures, my visit, etc. If we don’t the hatred and the radical forces will come slipping back. It is an enormous accomplishment by Kissinger, but this is only the first step. We have done about ten percent.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1029, Presidential/HAK Memcons, May 8–31, 1974, Folder 1. Secret. The meeting was held at the White House. Brackets are in the original. A list of attendees is in the President’s Daily Diary. (Ibid., White House Central Files)
  2. May 27.
  3. See footnote 7, Document 4.
  4. See Document 10.
  5. See Document 75.
  6. See footnote 4, Document 58.
  7. In both the Kiryat Shmona and Maalot episodes, the Palestinian guerrillas infiltrated Israel from Lebanon. See Document 34 and footnote 4, Document 58.
  8. During the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, tensions between the United States and Soviet Union led the Nixon administration to raise the U.S. Defense Condition from level 4 to level 3. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXV, Arab-Israeli Crisis and War, 1973, Document 269.
  9. A reference to the mine clearing process, begun in April by an international task force that included the U.S. Navy, in an effort to clear ordnance left in the canal after the October 1973 war.