19. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • MBFR; Middle East


  • Secretary Cyrus R. Vance
  • Ambassador Malcolm Toon
  • Mr. Paul Warnke
  • Mr. William Hyland
  • LTG Edward Rowny
  • Mr. William D. Krimer, Interpreter
  • Foreign Minister A.A. Gromyko
  • Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers L.V. Smirnov
  • Deputy Foreign Minister G.M. Korniyenko
  • Ambassador A.F. Dobrynin
  • Mr. V.G. Komplektov
  • Mr. O.M. Sokolov
  • Mr. V. Sukhodrev, Interpreter

Foreign Minister Gromyko opened the meeting by recalling that yesterday the two sides had set forth their positions on the preparation of a [Page 73] new SALT Agreement.2 Today, if this suited Secretary Vance, and if the Secretary had no additional considerations to add to what he had said yesterday, Gromyko would suggest that they take up other political questions which in their common opinion required discussion. These were the Vienna negotiations and the Middle East. He would suggest to take up the Vienna negotiations first, because the exchange of views would undoubtedly be shorter than on the Middle East problem. In suggesting that the Middle East problem be discussed here in Moscow, he did not intend to preclude the special meeting that he and the Secretary had agreed upon, to be held in Geneva for the specific purpose of discussing the Middle East. In this connection, they could perhaps take up other disarmament issues and questions of mutual interest.

The Secretary said that would be fine with us; he would be happy to discuss these two items and thought it was appropriate to take up the Vienna talks first. He suggested that Gromyko start off.

MBFR Vienna Negotiations

Gromyko said that the Soviet Union continued to believe that it would be useful to reach agreement on an equal reduction by both sides of their armed forces and armaments in Central Europe. A successful solution to this problem would constitute a major contribution to achievement of military detente on the European continent, and would be an important component of the efforts aimed at strengthening peace and security.

Gromyko wished to point out directly and clearly that throughout the more than three-year history of the Vienna negotiations3 the East had done a great deal and had gone a long way to bring them to a positive result. The principal factor in the Soviet approach, and this pervaded all the specific proposals tabled in Vienna by the socialist countries, was that reductions should not harm the security of either party. Any agreement reached must not give either side any unilateral advantage. In other words, what was to be accomplished was a reduction of the levels of military confrontation in Central Europe, but without disturbing the correlation of forces in that area. The level would be reduced, but the existing correlation of forces would remain the same; that was the only solution to this question. Naturally, it would please either side in the negotiations if the other were to give up some of its forces, but this would not be a realistic approach. Gromyko did not really believe that those responsible for preparation of these negotia[Page 74]tions had harbored any illusions about one-sided concessions. At least, there were no such illusions on the Soviet side. Their Western partners at the negotiations, however, were obstinately trying to get the Soviet Union and its allies to accept so-called “asymetric” reductions, in other words expected the Eastern powers to reduce their forces to a far greater extent than the other side, and in effect weaken their defensive posture vis-a-vis NATO. This will not succeed; it cannot serve as a basis for agreement.

Gromyko thought the Secretary and his colleagues would be well acquainted with the latest proposal, in fact all the proposals the Eastern powers had tabled at the conference; thus there was no need to repeat them. Gromyko said that he would characterize the situation of the negotiations in Vienna as follows: the Western powers said to the Eastern powers, “We don’t like the fact that you have so many tanks; why don’t you reduce their numbers unilaterally, and then we will talk.” Well, that was some position! Did the other side really believe that the Eastern powers did not have the necessary intellectual resources to make similar proposals about U.S. forces in Central Europe? They could say: “We don’t like the fact that the United States has forces in Europe, reduce them unilaterally, and then we will talk.” No such proposal had ever been tabled by the Eastern powers, however. The Soviet Union and its allies were ready to continue the negotiations in a search for a solution to this problem, but only on a basis of equality in a search for solutions which would take into account the security interests of all the parties concerned. Gromyko felt that, given exactly such an approach by the Soviet Union and the United States, because of their weight and the role they played in the world, the Vienna negotiations could be moved out of their present stagnation, and real progress could be achieved. Gromyko pointed out that he had already said to the previous Administration and perhaps even to representatives of the new Administration (he did not recall) that he did not believe that this problem could be resolved at one fell swoop, that it was not an easy one, that it would require time and patience. The Soviet side had sufficient patience and was prepared to continue the discussions. Roughly the same thing was said by US representatives, and that was good. Without both sides manifesting the necessary degree of patience it would be difficult to resolve issues, particularly complex issues, such as the ones discussed in Vienna. But one should not forget the time factor. Other things being equal, the sooner this problem was resolved the better. He would ask the Secretary to take a fresh look at this problem. In particular, he would like to draw his attention to the last proposal the East submitted in Vienna. He and his colleagues had heard some preliminary reactions to that proposal, but had not yet received an official response. He would ask the Secretary to take a look at it and see what it was in the latest Soviet proposal that did not suit the [Page 75] United States. He was at a loss to understand that. Could this proposal for a symbolic initial reduction of Soviet and US forces really undermine the security of the United States, or that of the Soviet Union? Was this really such a terrible thing? He would also ask whether the Secretary would not agree that actual achievement of progress on the basis of that last Soviet proposal for a token, symbolic, reduction of US and Soviet forces would create favorable conditions for the solution of other questions that needed to be resolved? It would be hard to say to just what extent such progress would facilitate resolution of other questions, but it would undoubtedly work in the direction of creating a climate of detente. This concluded what he wanted to say about the Vienna negotiations.

The Secretary thanked Gromyko for his remarks and said that in response he would first say that in our view the present situation did call for serious steps in order to move forward the Vienna negotiations which were unfortunately in a state of stagnation. In order to make progress, in our judgment two key principles would have to be recognized by both sides. The first accurately reflected the real objective of both sides in these negotiations, and that was to achieve parity, equal military manpower in this area. Gromyko had talked of equal reductions. We insist that there be equal results—overall parity—just as in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. What we sought as an ultimate goal in both negotiations was rough parity. The proposal Gromyko had referred to, providing for equal reductions, would contractualize inequality. Our purpose was to seek an even balance on the basis of agreed data. That in our judgment was a proper basis for seeking agreement in this field. The other key principle was collectivity of manpower limitations. This was an essential condition for any agreement in the Vienna negotiations. We would agree that subceilings were justified for US and Soviet forces, only because the territories of our countries were outside the area covered by the negotiations, and because we were the two most important powers involved in them. On the other hand, to establish subceilings for the forces of the other countries involved would seriously disrupt collective defense arrangements. If the other side was ready to negotiate on the basis of such collectivity, we would regard it as an important step forward. As for the matter of symbolic cuts, we believed this would be a mistake, because it would mislead not only peoples in our two countries, but all peoples. The Secretary would add, however, that we would agree to US and Soviet cuts, but we would need better data for analysis and for arriving at conclusions.

Gromyko asked if the Secretary believed that the data already submitted were not sufficient?

The Secretary replied that they were not sufficient. We would discuss with our allies whether additional amplification of the data we [Page 76] had provided was required. We now believed that there was a large disparity between Eastern and Western forces, but we would need better data to arrive at correct conclusions. In sum, if we could agree on the two principles the Secretary had described, and could have reliable data, we could promptly achieve the positive results that both our countries wanted. He would point out that the data presented so far showed 150,000 fewer troops on the side of the Eastern powers than our estimates indicated. We needed a breakdown of the data in order to find out where differences existed and how they could be reconciled.

Gromyko thought that if some additional data were indeed required this could be done, but it would have to be done on a bilateral basis. On their side, too, they might require additional data. He would have to further reflect on this matter.

The Secretary said that if the Soviet side needed additional data, they should let us know, and we would take it up with our allies.

Gromyko said the situation was such that since the West had raised this matter of data, obviously the Soviet Union and its allies would be equally entitled to additional data.

Smirnov added that one would have to give some further thought to this direction. Gromyko acknowledged this, but said that it would be wrong if the question of data were to turn into an obstacle to resolving this major issue in substance.

The Secretary once again stressed that if agreement could be reached on the two principles he had mentioned, there was reason to believe that progress could be made in Vienna. He added that we were prepared to consider requests for additional data, and believed the Soviet side should approach the question in this manner. He hoped that Gromyko could reflect on the matter of agreeing on the two principles.

Gromyko said that we should not permit really insignificant discrepancies in the data each side had stand in the way of progress in resolving what was indeed a most important political issue. He would repeat that he was in favor of negotiating further. The Soviet Union and its allies would never be the first to break off these negotiations.

The Secretary said that was good.

Gromyko said that there were some problems that required not just a few years, but in some cases even decades to be resolved. This did not mean he was in favor of dragging the Vienna talks out for decades. It sometimes happened that a sudden breakthrough occurs which moves the negotiations forward. A good example of that could be seen in Soviet relations with the Federal Republic of Germany. For many years the Soviet Union and the FRG did not even have diplomatic relations. Then suddenly diplomatic relations were established and even a treaty [Page 77] signed.4 Both sides had gained from this, as had the cause of peace. He hoped that the Secretary, too, would stock up on patience.

The Secretary said he would, and would continue to hope for a breakthrough.

Middle East

Gromyko said that there were a number of disarmament matters he thought it would be useful to discuss, but now he would take up the Middle East because this problem was most acute. The situation in the Middle East had been the subject of discussions between the two countries for many years now, including some at the highest level. It was discussed when President Johnson was in office, later on with President Nixon and then with President Ford. It was also discussed with the Carter Administration, although not too deeply. (Gromyko regarded this as the first small step taken.) However, we still had no solution to the Middle East problem. If the Secretary believes that peace in the East could be bought for 1 million or 1 billion dollars, he would be sure that the Secretary was deeply mistaken.

The Secretary said we did not believe that peace could be bought.

Gromyko said that was good. What the Secretary had just said was encouraging. If this was indeed so, we must jointly look for a political solution. He did not know whether the Secretary was aware of the fact that at one point the Soviet Union had agreed with the United States that both countries would coordinate their activities in the Middle East. But, what had happened then? Nothing serious had happened. There was no coordination, not even a more or less regular exchange of information. This understanding had been suspended in mid-air and demonstratively not carried out. Unfortunately, this situation prevailed to the present day and, as he had told the Secretary before and during today’s lunch, the Soviet Union regarded the present situation in the Middle East as fraught with much explosive potential. It was true that for the moment the cannons were silent, but this did not prove anything. Both our countries had witnessed a variety of surprises in that region. In 1973, toward the end of that year, there was a moment when through the joint efforts of our two countries it had seemed that a beginning could be made in the process of settling the conflict between the Arab countries and Israel. There was an unofficial understanding to continue acting jointly in the interests of establishing a just and lasting peace in the Middle East. Unfortunately, however, very soon after that the United States chose a separatist way of proceeding. It was quite evident that in so doing, the US was not guided by long-term consider[Page 78]ations, but by the prospects of gaining purely temporary advantages. The short-sightedness and erroneousness of that mode of action by the United States appeared to him to be quite obvious. Gromyko wanted to say outright that the Soviet Union had not sought and was not now seeking any special rights or advantages for itself, but, neither should anyone else. The only desire the USSR had for that area, which is situated in direct proximity to the borders of the Soviet Union, was peace. But peace could only be based on taking account of the legitimate interests and legitimate rights of all the parties concerned, above all those states which were directly involved in the conflict.

Gromyko said that three key elements were of importance for real cooperation between our countries to promote settlement of this problem. What he was saying now would perhaps also be useful to bear in mind in future discussions between him and the Secretary later this year, but he would set forth these key elements now. First, he was deeply convinced that the starting point of any settlement was agreement on the principle that was codified in a well-known resolution of the UN Security Council—the inadmissibility of territorial acquisition by war. In other words, this meant that the result of a settlement should be that Israel remove its forces from all the Arab territories it had occupied in 1967. In this connection, Gromyko reminded the Secretary that he had headed the Soviet delegation at the Special Session of the General Assembly, which had discussed a Soviet and an American proposal to establish a state of Israel. Our two delegations had tabled corresponding proposals almost simultaneously. The Soviet Union had firmly favored the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East. By the way, Israel should really be grateful to the Soviet Union for such a way of looking at the situation. After all, the 1967 borders represented a considerable increase in the size of the Israeli state when compared to the borders established by the United Nations in 1947.

But it seemed to be forgotten now that at that time not only an independent Jewish state was established in that area, but also an independent Arab state, which had simply disappeared because part of it was later seized by Israel and another part by Jordan. Thus, when he talked about a return to the 1967 borders, that would already represent a considerable expansion of Israeli territory by comparison with the 1947 borders. The fact that Tel Aviv resisted a return to the 1967 borders could not be explained as anything other than the result of having completely lost a feeling for reality. He thought the Israelis probably reasoned that since a rifle was more effective today than the rule of law, they should rely on the rifle. All this, however, produced a very unstable situation in the area.

Now Gromyko wanted to tell the Secretary something very unpleasant, but he felt he would be remiss if he failed to do so: those who [Page 79] encourage Israel in territorial annexations instead of acting to bring it to its senses were only rendering a disservice to the cause of peace in the Middle East and, he would say, to Israel itself. “Defensible borders”—how many wise men did it take working day and night to come up with that euphemism? If Israel, Israeli leaders, those who determined its policy believed that they could indefinitely live under conditions of war with the Arabs, they were deeply mistaken. It would require a major miracle indeed for this to be possible. Although the Middle East was known as an area that had produced some major miracles, this one would have to be even larger than any previous miracle. Attempts to acquire ownership of Arab lands could only multiply the hatred of Arabs toward Israel. In this connection, Gromyko referred to Sadat and said that anyone who wanted to base his long-term policy on all sorts of memoirs that were published would find himself in a very complex situation. Quite recently Prime Minister Rabin had made a statement couched in aggressive terms. It had amounted to saying that even if agreement was reached, Israel would in any case retain a portion of the Arab lands it had occupied in 1967 in the form of Israeli military bases. This was the road toward unceasing enmity between Israel and the Arabs. Was that the road Israel wanted to take, or did it want peace? If it wanted peace it could get peace. If that was so, he would suggest that the Soviet Union and the United States help them achieve it, and reinforce Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign, independent state. The Soviet Union was firmly for that, and had indeed never deviated from that stand. In fact, the Israelis should have said “thank you” to the Soviet Union for such a policy but, in Israel they don’t know how to pronounce these words. The Soviet Union was deeply convinced that it would be much more promising for the United States and the Soviet Union to take a joint action to promote peace. It would be much more promising and might even be cheaper. What was missing now was our common and weighty word. Let President Carter resolutely say that there must be peace, and the Soviet Union would add its words to the same effect immediately.

Gromyko said that another element concerned the legitimate rights of the Arab people in Palestine. There would be no peace in the Middle East if the legitimate rights of Palestinians were not satisfied. What this really required was a very small piece of territory for the Palestinians. They were not asking for much. Looking at a map recently, Gromyko found that the eraser part of his pencil was larger than the territory involved. Providing that territory would bring about a great and most significant change in the situation. Among other things it would also stop promoting certain activities that were undesirable for the Soviet Union, for the United States, and for Israel, i.e., the various terrorist and extremist tendencies among Palestinians. Such undesirable phenomena would then be undercut. Actually, in terms of spe[Page 80]cifics, when Gromyko spoke of a small piece of land, he was referring to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. What the relationship of such a state would be with neighboring Arab states, particularly Jordan, was something the Palestinians and the Arab states themselves could decide. It could perhaps take the form of close-knit economic ties, perhaps even economic ties with Israel.

Now on the matter of Palestinian participation in the Geneva conference to settle this problem. What form that participation should take should be decided by the Arabs themselves. Whom else could we ask about that? President Amin, perhaps? He knew, of course, that the US had cordial relations with Amin, but the Palestinians themselves would have to decide this issue. Perhaps the Arabs would decide to go to Geneva in one single delegation including Palestinians. Why should we, the Soviet Union or the United States, object to this? The Soviet position on this matter was anything but rigid.

Finally, Gromyko wanted to repeat again that if necessary, political guarantees should be provided for the independent, sovereign existence and development of all states in the Middle East. The Soviet Union was prepared to affix its signature to a solemn document to that effect, along with the signature of the United States. Perhaps other major powers, such as France or Britain, might want to join in providing guarantees if they shared the same goal of peace and fairness. Of course, it goes without saying that the result of such a radical settlement must be a cessation (Gromyko repeated “cessation”) of the state of war, as Israel itself had insisted all along. After that, let anyone try to open fire in that region. It would be sufficient for either of us to just wag a finger to put a stop to it.

There were other issues in the Middle East that required discussion. Gromyko would prefer to leave these for the future. Notable among them was the question of timing and organizing the Geneva Conference. Now Gromyko would like to hear from the Secretary whether or not the new Carter Administration was prepared to act in concert and coordination with the Soviet Union, to implement in practice the statements already made by President Carter and by the Secretary. Major international issues cannot be resolved without the active participation of the Soviet Union and the United States. Gromyko regarded that as an axiom.

The Secretary said that he welcomed the opportunity to talk about the Middle East, because he believed that this was one of the three or four most important issues facing us today. He believed that the danger to peace in this region, but also to world peace, was very great indeed because of the lack of a just and lasting settlement to the conflict there. He also believed that we, the United States and Soviet Union, as co-chairmen of the Geneva Conference, had the solemn obligation to [Page 81] see to it that the necessary steps were taken to bring this conflict to a final and just conclusion. That could only be accomplished by cooperation between our two countries. The Secretary would point out that he had said on many occasions that we could cooperate with the Soviet Union in discharging this responsibility. President Carter shared that view. The Carter Administration had acted accordingly since coming into office. Immediately after returning from his Middle East trip5 the Secretary had informed the Soviet leadership through Ambassador Dobrynin of his discussions there. We had also informed the Soviets about the discussions with Prime Minister Rabin after the latter’s visit to Washington, and intended to keep the Soviet Union informed of the results of discussions with Arab leaders after their visits to the United States. The Secretary had also already indicated to Gromyko that he looked forward to meeting him in Geneva later this year in order to agree on steps to reconvene the Geneva conference. Thus, Gromyko could see that we were serious in our desire to cooperate in these areas.

The Secretary now wanted to turn to the key issues before us. First, the question of boundaries, the question Gromyko had raised in his principle number 1—the inadmissibility of territorial acquisition by war. Our position on this was well-known. We strongly supported Resolution 2426 of the UN General Assembly and reaffirmed it today. Nothing said by President Carter goes counter to that resolution. On defensible borders, when the President had been asked to amplify his views he had said that we had not changed our views about Resolution 242. Indeed, he had specifically talked of Israel’s 1967 borders with minor changes. When President Carter had spoken about defensible borders, what he had in mind were defense arrangements primarily. It seemed to the Secretary that it would be necessary for a period of time to make certain defense arrangements in order to insure that the borders were inviolable. The exact framework of such arrangements might include such things as demilitarized zones, patrols, reconnaissance, a “black box” perhaps, possibly UN troops in demilitarized zones. This would have to be discussed at the Geneva Conference.

As for the legitimate interests of the Palestinian people, the Secretary said it was our view that the question of how these interests were to be taken care of was primarily a question for the Arabs to resolve. During his recent trip to the Middle East, he had put this question to various Arab leaders. Each held a different view. He had urged them to try and coordinate their views so that we could better understand how [Page 82] best to proceed. He hoped that he would get further clarification on that next Monday, when President Sadat came to Washington.

Gromyko asked if the Secretary could be sure that he would obtain further clarification.

The Secretary said that we would keep the Soviet Union informed. He would mention, however, that there was a fundamental question that both of us had to consider and see if a solution could be found to it, and that was the current refusal of the Palestinians to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a nation. Such refusal was completely contrary to our views and indeed Soviet views. The Secretary expressed the hope that Gromyko could use his influence with the PLO to eliminate the corresponding provision from its Charter.

Gromyko asked whether in that case the United States and Israel would be ready to recognize the right of the Palestinians to an independent and separate state entity. Obviously these two matters were closely related.

The Secretary replied that, of course, he could not speak for Israel but, removal of that provision from the PLO Charter would create a different situation; at this time it was a stumbling block.

Gromyko said that he could say the same for the Palestinians, although he could not speak on their behalf. It was surely important that Israel state that it was ready to recognize the rights of the Palestinians. As to who would be the first to say “A,” that should not be a difficult matter to resolve, that was precisely what diplomacy was all about.

The Secretary agreed. As for PLO participation at the Geneva conference, he agreed that in the final analysis this was in large part a question the Arabs themselves should decide. However, he had found that Arab leaders were split right down the middle on this issue. President Assad had said that unless the Arabs came to Geneva as one delegation, he would not participate. On the other hand, President Sadat had said that he would not come to Geneva if the Arabs came as a single delegation. The Secretary had urged them to make an effort to see if they could not agree on what form their participation would take in Geneva.

Gromyko said that things would be considerably easier if the Secretary could say whether the United States today held to its old position, or whether it had a new position regarding the possibility of the Palestinians participating in Geneva, regardless of whether it was in the form of a single delegation or a separate delegation.

The Secretary said that we wished to discuss this matter with the Arab leaders he was expecting in Washington. Our discussions with the Arabs would be concluded by the middle of May, by the time he and Gromyko would meet in Geneva.

[Page 83]

Gromyko said that we must not permit questions of substance to flounder in matters of procedure, organization, minor secondary matters, because the fundamental issues of war and peace far outweighed the minor issues in importance.

The Secretary said that he agreed in part, but had to point out that the question of Palestinian participation was a question of both substance and procedure, because it involved what was going to be resolved in the future.

Gromyko said it did not matter what we called it, it was his only desire that we not lose substance over procedure.

  1. Source: Department of State, Office of the Secretariat Staff, Special Adviser to the Secretary (S/MS) on Soviet Affairs Marshall Shulman—Jan 21, 77–Jan 19, 81, Lot 81D109, Box 8, Vance to Moscow, 3/28–30, 1977. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Krimer on April 4; reviewed in draft by Hyland; approved by Twaddell on April 12. The meeting took place at the Kremlin. In Secto 3030 from Moscow, March 29, Vance summarized his meeting for Carter, Brzezinski, and Christopher. The telegram is in the Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Europe, USSR, and East/West, Hunter/Rentschler Trips/Visits File, Box 17, 3/25–4/2/77 Vance Trip to Moscow: 3/28–31/1977.
  2. See Document 18.
  3. See Department of State Bulletin, November 26, 1973, pp. 657–661, and Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XXXIX, European Security, Documents 346, 348, 351, 357, 365 and 367.
  4. For the text of the treaty, signed August 12, 1970, see Documents on Germany, 1944–1985, pp. 1103–1105.
  5. See Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VIII, Arab-Israeli Dispute, January 1977–August 1978, Documents 68.
  6. Reference is to U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which calls for a lasting peace in the Middle East. For the text see Yearbook of the United Nations, 1967, pp. 257–258.