16. Minutes of a National Security Council Meeting1


  • Middle East


  • The President
  • The Vice President
  • State
  • Secretary Cyrus Vance
  • Alfred L. Atherton, Jr.
  • Defense
  • Secretary Harold Brown
  • Charles W. Duncan
  • Treasury
  • Secretary Michael Blumenthal
  • NSC
  • Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski
  • David Aaron
  • William B. Quandt
  • U.S. Representative to the United Nations
  • Ambassador Andrew Young
  • OMB
  • Director Bert Lance
  • CIA
  • Acting Director Enno Knoche
  • JCS
  • General George S. Brown
  • Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs and Policy
  • Stuart Eizenstat
[Page 123]


The Middle East Trip

Secretary Vance’s trip to the Middle East succeeded in accomplishing three main objectives:

  • —to demonstrate the President’s commitment to the achievement of peace in the Middle East.
  • —to establish personal rapport with the key leaders of the area.
  • —to learn the views of each party and to identify areas of agreement and disagreement.

Substantive Issues

Several areas of agreement were identified. All agree on the need for a peace settlement, in large measure because of the burden of defense expenditures. All parties concur that if procedural problems can be solved they will go to Geneva in late 1977, probably in September. At Geneva they will discuss an overall settlement, not just interim steps. They are prepared to discuss substance without preconditions. The US role is viewed as essential.

The elements of an agreement are viewed by all parties as the establishment of peace, withdrawal, and a resolution of the Palestinian question. Peace is viewed by the Israelis as entailing diplomatic relations and trade, whereas the Arab concept is essentially to end the state of war. Disagreement over the issue of withdrawal is very deep, with Israel holding to the notion of secure recognized borders and the Arabs calling for full withdrawal to the 1967 lines. On the Palestinian question, there is little consensus even among the Arabs.

Procedural Issues

On the procedural side, the key problems are Palestinian representation at Geneva and the question of whether the Arabs will come as a single delegation, including perhaps the PLO, or as separate national delegations.

Resolution of procedural differences may take time, perhaps until August, because of Israeli domestic political uncertainties. This will have to be discussed with the Israelis beginning with Prime Minister Rabin’s visit to Washington.

The US Role

The United States must help move the parties toward consideration of substantive positions. General principles governing a settlement must be defined if the Conference is to move forward. An agreed concept of peace is required; the issues of security and sovereignty should be separated; a clearer definition of the Palestinian possibilities is needed; and the differences on territory must be narrowed. These [Page 124] should be studied within the Administration before Prime Minister Rabin’s visit. An analytical paper will be ready by the end of this week. Alternative ways of resolving differences should be presented. The most difficult problems will be territorial withdrawals and Jerusalem.

It would be helpful to have a list of the concrete steps that each Arab country surrounding Israel might be asked to take in order to move toward a normalization of relations. These could then be discussed with each Arab leader.

The Arab Boycott

The boycott problem was raised in Saudi Arabia.2 The Saudis do not oppose legislation directed at the activities of American companies, but they strongly oppose any legislation which tries to tell them how to conduct their own affairs. US public statements should try to take this into account. Guidance for how the Administration’s position should be presented should be prepared. The Saudis should be complimented for their helpful attitude. This will help in producing good legislation that will be acceptable to the Saudis.

Follow-on Actions

1. State will prepare a substantive issues paper by February 28, setting out alternative ways of resolving the major issues in dispute.

2. State will request our Ambassadors in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to submit ideas on how these countries might begin to move toward normal relations with Israel over time. These ideas should be available prior to the visits by the leaders of these countries in the spring.

3. State should prepare guidance by February 28 on how Administration officials should refer publicly to the boycott issue so as to assuage Saudi concerns. This should be coordinated with Treasury, Commerce and NSC.

Secretary Vance: I began my trip with several limited objectives. First, I wanted to emphasize how important the Middle East is to the United States, the depth of Presidential commitment to finding a peaceful solution, and the importance of our role in resolving the conflict. All of the leaders I spoke with appreciated our key role, and were pleased that my first mission abroad was to the Middle East.

Second, the trip gave me the opportunity to meet with all of the leaders and their advisors, and to establish a personal relationship with them. I believe this was important as a way of building trust and confidence for the period of negotiations that lies ahead.

[Page 125]

Third, I had the chance to hear the views of leaders in the area, and to determine where there were areas of agreement and where there was disagreement. This will help us to establish a basis for our own analysis of our course of action. We face a long and difficult road ahead with no assurance of success. But I believe that it may be possible to achieve an overall agreement.

I was encouraged to find several areas of agreement. First, there is a shared commitment by all of the leaders that they must find a way to peace in the Middle East. They feel they can no longer bear the expenditures on arms. This is taking away from their own social and economic programs. They feel that if this continues they may be out of office. All of them have pressing social and economic problems, especially President Sadat. The Israelis feel the same way, and refer to their heavy tax burden. Both President Asad and King Hussein said essentially the same thing.

Second, all the parties agreed that, if procedural issues could be resolved, they are prepared to go to Geneva in late 1977. Probably in September.

Third, at Geneva they are prepared to discuss an overall settlement—not just interim steps.

Fourth, at a conference, they would be prepared to talk about substantive issues without preconditions. Everything could be placed on the table.

Fifth, they all agree that the United States must play a key role in reaching a solution. The Israelis see us primarily as helping them, whereas the Arabs view our role as that of pressing Israel for concessions. But at least they both agree that the United States has a major role to play.

Sixth, they all agree on the core elements of a solution: peace, withdrawal, and the Palestinian question. They define peace, however, quite differently. The Israelis speak of the normalization of relations, whereas the Arabs refer only to ending the state of war. The Arabs feel that diplomatic relations, trade, and so forth, will have to follow in time.

Some Arab countries could go ahead of the others. One might, for example, trade with Israel (as Jordan is now doing) before the others.

On withdrawal, the parties are deeply divided. The Arabs call for total Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries. They also demand the return of Arab Jerusalem. The Israelis, by contrast, speak of secure borders. I tried to probe with them what they meant. This will require more talk. They seem to think of some boundary changes combined with other security measures such as demilitarized zones, UN peacekeeping forces, guarantees, and early warning stations.

[Page 126]

On the Palestinian question, the parties are divided, including among the Arabs themselves. The Arabs still have to get their own house in order. I talked to Asad in private about this3 and told him that the Arabs would have to come to agreement on the Palestinian issue. He agreed and said that the Arabs had lots of work still to do.

On procedural matters, the key problem is PLO participation in the discussions. The Arabs are divided on this. The Syrians have cool relations with the PLO. Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, however, believe the PLO under Arafat is the best that we can hope to deal with. They think that other leaders would be worse. I noted today in the intelligence reporting that Arafat sees his trump card as changing the Palestinian Covenant. He is not prepared to do this at an early date. We may have to face this issue soon. The Palestine National Council will meet in Cairo on March 12th. We should watch this meeting very carefully to see what happens.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Rabin will be here on March 7th. Then the other leaders will come during April, and you will meet with President Asad in Europe in May at a mutually convenient time.

The other major procedural question is whether the Arabs will come as a unified delegation or as separate national delegations. President Asad very strongly feels that there must be a single delegation as he told me in private. President Sadat prefers that negotiations be done on a bilateral basis. Asad may not even go to Geneva if this cannot be resolved. I feel that they will be able to find a solution to this question, as well as the PLO participation issue. I believe that procedural problems can be overcome.

The President: Can we expect the Arabs to agree to having Jordan take the PLO to Geneva in their delegation?

Secretary Vance: This might be possible.

The President: Would any of them object? Sadat seems to agree to the idea of a confederation.

Secretary Vance: Asad has problems with this idea, but he would not necessarily veto it. He feels that Sadat is fuzzy on this issue.

The President: Is it reasonable to expect as a precondition to going to Geneva that the PLO accept Resolutions 242 and 338? All of the others accept them.

Secretary Vance: Resolution 242 does not deal with the Palestinians directly.

The President: So they would refuse?

[Page 127]

Secretary Vance: Yes, because it makes no reference to the Palestinians. They are concerned with the question of recognition. It would be hard for them to accept Resolution 242 unless they are accorded recognition.

The President: What deadline date do you see for resolving the procedural questions?

Secretary Vance: The Israelis face elections in mid-May and it is my judgment that it will take four to six weeks for them to get in shape after the elections and to form their coalition. Realistically speaking, it may be August before we reach agreement on procedural matters. But we can work on substantive issues in the interim.

My trip stirred up a great deal of interest among the Arabs and they are now beginning to deal with the issues. They are engaged in a series of meetings. A PLO delegation is in Jordan now, and Presidents Asad and Sadat will soon be meeting. Over the next two months, there will be a number of such talks, plus the meetings with you. I will probably go back to the area in June to push for resolution of these issues.

The President: August is late for resolving the procedural issues. That leaves only one month before Geneva.

Secretary Vance: We could try to move things up, but it will be hard to get Israel to change its position on the PLO before that. Israel still denies recognition to the PLO.

The President: That will determine whether we have Geneva or not.

Secretary Vance: It is hard for Israeli leaders to take a stand.

Secretary Brown: Even if you could move the agreement on procedures up to June, things could still fall apart before Geneva.

Secretary Vance: The other problem besides the PLO is the question of a single Arab delegation or separate national delegations.

The President: We do not have any preference on that. It is up to the Arabs. How do the Saudis feel?

Mr. Atherton: The Saudis will go along with the other Arab leaders on this, but Israel opposes a combined Arab delegation and prefers bilateral negotiations.

The President: The major problem is with Israel?

Secretary Vance: Yes sir.

The President: Maybe it is a mistake for Rabin to be the first one to come over here.

Secretary Vance: He will be tough on several issues: the PLO, boundaries, and the idea of an independent state on the West Bank. He will only want to see the West Bank within a Jordanian-dominated federation, not as an independent state. He will also be tough on Jerusalem.

[Page 128]

The President: Only the first of these needs to be solved right away.

Dr. Brzezinski: I agree with Secretary Vance that we need to work on substantive issues before Geneva. If we only resolve the procedural questions first, Geneva will break down and the Soviets will try to exploit the situation. We should use our bilateral contacts and maybe informal meetings of the parties so that we can get agreement on underlying principles. We need to think about what our role should be in leading the parties in a subtle way to define the principles for a settlement. Then a conference at Geneva can start. For example, the discussion of sovereignty and security must be separated. A sharper definition of the Palestinian issue is required. We need a clearer concept of peace and we need to narrow the gap on territory. Recognized frontiers need not be the same as defense lines.

Secretary Vance: I agree fully. These are the key issues we face.

The President: We need to analyze them before Rabin arrives.

Secretary Vance: We will have a paper on this by the end of the week.4

The President: We should work out alternative ways of resolving these issues in our own mind. We need to know which alternatives are most promising. This would be a great help. We should also think of alternative time schedules, such as implementation of an agreement in phases over a period of ten or twenty years.

Dr. Brzezinski: Secretary Kissinger tried to take small steps toward an indefinite future in the Middle East. We should try to define the future first, and then move by small steps in implementing an agreement. This is a key difference.

The President: Yes. [to Secretary Vance] Which of the leaders are able to speak for their countries?

Secretary Vance: Asad, Fahd, and Sadat, at least for now. Also Hussein. But Rabin cannot. Elections could bring change there.

The President: Will Rabin survive the party convention today?

Secretary Vance: Golda Meir’s endorsement of him should help. I would bet that he will win today. But it will be close.

The Vice President: What authority will he have if he wins?

Secretary Vance: No matter who wins, all of the main leaders will be included in the cabinet. Even Yadin and the National Religious Party will be included.

Secretary Brown: They won’t be able to make concessions easily.

[Page 129]

Mr. Atherton: The Labor Party will lose some ground. The question is how much. They will have a fragmented coalition. They will not be able to make decisions without some nudging.

The President: Is there any difference between Labor and Yadin on foreign policy? I know the domestic differences, but are there any foreign policy differences?

Mr. Atherton: Yadin is more dovish, but his movement is monolithic.

The President: If I were in Israel, I would have joined his party. [Laughter]. When I was in Israel I was struck by the lack of a democratic means of voting for leaders. They don’t seem to trust the voters. Yadin has filled a vacuum. This will probably change.

Secretary Vance: Allon said that the electoral system would change, that Yadin was right. Allon will be a member of any future coalition government. There is no question that it will require nudging from us for a solution to be reached. The Israelis will not make decisions otherwise.

The President: We will have to judge what the Israelis can really accept. For example, recognition of the PLO, not necessarily officially, but at least recognizing their existence. This might be a useful step. We will have to resolve this amongst ourselves.

Secretary Vance: We will probably be getting more visa applications from PLO spokesmen to come to conferences in the United States. I will be inclined to grant a visa the next time. This could be a limited signal that we are prepared to move off dead center. We should talk more about this.

The President: There is an ancillary question relating to this whole subject. Are we in conformity with the Helsinki Agreement?5 Can we keep people like this out of our country? This is not so much a question just of the PLO, but we have to be clean on the human rights issue.

Secretary Vance: On the definition of peace, I think we can bridge the gap. Ultimately, we can get them together on the Palestinian question as well. The biggest obstacle will be territory and Jerusalem. Some of these, of course, are interrelated. If we can get agreement on territory, it will affect the Palestinian question.

The President: How do you assess the possibilities for individual Arab nations loosening their relations with Israel? Could Saudi Arabia consider agreement on demilitarization of the Gulf of Aqaba?

[Page 130]

Secretary Vance: Yes, possibly. Peres suggested this. I decided not to raise this with the Saudis now, but to leave it for later. Ambassador Porter thinks that they would agree. Steps like this might be taken in each area, except Syria. Jordan is very flexible on open bridges and trade. Syria is very tough.

The President: We should get from our ambassadors in all of the key Arab countries a list of possible steps that might be taken with Israel. We should ask them what might be considered. For example, tourism, demilitarization of the Gulf of Aqaba, and so forth. If we had a list of all such steps, then when Fahd, for example, comes we could discuss some of these. This would be strictly bilateral.

Secretary Blumenthal: Did you discuss the boycott?

Secretary Vance: Yes. With Fahd and Foreign Minister Saud. I spent several hours one night with Saud. On the secondary and tertiary boycott, the only problem he sees is whether we are trying to tell him what Saudi Arabia can do in its own country. He feels that it is all right for us to tell our own companies what to do, but not to interfere in their internal affairs. They could accept positive certificates of origin instead of negative certificates. This is now done already in all contracts, but not on all letters of credit. I have a draft paper from our working group on proposals that we could support.6

Secretary Blumenthal: It seems that we have a basis for agreement.

The President: We should carefully devise our own public statements to assuage Saudi sensitivities. Secretary Vance, Dr. Brzezinski and I should work out a common approach. We should reassure them that we do not intend to interfere in their internal affairs and we should compliment them on their good attitude. We should try to be gracious in public. This way we can come out with the same legislation, but it may be acceptable to the Arabs. We need some guidance for our public position.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Council, Institutional Files, Box 55, NSC–003, 02/23/77, Middle East, Result of Sec. Vance Trip. Secret; Sensitive. The meeting took place in the White House Cabinet Room. All brackets are in the original. Brzezinski sent Carter an undated memorandum under cover of which was the Summary of Conclusions of the NSC meeting. Carter indicated his approval of the Summary of Conclusions on Brzezinski’s memorandum. (Ibid.)
  2. See footnote 14, Document 14.
  3. No memorandum of conversation of a private meeting has been found.
  4. Not found.
  5. The Helsinki Agreement of 1975, reached at the conclusion of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, established several principles for the conduct of states, including topics such as frontiers, territorial integrity, internal disputes, and human rights.
  6. The draft paper has not been found.