21. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • U.S. Policy in the Middle East


  • Conference of Presidents
  • Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, President, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations
  • Mr. Elmer Winter, President, American Jewish Committee
  • Mrs. Charlotte Jacobson, Chairman, American Section, World Zionist Organization
  • Mr. Yehuda Hellman, Executive Director, Conference of Presidents
  • Mr. Harold Jacobs, President of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America
  • Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz, President of the Rabbinical Council
  • Department of State
  • The Secretary
  • Mr. Philip C. Habib, Under Secretary
  • Mr. Nicholas A. Veliotes, Deputy Assistant Secretary, NEA
  • Miss Xenia G. Vunovic, NEA/IAI (Notetaker)

Summary. At their request, Rabbi Schindler, Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and five representatives of member organizations of the Conference met with the Secretary to discuss his recent trip to the Middle East and the current visit of Prime Minister Rabin to Washington. The group expressed particular concern over the President’s remarks at his March 9 press conference.2 The Secretary assured them that U.S. policy in the Middle East has not changed and that the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel, and our commitment to Israel’s security, are as strong as ever. He emphasized the following statement from the President’s press conference as an expression of the central thrust of U.S. policy concerning the Middle East: “Obviously, any agreement has to be between the parties concerned. We will act as an intermediary when our good offices will serve well. But I am not trying to predispose our own [Page 158] nation’s attitude toward what might be the ultimate details of the agreement that can mean so much to world peace.” The American Jewish group stated that they were reassured about U.S. policy and promised to so inform their organizations and the press. End summary.

At their request, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and five representatives of member organizations of the Conference met with the Secretary to discuss the Middle East situation. Following an exchange of pleasantries Rabbi Schindler noted that although it was fortunate that the group would have the opportunity to discuss the Rabin visit, the Conference of Presidents had requested this meeting with the Secretary before it was aware of Rabin’s trip. He noted that the American Jewish community is uneasy about U.S. policy towards Israel during any change of Administrations and added that the other participants represent every major segment of the American Jewish community.

Schindler requested the Secretary’s views in light of his recent trip to the Middle East and his impressions of the Rabin visit. The Secretary responded that his trip had been a fact-finding mission, the purpose of which was to ascertain the basic positions of the parties, to look for common ground among them, and to find a basis for moving forward in the negotiating process. He considered that his trip accomplished those limited objectives. The Secretary cited the following positive factors which emerged from his trip.

—Every leader he consulted said that he could no longer afford the arms costs of preparing for a potential Middle East conflict without severely undermining the vital social and economic needs of his people.

—If the important procedural questions could be cleared away—and they are difficult—each country was willing to go to a Geneva conference during the second half of 1977, following the Israeli elections.

—All the parties consulted were willing to discuss an overall peace settlement.

—The parties agreed that there should be no limit to the types of issues which could be discussed at Geneva.

The Secretary noted that there are three outstanding major issues over which Israel and the Arabs are divided; the nature of peace, boundaries, and the Palestinian question. The Secretary considers the nature of peace as most vital to Israel while the Arabs defined the Palestinian question as the most important issue. During his trip, the Secretary found that the Arabs defined the nature of peace as an end of the state of war while Israel defined it as complete normalization of relations. On boundaries, the Arabs want a return to the pre-June, 1967 War boundaries, while Israel expressed the need for defensible borders. On the Palestinian question, the Secretary found a surprisingly wide diver[Page 159]gence of views among the Arabs ranging from the advocacy of a separate Palestinian entity, to a Palestinian confederation with Jordan, to a confederation with both Jordan and Syria. Some kind of confederation was the objective of most of the Arabs with whom he held discussions. The Secretary informed the group that he had told the Arabs that they needed to reconcile their own views on the Palestinian question before progress could be made on this issue.

The Secretary emphasized that differences on matters of procedure reflect substantive differences, particularly among the Arabs. For example, Syria supports the concept of having only one Arab delegation in Geneva while Egypt advocates separate national delegations. This reflects Syria’s concern that unilateral agreements, such as Sinai II, not be concluded between Israel and a single Arab country. The Secretary also found sharp differences among Arab nations concerning the question of Palestinian representation at Geneva. Some Arab officials said that there may be changes in the Palestinian Convenant in the near future, but the Secretary doubted that this would happen at the March 12 meeting of the Palestinian National Council in Cairo or in the very near future.

Regarding U.S. intentions, the Secretary stated that the U.S. has resolved to meet in depth with the leaders of all the states concerned, beginning with Prime Minister Rabin, in order to discuss both procedure and substance.

Schindler asked whether this meeting would follow the ground rules of past meetings with Secretaries of State which were confidential with details of the meeting to be reported only to the Conference of the Presidents but not to the press. The Secretary agreed.

Schindler then inquired whether the President and the Secretary had explored the issues in greater depth with Rabin than the Secretary had during his trip to Israel. The Secretary replied that both the President and he had gone into some procedural and substantive issues in depth and, as a result of their meetings with Rabin,3 have a much better understanding of Israel’s point of view. Schindler noted that there was a thin line between having a definite U.S. policy concerning a peace settlement and acting as an intermediary. The Secretary replied that the U.S. has no position at this point; however, as negotiations proceed, the U.S. will have views on what it considers good compromise positions. He emphasized that it is up to the parties to reach an agreed settlement as no peace will last if it is imposed. Mr. Jacobs inquired about the Pres [Page 160] ident’s statement defining “defensible borders.”4 The Secretary responded that the President did not use “defensible borders” in a geographic sense but in a sense expressed in UNSC Resolution 242 which uses the term “secure and recognized boundaries.” The Secretary added that it was important to move away from being hung up on “code words” and to start talking about practical, workable solutions.

Schindler asked if the President’s March 9 press conference statement reflected a change in U.S. policy towards the Middle East. The Secretary reiterated that there is no change in the U.S. position. Schindler asserted that the President’s definition in his March 9 press conference of “defensible borders” was read by the Jewish community as a “rebuff” of what the President said about “defensible borders” on March 7 when welcoming Rabin.5 Under Secretary Habib emphasized that the President is not proposing any plan or solution and that the U.S. will act as an intermediary in the Middle East without attempting to impose a solution. The Secretary informed the group that he learned personally from the President that the President considers the following remarks in his press conference to express the central thrust of U.S. policy towards the Middle East.

“Obviously, any agreement has to be between the parties concerned. We will act as an intermediary when our good offices will serve well. But I am not trying to predispose our own nation’s attitude toward what might be the ultimate details of the agreement that can mean so much to world peace.”

Mrs. Jacobson asked if the Secretary considered face-to-face negotiations between the Arabs and Israel important and whether the U.S. can play a role to convince the Arabs to negotiate directly with Israel. The Secretary replied affirmatively and noted that Geneva will automatically result in face-to-face negotiations. The Secretary promised to do his best to discourage the concept of indirect negotiations at the conference table. Mr. Veliotes cited the 1973 Sinai talks between Generals [Page 161] Gamasy and Yaariv6 as a precedent for face-to-face official discussions between Israel and the Arabs and noted that the Joint Commission is part of Sinai II. Habib noted that face-to-face discussions are not a central issue for the Arabs. The real problem for the Arabs is how to organize the conference, whether in terms of one-to-one discussions with the Israelis or issue-by-issue discussions in which all delegations participate.

The Secretary explained that Syria prefers to hold one-to-one discussions in Geneva with a single Arab delegation representing all of the Arab parties concerned so that no Arab country could conclude a unilateral agreement with Israel.

Rabbi Rabinowitz noted that Geneva would be almost a summit conference and asked if there is a potential for conflict if the conference fails. The Secretary noted that this was a difficult question to answer but that both he and Rabin are concerned about such a possibility. He referred to Rabin’s remarks about being mindful of second best options as well as the possibility of failure.7 Habib emphasized that the deterrent to another conflict lies in part in the military strength of Israel. He assured the group that Israel has a margin of military safety in the Middle East. The Secretary added that we were committed to ensuring that Israel had this margin.

Turning to the intentions of President Sadat, Mr. Winter noted that Sadat has been described as both a man of peace and a man bent on the destruction of Israel and asked which perception was correct. He cited Sadat’s anti-Israel statements at the Afro–Arab summit in Cairo8 as a case in point. The Secretary emphasized that Sadat needs peace more than any other Middle East leader because of Egypt’s severe economic problems. He added that he had talked with all parties during his trip about the importance of the rhetoric which they use to the success or failure of the negotiation process. We will continue to bring this to their attention as appropriate occasions arise.

Mr. Hellman claimed that a feeling of rebuff exists in the American Jewish community as a result of the tone and ambiguities of the President’s March 9 press conference. Mrs. Jacobson added that members of the international press had told her that their newspapers’ headlines of articles on this subject would read as follows: “Rabin receives rebuff [Page 162] from the United States.” Stating the view that Israel’s election campaign will be thrown into turmoil, Schindler asked how Press Secretary Jody Powell will answer questions about the President’s press conference. Habib replied that Powell will emphasize the following two sentences: “Obviously, any agreement has to be between the parties concerned . . . But I am not trying to predispose our nation’s attitude toward what might be the ultimate details of the agreement that can mean so much to world peace.” The Secretary then described his discussions with the President earlier in the meeting and assured his visitors that the President’s remarks could not be interpreted as a U.S. “plan” and emphasized that details of a settlement can only come from negotiations between the parties concerned.

Hellman insisted that “defensible borders” are not a matter of semantics, as the President had said. The Secretary explained that the President’s statement, “the defensible border phrase, the secure border phrase obviously are just semantics” meant that the use of the terms “defensible” or “secure” in describing borders is a question of semantics. He again cited the need to avoid the traps of “code words”.

Speaking of code words Hellman noted that there are certain phrases such as “1967 boundaries” which signal to the American Jewish community that the U.S. is back to the Rogers plan.9 The Secretary emphasized that there is no “Rogers plan” in existence and that certainly the President’s remarks can not be interpreted as “a Rogers plan.” Habib told the group that it could help explain away these mistaken perceptions to the American Jewish community. Winter asked to what extent is U.S. policy in the Middle East “even-handed”. The Secretary again emphasized the special relationship between Israel and the United States.

Jacobson asked whether the Arab leaders visiting the U.S. in the near future will bring large shopping lists for arms, expressing the concern of the Jewish community about the possibility of a U.S. arms supply relationship with the Arabs. The Secretary replied that it was possible one or more Arab leaders might bring such a “list” but he did not think so. Jacobson added that if the Arabs get U.S. arms they would have arms from the U.S., the USSR, and France. Her impressions from her recent trip to Egypt was that Egypt must give first priority to improving its economy. The Secretary agreed with her about the Egyptian economy.

[Page 163]

The Secretary was told that British Prime Minister Callaghan had arrived and he adjourned the meeting in order to meet with Callaghan. The meeting lasted approximately one hour.

Following the meeting, Schindler and Habib worked out an agreed statement which the Conference of Presidents would use with the press. The statement is as follows:

“We had a very good meeting with the Secretary to go over the current state of efforts to reach a peaceful settlement. The Secretary informed us of his views in this regard.

With respect to questions the American Jewish delegation raised regarding the President’s answer to questions raised at his press conference earlier that day, the Secretary emphasized that the following excerpts from the press conference expressed the central thrust of U.S. policy:

Obviously, any agreement has to be between the parties concerned. We will act as an intermediary when our good offices will serve well.

But I am not trying to predispose our nation’s attitude toward what might be the ultimate details of the agreement that can mean so much to world peace.

These words and the meeting in its entirety were useful, frank and reassuring.”

  1. Source: Department of State, Office of the Secretariat Staff, Records of Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State, 1977–1980, Lot 84D241, Box 10, Vance Exdis Memcons, 1977. Confidential; Exdis. The meeting took place in the Secretary of State’s office. Drafted by Xenia Vunovic on March 14, and approved in S on March 25.
  2. A reference to Carter’s remarks regarding his view on a final, overall settlement to the Arab-Israeli dispute. He mentioned positions that both the Israelis and Arabs had previously opposed. (Public Papers: Carter, 1977, Book I, pp. 340–348)
  3. See Documents 18 and 20.
  4. During his March 9 press conference, Carter commented, “The defensible border phrase, the secure borders phrase, obviously, are just semantics,” and continued: “The recognized borders have to be mutual. The Arab nations, the Israeli nation, has to agree on permanent and recognized borders, where sovereignty is legal as mutually agreed. Defense lines may or may not conform in the foreseeable future to those legal borders. There may be extensions of Israeli defense capability beyond the permanent and recognized borders.”
  5. At the March 7 welcoming ceremony, Carter stated that Vance’s trip was the beginning of discussions with Middle East leaders to “explore some common ground for future permanent peace there, so that Israel might have defensible borders so that the peace commitments would never be violated, and that could be a sense of security about this young country in the future.” Carter’s welcoming remarks are in Public Papers: Carter, 1977, Book I, pp. 329–331.
  6. A reference to the Kilometer 101 talks led by Egyptian General Gamasy and Israeli General Yaariv. See footnote 5, Document 6.
  7. Rabin held a press conference on March 8 after his meetings with Carter. (Bernard Gwertzman, “Rabin, After Carter Talks, Urges A Goal of ‘Real Peace’ in Mideast,” New York Times, March 9, 1977, p. 2)
  8. On March 7, Sadat hosted the first Afro-Arab Summit in Cairo, calling for “joint third-world action to eradicate all traces of enslavement and exploitation.” (“Mini-Briefs,” Christian Science Monitor, March 8, 1977, p. 2)
  9. In December 1969, Secretary of State William Rogers proposed a Middle East settlement based on U.N. Resolution 242 that became known as the Rogers Plan. Documentation is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XXIII, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1969–1972.