[Page 208]

29. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • The President’s Meeting with Foreign Minister Khaddam of Syria in the Cabinet Room

PARTICIPANTS

  • The President
  • Secretary of State Vance
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski
  • Ambassador Richard Murphy
  • Assistant Secretary Atherton
  • Hamilton Jordan
  • William B. Quandt, NSC Staff
  • Isa Sabbagh, Interpreter
  • Foreign Minister Abd al-Halim Khaddam
  • Ambassador Sabah Qabbani
  • Abdul Salam Aqil, Private Secretary
  • Samih abu Fares, Interpreter

President: It is a pleasure to meet you. This will help me to prepare for my meeting with President Asad in Geneva next month. It is beneficial to me to see how we can contribute to improvement of relations among the nations of the Middle East. I would like to discuss this morning the possibilities in the Middle East and to see what we can do to strengthen even more the good relations between the United States and Syria.

Foreign Minister Khaddam: Permit me, Mr. President, to express my great pleasure in meeting you. I consider this a historic meeting which will lead to good political work between us. The President of Syria and the Government of Syria are greatly confident that the Carter Administration will contribute deeply and positively to Middle East peace. President Asad is looking forward to the privilege and pleasure of meeting with you in Geneva and to other meetings later on which will contribute to peace in our area and in the world. I would like to express myself frankly and objectively, if I may. I would like to say that the most important thing drawing our attention to the new Administration was the evident genuine desire to deal with the problem of the Middle East with unprecedented depth and objectivity, without political con[Page 209]siderations being thrown in. That is why I would like to speak clearly and frankly, for when we speak frankly, that will help our friendship.

President: That’s true.

Foreign Minister Khaddam: I was, of course, pleased to hear from Secretary Vance that the United States will come up with some of its own thoughts on the Middle East, and that these will not necessarily be tied to any of the parties concerned. This will contribute greatly to mutual confidence, but the question which is preoccupying us—and I think I know the answer in advance, but I will ask anyway—is the following: If Israel maintains its attitude of intransigence and refuses to follow the valid suggestions of your Administration, and if Israel keeps up its present position, will the United States be in a position to take a stand consonant with the achievement of a just and permanent peace in the area?

President: Secretary Vance spoke for me in saying that our position is to search for common ground for agreement. If we should ever assume a position of speaking for only one nation, that would destroy the trust of others in our fairness and objectivity. Obviously, the final agreement has to be approved by the parties involved. My own deep commitment, and that of the United States, is that 1977 is a crucial year. If we fail this year, it would be hard to marshal such efforts again. We have no US plan to impose on others. I will be listening to you and President Asad carefully. I have already met with Prime Minister Rabin and with President Sadat.2 I will be meeting with King Hussein next week. I will meet Crown Prince Fahd later in the spring, to the extent that the Saudis are involved as observers. Following the meeting with President Asad, we will try to formulate our understanding of the differences and of the possible agreements among the nations involved and then we will consult very quietly with your government and other governments involved.

Foreign Minister Khaddam: Excellent.

President: It is important to us that the Arab nations not be divided one from another. It is also important that as much flexibility be retained as possible. After our consultations, we would ask you and others whether or not to prepare a common position prior to Geneva. I think it is accurate to say that some leaders in the Middle East feel that unless we go to Geneva with a fairly clear concept of the ultimate agreement, we will have little chance of success. Finally, let me say that it is obvious that there are three basic questions in a peace agreement. One is the Palestinians. Another is borders and security. The third is the guarantee of real peace and understanding among the nations in[Page 210]volved. I would welcome your advice on whether my outline is the proper one. We need all the help from you that we can get.

Foreign Minister Khaddam: No doubt the situation in the area encompasses the clear items that you mentioned. Some are the cause of the conflict and some are the effect, but in their totality, these are the elements. Does the President wish me to address one or all?

President: Yes. We feel that Syria has a great and potentially beneficial influence on Palestinian leaders. I would like to understand your opinion on all of these matters.

Foreign Minister Khaddam: If I may, I would like to speak candidly. I would like to refer to some basic principles. First, Syria wishes genuinely, clearly, and deeply for peace [salaam] in the area, and I am not necessarily confining myself to just Syrian interests in peace. All of the countries in the area need peace. Number two, Syria will do its utmost to contribute to the process of achieving a just and permanent peace. This is why we appreciate doubly your attitude and your magnificent handling of the problem. You were kind enough to send Secretary Vance to the area, and then to engage in a series of talks with Middle East leaders. We are very impressed. As we know, any peace must have as a prerequisite the following elements: justice, permanence, and stability. So, in order to achieve a permanent peace, one has to treat the dimensions of the crisis that has afflicted the area for the past thirty years. And one, therefore, has to address not only the results of the crisis, but also the causes of those events.

If one were to treat the manifestations of the crisis without treating the deep causes, we would not have done much. We would still have the seeds of future conflict. Let me refer to the number one question of the Palestinians. This is the essence of the dispute in the Middle East. Before the Palestinian problem, there was no struggle in the Middle East. The land occupied in 1967 was the result of the struggle over Palestine, not the cause of the present conflict. That crisis with us has existed since the early 1940s and is still going on. Therefore, one has to solve this problem. To ignore it does not mean that it has gone away. Second, we would like to make an appeal that attention be given to dealing with Palestinian elements.

President: You mean between us and them?

Foreign Minister Khaddam: Yes, the Palestinians are there. There is no denying that, and the PLO is recognized by more nations than recognize Israel. The UN Security Council has invited the PLO to participate in its deliberations.3 I would say to you, Mr. President, that we and [Page 211]all of the Arabs continue to have good relations with the Palestinians and the PLO. We are all Arab brothers. But there is no single Arab ruler who can commit himself in the name of the Palestinians. Any such commitment would be null and void, and would not be effective. We are, speaking frankly and concisely, trying to put the emphasis on the weak spots in the controversy.

Of course, we know that Israel refuses to deal with the PLO because the PLO has not recognized Israel. Actually this is a pretext, so that you will not try to solve the Palestinian problem. Israel is willing to go to Geneva with Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, but we also have not recognized Israel, so why is Israel prepared to go with us but not with the PLO?

Additionally, the Palestinians in the last Cairo Conference4 came up with some flexible conclusions. We believe that treating the Palestinian issue is among—or rather is—the most important of the elements in the dispute. If this is not resolved, then it is hard to imagine any stability in the area. Any so-called solution without the Palestinians would be short-lived, maybe three or five years.

Secretary Vance asked me yesterday—referring to your letter to President Asad 5—about our reading of Palestinian rights. I believe that this can be determined in two ways. The first path is to carry on a discussion with the Palestinians and to ask them what they mean in the frame of reference of all the UN Resolutions back to 1947. Such contacts are bound to be fruitful as long as no one muddies the water or tries to exploit them. The other element in finding a common denominator is to settle the fate of the occupied territories, those occupied in 1967 and the question of Jerusalem. This is a deeply felt issue with Palestinians and with all other Arabs. Another pernicious thing that should be cured has to do with the Palestinians who are living in squalor. This must also be dealt with. In my opinion, any path that is chosen to solve these problems will inevitably lead to the creation of a Palestinian state on Palestinian territory. Another question which was posed to me yesterday concerned the Syrian attitude on a Palestinian-Jordanian link. We would agree to anything that both sides would agree to, that is, that the Jordanians and Palestinians agree to. We would agree if they did. If they refuse a link, we would support their refusal. But this is not a very basic point. In our view, form should not take priority over substance. There is also the question on Palestinian representation at Geneva. In our opinion, the PLO should go to Geneva for the reasons given.

[Page 212]

President: May I ask a question? If the Palestinians do not insist on going to Geneva, would you accept that they would not be there?

Foreign Minister Khaddam: No. If they refuse, there would be a new situation. I mean, our decision is based solely on the prevailing conditions at the time. We will not be dictated to by anyone—not by the Palestinians, not by anyone. It will be our decision. Just as we refuse to get in others’ affairs, we would resist their getting into ours. I hope this is clear.

President: No, it is not.

Foreign Minister Khaddam: I mean, if the PLO refuses to go, this does not mean that we would not go to Geneva. The decision will stem from President Asad alone. I assume that if the PLO does not go, and if agreement were reached on the Palestinian issue, then we would see things result that would lead to the PLO trying to obfuscate the agreement. They have many cards to play. Therefore, they should go and should shoulder their own responsibility.

President: That’s very clear. I would like to ask you some specific questions on other subjects. A crucial concern to Israel is the nature of peace—whether or not it would include a normalization of trade, the crossing of borders, and diplomatic recognition between Israel and its neighbors, including Syria. To the extent that this can be assured, I have no doubt that Israel will be more forthcoming on borders and on the Palestinian issue. My question is whether, if other matters are solved—the Palestinians, withdrawal—there would be any problem about assuring Israel on this issue of eventual peace between Syria and Israel.

Foreign Minister Khaddam: That is certainly a very challenging question. I will answer concisely. In my opinion, Israel poses these elements as seemingly innocent questions, but they appear to us as obstacles to real peace. Cuba is your neighbor, but you have no diplomatic relations.

President: But the opportunity is there.

Foreign Minister Khaddam: I am just giving examples. Now, for example, what comes first: There are some in Congress and in the United States who no doubt would like to drop atomic bombs on the Soviet Union, and there are some in the Soviet Union who might want to do the same thing to you. It took 23 years for the United States to recognize the Soviet Union diplomatically. We should also remember that diplomatic relations did not prevent two wars in Europe. What I mean is that the area for 50 years has gone through a difficult period, with much misery. So actually, we cannot erase the slate, we cannot change our psyches, that would not be practical. But one positive step would lead to others. Also negative steps would produce bad negative steps in return.

[Page 213]

So, if we go back to the nature of peace, we should start with an end to belligerency, an end to the state of war. This would be a great turning point in the area. By ending the state of belligerency, and setting up guarantees against armed conflict, we could help the area go toward reconstruction. All these elements are bound to create vastly different circumstances. Israel since 1948 has tried to destroy the whole area, up until now. So it is very difficult for us to imagine that they really want things to be settled so quickly. In our opinion, the termination of the state of belligerency would be the starting point, plus guarantees for peace. This would be the launching pad for further steps. Of course, we Arabs, because of what we have suffered at the hands of Israel, have become suspicious. We do not trust the other side. If we were to look at two maps, Israel in 1948 and Israel today, we would see that Israel has expanded ten times beyond the original allotment of territory. Of course, all these thoughts create some psychological fears, some hesitations, and these are not easy to surmount.

We are hereby assuring you that if peace is achieved, we will not go in the direction of war and especially because of the guarantees to all parties. This should not just be a bilateral guarantee for Israel only. You do not expect us to agree to accept a bilateral US-Israel defense agreement alone.

I would like to conclude my response by reiterating that Syria is deeply concerned about having peace in the area. These feelings will be clear when you meet President Asad. We are speaking frankly. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

President: This has been helpful to me. I hope that all parties will keep an open mind. We will try to offer our good services in a completely honest way. I recognize the great sensitivity due to the past conflict and the damage that has been done to the region. When we do see what we consider to be the best approach to peace, we will move very strongly toward bringing the parties together.

Foreign Minister Khaddam: We have great confidence in President Carter.

President: I will always try to seek your advice and to honor the deep feeling that you and your people have. It is wise to remember the difficulties that still exist. I appreciate your frankness and your helpfulness to me and I look forward to meeting you in Geneva. I want to thank you for coming.

Foreign Minister Khaddam: I am grateful to you and I will convey to President Asad the friendly ambiance that I found here. We have great confidence in you, Mr. President. We will always seek to reinforce our relations with the United States and to be helpful. Thank you very much.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East File, Subject File, Box 66, Peace Negotiations 1977 Vol. I [I]. Secret; Sensitive. The meeting took place in the White House Cabinet Room. Brackets are in the original.
  2. See Documents 18, 20, 25, and 27.
  3. The first instance of this invitation occurred on December 4, 1975, when the U.N. Security Council, at the request of Egypt, invited the PLO to participate in a debate on the December 2 Israeli air strikes against Palestinian refugee camps and guerrilla bases in Lebanon.
  4. Apparently a reference to the October 25, 1976, Arab League Summit in Cairo, which focused on the situation in Lebanon.
  5. See footnote 2, Document 15.