34. Memorandum of Conversation1

Memorandum of Conversation Between Dr. Brzezinski and Leaders of the American Jewish Community


  • Alexander Schindler
  • Melvin Dubinsky
  • Israel Miller
  • Jacob Sheinkman
  • Arthur Hertzberg
  • Herman Rosenbaum
  • Max Fisher
  • Richard Maass
  • Jerold Hoffberger
  • Arthur Levine
  • Yehuda Hellman
  • Ed Sanders
  • Mrs. Bernice S. Tannenbaum
  • Joe Sternstein
  • Harry Smith
  • Zbigniew Brzezinski
  • Robert Lipshutz
  • Stuart Eizenstat
  • Joyce Starr
  • William B. Quandt

Rabbi Schindler opened the discussion by noting that the crisis over arms supply had now abated,2 but that apprehension continued in the American Jewish community concerning a possible peace plan that the Administration would present at some point, combined with pressure to implement it. This plan, he believes, would consist of calling for peace in return for substantially complete Israeli withdrawal and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank, [Page 262] which would be headed by the PLO. He asked for reassurances that this was not American governmental thinking.

Dr. Brzezinski replied that it was natural that some apprehensions exist at a time when we stand on the threshold of possibly important historical developments. In his view, the question of Israel’s ability to survive as a strong and independent country, and the issue of whether the United States would support Israel, have been settled. The question is now whether Israel’s permanence can be translated into a lasting peace. The kind of peace, and how it might be implemented, and the consequences that would follow from peace, must now be considered carefully. Peace, as difficult as it may be to achieve, will be much better than the continuing stalemate without peace. Israel’s role, he noted, would be absolutely essential. In a peaceful Middle East, Israel could become the Switzerland of the Middle East. One needs to consider the trade-off between peace and stalemate. Stalemate runs the risk of war, continuing high military expenditures, and dependency on the United States. Movement toward peace can help to allay some of the concerns that now exist. The President feels that our relationship with Israel is a unique one and that it has spiritual and organic qualities.

On the question of whether the United States has a plan, if by that one means a blueprint that we are preparing to impose on the parties, the answer, Dr. Brzezinski stated, is an unequivocal “No.” If by plan one means some concept of a peace settlement, the answer is “Yes.” Our concept is based on a historical vision of how the conflict can be resolved and the President has spoken openly of this, as did Prime Minister Rabin when he was here.3 We have been thinking in terms of a meaningful peace, of establishing a framework for negotiations, and we have identified and repeated that negotiations will have to deal with the nature of peace, territory and security, and the Palestinian question. We have talked to Israeli and Arab leaders on these issues, pressing the Arabs to be more explicit on peace and the Israelis to be more explicit on territory and the Palestinians. That is where we are today. We hope that we can find some areas of complementarity and that we will then be able to prepare for a Geneva Conference. We cannot be certain of success, but it is an act of historical obligation to try to think constructively about a settlement. The parties themselves, however, will have to negotiate the final settlement, but we are trying to get them to think about the issues clearly.

Mr. Hertzberg noted that the American-Jewish leadership does not favor immobilism. All agree on the need for peace, and the President’s statements that peace must be real have been viewed in a very positive [Page 263] way. The concern in the American Jewish community stems from the statement that the United States is asking Israel to be more explicit on the Palestinians and on territory. There is concern about the idea of a Palestinian entity which might be led by the PLO. The United States should not be the party to decide on such a state, but rather should try to end the conflict in a way that will be stable.

Dr. Brzezinski noted that one should not conclude that our preference is for a PLO-dominated state. Since we have no plan, we cannot define precisely how the Palestinian issue might be resolved, but we have some preferences that the West Bank and Jordan be linked. The question is how to get there. Should the United States push for this outcome, or should Israel dictate it, or should the Arabs themselves reach this conclusion? Clearly, the last is the best outcome. Arab views seem to be more realistic and Arab leaders recognize that a volatile situation in the West Bank is not in their interests. The facts of the situation are forcing the Arabs to think realistically. Dr. Brzezinski stated that his personal view is that a situation should not be imposed on the Palestinians, which they would reject and then turn to the Soviet Union. It would be better to have an Arab consensus on an outcome that Palestinian moderates could accept. The present Arab leadership is the most moderate that has existed since 1947.

In response to a question, Dr. Brzezinski noted that the American objective now is to establish a framework within which the parties will be able to deal with the issues. The President’s statements have not resolved issues yet, but they have begun a probing of the issues. His use of words has been cautious and he has not prejudged outcomes, but he has tried to clarify underlying issues. Once the parties get to the negotiating table, we hope that the negotiations will not break down. There has to be an understood basis for negotiation, and this is the reason for developing the conceptual framework. He noted that the United States will not try to develop a blueprint, nor will it threaten Israel with the question of its survival, but we will talk frankly and honestly with Israel, and we will say the same thing to both Israel and the Arabs.

Responding to a comment on defensible borders, Dr. Brzezinski noted that he did not personally use that term. Israel has good defense lines today, but they are not borders. The borders of the final peace settlement, if they are recognized, will not be defensible in the same sense that they are today, but if Israel retains the current lines that she now occupies, these will never become recognized borders. So defensible borders in any simple sense do not make much sense. Instead, one must try to think about what borders might be recognized and what recognition would be worth, combined with other arrangements for security that might be made. In the age of nationalism, he noted, territory is integrally tied to the sense of nationhood. Only Germany has ac[Page 264]cepted major territorial losses, and that was in context of total defeat and a recognition of guilt that went with the defeat. This is not the case with the Arabs, and we cannot expect them to abandon their claims to substantial amounts of their territory. Instead of referring to defensible borders, we should talk of mutually accepted borders, legitimacy, and should try to develop arrangements to support the agreements which will provide for fool-proof security. The President has been hinting at this. Security arrangements for Israel might include a binding US commitment. Israel is not totally independent and if Israel must be dependent, it might be best to make the US tie to Israel a binding one. One way would be through treaties.

A question was then raised concerning American arms supply, and Dr. Brzezinski said that it was difficult to be specific. He argued against the notion that the Defense Department was deliberately obstructive, citing the recent case of the Chariot tank where allegations of obstruction had not been well founded.4 On the question of the co-production of the F–16, he declined to answer, stating that this would have to be dealt with in the broad framework that the President has tried to set out whereby our policy aims at gaining the confidence of Israelis and Arabs, while, at the same time, trying on a global basis for arms reductions.

Mr. Fisher remarked that he hoped the United States would ask for more than moderation in words from the Arabs and that we would also look for moderation in terms of their action toward Israel. Dr. Brzezinski responded by acknowledging that Arab culture seems to favor some verbal exaggeration, and that on occasion Arab leaders seem to tell different things to different audiences. We are trying, however, to move the Arabs to take binding public positions from which they find it difficult to retreat. Concerning Arab intentions, Dr. Brzezinski noted that some Arabs may still hope that Israel can ultimately be destroyed in a second phase to follow a peace agreement. We will therefore insist on more than verbal assurances of their intentions, and will demand that objective barriers be created to make the second phase, if that is their intention, an impossibility. We want to make phase two an impossibility and phase one so attractive that they will commit themselves to it.

Dr. Brzezinski agreed to a statement that Rabbi Schindler could use with the press to describe the Administration’s attitude. The agreed statement is as follows:

[Page 265]

“We had a comprehensive discussion of the Middle East situation, including US-Israel relations, in the course of which Dr. Brzezinski reaffirmed the Administration’s underlying commitment to the security of Israel, and particularly to the special and organic relationship that binds the United States to Israel. He further noted that the Administration’s statements on the questions of territory, the Palestinians, and peace do not represent a blueprint to be imposed, but rather are a conceptual framework within which the parties can negotiate a peaceful settlement to the Middle East conflict.”

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East File, Subject File, Box 2, Arab-Israeli Peace Settlement 1977: Volume II [I]. Confidential. The meeting took place in the White House Situation Room. Carter initialed at the top of the page.
  2. In early May, Israel and its suppoters in Congress had expressed concerns that the United States planned to leave Israel off the list of countries that received preferential treatment in the supply of modern weaponry. Those countries included NATO members, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. (“Carter Pledges ‘Special Treatment’ for Israel on Advanced Weapons,” New York Times, May 13, 1977, p. 3) On May 12, however, Carter announced in a press conference after his return from Geneva that Israel would be accorded “special treatment” and receive advanced armaments.
  3. See Document 20.
  4. Not further identified. The New York Times reported that Carter had recently approved an Israeli request to import U.S.-made parts for its new Chariot tank. (“Carter Pledges ‘Special Treatment’ for Israel on Advanced Weapons,” New York Times, May 13, 1977, p. 3)