53. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Africa; Southern Lebanon; Syrian Jews; Middle East


  • Israel
  • His Excellency Menahem Begin, Prime Minister of Israel
  • His Excellency Simcha Dinitz, Ambassador of Israel
  • Dr. Eliahu Ben Elissar, Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office
  • Mr. Shmuel Katz, Adviser to the Prime Minister
  • The Honorable Hanan Bar-On, Minister, Embassy of Israel
  • Mr. Yechiel Kadishai, Director, Prime Minister’s Bureau
  • Mr. Eli Mizrachi, Political Adviser to the Prime Minister
  • Brigadier General Ephraim Poran, Military Secretary to the Prime Minister
  • Mr. Yehuda Avner, Adviser to the Prime Minister
  • Mr. David Tourgeman, Counselor, Embassy of Israel
  • U.S.
  • The Secretary of State
  • Warren W. Christopher, Deputy Secretary of State
  • Philip C. Habib, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
  • Samuel W. Lewis, American Ambassador to Israel
  • Alfred L. Atherton, Jr., Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs
  • Mr. Harold H. Saunders, Director, Bureau of Intelligence and Research
  • Mr. W. Anthony Lake, Director, Policy Planning Staff
  • Mr. Arthur R. Day, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs
  • Mr. Walter B. Smith II, Director, Israel and Arab-Israel Affairs, Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs
  • Mr. William B. Quandt, Area Director, Middle East and North African Affairs


Begin expressed concern that things might soon fall apart in Ethiopia.2 Habib remarked that large amounts of Soviet arms were being delivered to Somalia and the Eritreans. Begin explained that Israelis felt very attached to the ancient Jewish tribe of Felashas3 in Ethiopia. The Secretary said we would have to study the Ethiopian situation carefully. Habib noted the Soviets had been evacuating facilities in Somalia the existence of which Somalia had denied. Begin speculated that the Soviets were bringing Somalis back to the USSR for training. The Secretary explained that the U.S. had kept its mission intact in Ethiopia as a symbol despite provocations. Habib added we had also kept our aid mission in Ethiopia so as not to jeopardize possibilities for improved relations. He noted that human rights violations in Ethiopia were going to be damaging to U.S.-Ethiopian relations. Congress had included Ethiopia in the list of countries to which U.S. assistance was prohibited.

[Page 355]

U.S.-Israeli Relations

Begin underlined that Israel was fashioning a bipartisan policy of friendship with the U.S., which was as important to Likud as it had been to Labor. Similarly, Israel had cultivated over the years close relations with both American political parties. Begin stressed that Israel was not going to interfere in U.S. internal affairs.

Southern Lebanon

The Secretary raised this subject, pointing out that even if the U.S. could provide arms to the Sarkis government, it would be close to one year before Lebanon could develop an adequate force. Dayan had recently raised with Ambassador Lewis4 the question of whether, to stabilize southern Lebanon in the meantime, a temporary UN force would be desirable. Begin said he was unfamiliar with Dayan’s views. Lewis said Dayan had suggested a large buffer zone that might be manned by a UN force. Syrian political support would be necessary to make the arrangement work, and the fedayeen5 would have to withdraw north. Dayan explained that if such an arrangement were achieved, situations could be avoided in which Israel otherwise might have to act. Lewis noted that Rabin when Prime Minister had been opposed to such an idea. Lewis had replied to Dayan that the U.S. would look into it.

Begin said his initial reaction was that this was a good idea, provided Israel knew in advance which countries would provide the troops for the UN force. They should be from countries having diplomatic relations with Israel. Lewis noted that Sarkis had first made this proposal in early 1977. Begin underlined that the 5,000 fedayeen in southern Lebanon would have to be removed. Lewis suggested the institution of such an arrangement would create an excuse for having them removed. Katz pointed out that the time period achieved by installing the UN force should be used for creating a Lebanese force. The Secretary said he fully agreed. He felt the idea of the UN force was good because it was taking so much time for a Lebanese force to be created. Sarkis had predicted optimistically in March that he could create a force in only four or five months. Dinitz asked the Secretary whether there was a danger that the establishment of a UN force would reduce the incentive for Lebanon to create its own force. The Secretary doubted this. The Lebanese authorities realized that in order to govern the country as a whole, they needed such a force.

Begin asked if the U.S. could put this idea through the UN Security Council. The Secretary said he did not know. Lewis suggested it would depend on whether Syria seriously supported it. If Syria did, then the Soviets would support it as well. Begin wondered whether, if the idea failed in the Security Council, it should be tried out in the General Assembly using the uniting-for-peace provision. Lewis expressed the view that this provision should be avoided at all costs. It might be dangerous for Israel these days even to mention it. The Secretary asked that the Israeli and U.S. Governments concert views on this subject. Habib [Page 356] suggested it would be important to try out the idea in Damascus at an early point.

Syrian Jewry

Begin said that the 800 Jewish families still in Syria represented a special problem for Israel. Israel wanted to take in these 4,000 individuals. A number of countries were prepared to provide them temporary asylum, and so it would not be necessary for them to come directly from Syria to Israel. Begin asked the Secretary if the American Ambassador in Damascus could be instructed to have a special talk with Assad on this matter. He observed that Iraq had given the harshest treatment of all the Arab countries to its Jews, often executing them, but in the end had permitted its Jewish community to emigrate. Begin asked why Syria could not do likewise. He noted that Egypt in recent weeks had made conciliatory gestures which Israel had appreciated. He suggested it was now time for Syria to make one.

The Secretary suggested that the best approach would be for him to raise the matter privately with Assad during his forthcoming Middle East trip. He noted that he had personally raised with Assad the problem of the unmarried Jewish women in Syria.6 Stressing the importance of keeping the information confidential, the Secretary said that Syria was now permitting a number of the unmarried women to come to the U.S. Begin thanked the Secretary for U.S. efforts on behalf of the unmarried women and agreed with the Secretary that the best way to handle the larger question of the Syrian Jewish community as a whole would be a private approach by the Secretary.

Atherton said it might be of interest to the Prime Minister to know about all the U.S. efforts to help Syrian Jewry. Ever since late 1973, when the U.S. was able to establish a mission in Syria for the first time since 1967, the U.S. had used every high-level meeting to approach Assad about the problem of the Syrian Jewish community. The Syrian Government over the past three and half years had taken a number of steps to alleviate the situation. Begin said he was very interested to hear this and very grateful.

Middle East Peace Efforts

The Secretary observed that over the past two weeks Sadat had taken a number of conciliatory steps at the request of President Carter. We believed Sadat was educating public opinion within Egypt that there should be progress toward a peace settlement. Begin commented that Sadat’s conditions were not conducive to peace. He was demanding total Israeli withdrawal on all fronts and a corridor between [Page 357] Gaza and the West Bank. If his conditions were realized, it would be the beginning of the end of the Jewish state. Sadat knew that.

Begin continued that the Israeli intelligence service had made two mistakes. First, at the time of Nasser’s death it had described Sadat as a fool. Secondly, it had not foreseen the 1973 war. Sadat was not a fool, and he wanted Israel’s destruction. From time to time Sadat said that he accepted Israel as a fact, although he did not accept Israel under international law. Israel did appreciate that Sadat’s attitude toward Israel was less negative than that of the PLO.

Lewis suggested that Sadat’s position was considerably different and that Sadat had said he was prepared for a peace treaty with Israel at the press conference he held with Congressman Hamilton.7 Begin said that if Sadat had expressed willingness to conclude a treaty, as opposed to an agreement with Israel, this was important, and Begin would like to note it at his press conference scheduled for July 20. A discussion ensued, in which it proved doubtful that Sadat had actually used the word treaty in his English language press conference remarks or that the Egyptian media had used the word treaty in their Arabic translation of his remarks. Habib observed that if the word treaty was so important to Israel, perhaps the U.S. should see if the Arabs could be persuaded to use it. Saunders commented that at one time we were trying to get the Arabs to use the word “peace” and now that they do that we seemed to be concerned about the word “treaty.”

The Secretary said he was now considering the idea of putting his visit to Israel at the end of his Middle East trip instead of at the beginning. He asked if the dates of August 7 and 8 for the visit to Israel would be acceptable, and Begin said yes.


The Secretary mentioned his trip to Mainland China in late August. Begin said Israel would like to establish relations with Mainland China. Habib asked what representation Israel had in Taiwan. Dinitz explained that Israel had only economic relations with Taiwan and no diplomatic representation. Israel’s trade with Taiwan was important. Bar-on recalled that Israel had recognized Communist China in December 1949. In 1954 Israel and Mainland China had exchanged trade delegations but since then had had no official contact. Begin described Israel’s unsuccessful efforts in the early 1950s to induce Peking to recognize Israel.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East File, Trips/Visits File, Box 105, 7/19–20/77 Visit of Prime Minister Begin of Israel: 7/17/77–8/77. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Smith (NEA/IAI) and approved in S.
  2. Begin also expressed his concerns in his meeting with Carter. See Document 52.
  3. Felashas are Ethiopian Jews who live primarily in the northwestern area of Ethiopia.
  4. No memorandum of conversation has been found.
  5. Fedayeen were Palestinian guerrillas or commandos.
  6. See footnote 7, Document 20.
  7. Not further identified. Hamilton led a delegation of Congressmen to Israel, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt in July.