9. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmy
  • Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Mohamed Riad
  • Ambassador Osama Al Baz, Foreign Minister’s Chef de Cabinet
  • Amr Musa, Foreign Minister’s Office
  • Mohamed Barada, Foreign Minister’s Office
  • Secretary of State Vance
  • Under Secretary Habib
  • Assistant Secretary Atherton
  • Ambassador Eilts
  • DCM Matthews
  • Political Counselor Lowrie (Note taker)

The meeting began at 1230 and lasted for two hours. Foreign Minister Fahmy said he took great pleasure in officially welcoming the Secretary. He was sure that it would be the beginning of a long road of constructive cooperation from which both nations would benefit. Since 1973, Egypt’s relations with the US have experienced major events and the two countries have gotten to know each other. They share the objective of peace in the area. Fahmy said “we should continue to speak with the same frankness and friendliness” as in “the exploratory period.” Egypt wishes to accomplish during the next four years even more dynamic and concrete steps.

Fahmy said that during the last three years the US has contributed to preventing explosions in the area and has helped Egypt generously economically for which Egypt is appreciative. He particularly thanked The Secretary and President Carter for the latest aid package2 which [Page 58] was very well received and publicized in the area and will have an impact on “some of our mutual friends”. Fahmy said Egypt has great economic problems and will ask for more aid and for US support in international organizations and with other countries. Without good economic conditions, Fahmy said, there can be no stability, particularly in an area where there is already instability because of the “no war, no peace” situation. Egypt’s economy needs “overhauling”. The Russians do not like this and don’t help, but Egypt is pressing forward.

Fahmy said economic stability is linked to political stability, particularly in a country with the strategic importance of Egypt. The enemies of the Arabs wish to see them divided and Egypt weak and “they will not leave us alone.” Egypt is, however, an independent country and there is little “they” can do here, but they are trying to go around Egypt in Africa and elsewhere.

Fahmy said he wished to emphasize economic and political stability because they influence Egypt’s security and the role it can play in the peace process. However, security is not just economic or political stability for countries like Egypt. Because of its strategic importance and because it is a developing country the “military aspect is paramount.” It is for this reason that the Russian campaign against Egypt started with the army by refusing to supply weapons or overhaul aircraft or sending spare parts. Now the Russians are attempting to block all arms sales from countries in Eastern Europe that are “completely” under Soviet control. Fahmy said the Russians even prevented India from providing arms which resulted in some strain in Egyptian-Indian relations. He said the Russians did this at a time when trade and technical assistance continued in order to squeeze the army and create discontent in order to bring about a coup d’etat or at least cause major problems. Therefore, the “military aspect is a matter of life and death for countries like Egypt.” This is why Sadat took the decision to find alternate sources of arms and Egypt is now obtaining arms from France, the UK, Yugoslavia and will continue to look for arms wherever it can get them. Fahmy said the army is not a problem now, but “we don’t want it to develop into one.” He thought it would not be a problem as long as the army and public are convinced that the political leadership is doing its best to take care of the problems posed by the Russians. He said “I hope you understand that this is directly linked to Egypt’s political and economic stability and the peace settlement.” Egypt does not wish to spend money on arms; it has problems of obtaining enough food and a population explosion that will result in 70–75 million in the year 2000. This is why Egypt wants peace, not at any price, but a just peace and it is ready to take the necessary measures. “No other country in the area can take steps like Egypt. We can take steps that are unbelievable and the other Arabs will have no choice but to follow as recent history has proved.”

[Page 59]

To sum up his presentation, Fahmy said on economic relations with the US there is no problem, but Egypt will want more assistance, both direct and indirect. On political relations, there is no problem and we understand each other well. On the military side, Fahmy said “in all frankness” Egypt is “not satisfied.” It understands the US domestic problem but hopes that something can be done. As early as 1974 Dr. Kissinger had said that bilateral military relations for defensive weapons should develop in three stages: first, commercial sales until the public and Congress get used to the idea; secondly, fifty-fifty commercial and aid-grant sales; and thirdly, one hundred percent aid-grant sales.

Since then however, Fahmy said, there has been nothing but six C–130s. Egypt had given a list of defensive arms it wished to obtain from the previous Administration and had received a written reply from General Scowcroft3 listing what arms could be offered together with delivery dates and cost. Then nothing further happened. This did not and will not keep Egypt from getting arms from other sources. However, Fahmy said, if there is agreement that the US and Egypt want to develop their relationship in the coming years, something should be done in this area.

Fahmy said he had been instructed to provide a list of requested arms.4 The Secretary would note that some items from the previous list were not on the new list, that is because they were obtained elsewhere. The list for defensive weapons “should not frighten anybody.” It had been prepared by Minister of War General Gamasy and approved by the President. Egypt is not pressing for a decision this month and realizes that the Secretary must consult with President Carter. The list can remain secret until the US has had time to study it (Fahmy handed over the previous list, the letter from Scowcroft and the new list to The Secretary). Fahmy said he wished to emphasize that to assure political, economic and military stability his government needed to show the army and public opinion that its policies are effective. However, if the US does not approve the list nothing will happen in the army since the army is under control and Egypt will get arms from other sources.

In this context, Fahmy said, he must refer to the imbalance of arms with Israel. Since 1974 he understood the US had supplied about $5 billion in arms to Israel. Israel is qualitatively and quantitatively much superior. If this imbalance continues it is not good for peace prospects since Israel will continue to be very rigid. When the gap is not so big Israel will be more flexible. He is aware of the theory that if Israel feels completely secure it will become more flexible but this theory has pre[Page 60]vailed in Washington for 25 years and he does not consider it valid. Only when the Israelis are not sure they can count on the US will they listen. If they are certain of US support they will start to put conditions forward that they know will be rejected. Even if Egypt were to feel superior militarily to Israel some “crazy man” would be tempted to seize power and start a war. It is in the nature of things that one with the upper hand does so. Fahmy said Egypt is trying to close the gap of military imbalance so that the “wagon of peace can move”.

Following this 35 minute presentation Secretary Vance said President Carter and he are keenly aware of the leading political role President Sadat and Fahmy have played in foreign affairs and in beginning to move the Middle East situation toward peace. He recognized that the road to peace will be long and difficult. He considered bilateral relations of the highest importance and said the US will seek to further strengthen them. In multilateral affairs the US will also wish to work closely together particularly on the peace process. On the economic side the US will continue to help and the Administration is requesting of the Congress in FY 78 increased aid totaling over $900 million, including $114 million in PL 480 commodities. He was pleased to note that there is no problem in bilateral political relations and hoped it would continue this way. On military relations, The Secretary said, the Administration is in the process of reviewing all military sales. This matter is of deep concern to President Carter who hopes to reduce arms sales and get other countries to do so. The US recognizes this is a complex and difficult task but as the major arms supplier in the world, the US has the responsibility of making this effort and ensuring that arms sales are compatible with its overall foreign policy and to cooperate with other countries in doing so. In the Middle East the Secretary said the US hopes to reduce sale of arms. He would welcome Foreign Minister’s thoughts on how it might be done. The Secretary said that one key would be progress towards a Middle East settlement which is one of the purposes of this mission. The two goals of his mission are (1) to demonstrate the US seriousness of purpose to work for a peace settlement and (2) the desire to understand the positions of all the parties. The U.S. hopes to be a facilitator of peace, it has no plan and he has come to learn.

With regard to the list of requested arms the Secretary said he would not comment on it but wished to study it before responding. The U.S. he said looks forward very much to strengthening bilateral relations with Egypt in the years ahead.

The Foreign Minister thanked the Secretary and said that Egypt truly appreciated US help and its unique role. Fahmy said the crux of the problem is that peace and progress cannot come from a position of weakness either for Israel or for Egypt. Egypt has many problems, with [Page 61] Russia, with Libya and the Sudan. Egypt’s destiny is to fulfill its responsibilities. For example, during the July coup attempt in the Sudan5 only Egypt could respond and it established an air bridge to send 1,500 Sudanese soldiers to support the government. Fahmy said that if the Sudanese soldiers had not been in Egypt, Egyptian troops would have gone. Egypt can never accept a communist or hostile regime in the Sudan. Egypt’s responsibilities for regional security are enormous and it is for this reason he has talked of a “security belt.” The Saudis had been interested but have dropped out. However the Moroccan Foreign Minister6 is now thinking along the same lines.

Fahmy said he appreciated the Secretary’s position that he would have to look at this question of arms. He was pleased to note the use of the word “overall” and he hopes that the US study will conclude that military relations with Egypt should not be kept at zero (or only six C–130’s), but increase. Progress toward peace cannot, he said, be generated unless real security exists. Fahmy said the introduction of sophisticated and highly destructive weapons such as promised to Israel by former President Ford during the campaign will make a mess of the whole situation.7 Fahmy said if this offer is carried out it will have a “devastating effect on the Egyptian military.” They will ask for similar weapons from whatever source possible. Such arms are not necessary.

The Secretary replied that the US had a clear understanding of Egypt’s position on the military relationship. With regard to the Sudan, he asked what Egypt thought should be done in the Horn of Africa? Fahmy said he would like to discuss this subject later.

Fahmy said that the Sinai II agreement has been well implemented except for occasional provocations by the Israelis. He was not speaking of minor violations that both sides have committed and which are dealt with in the Joint Commission. Israelis have taken provocative actions such as drilling for oil in the Sinai. No country, Fahmy said, can accept such a situation. Egypt has come to the US and it appreciated the US legal position and public statement. However, it cannot accept the continuation of this provocation. The Secretary responded that the US had raised this subject with the Israelis yesterday (Feb. 16)8 and had reiterated the US legal position with particular reference to the current incident. It had urged a solution and restraint. The Secretary said he respectfully urges that Egypt also exercise restraint. The US will use its good offices to attempt to keep the problem from escalating. Fahmy [Page 62] said Egypt promised to exercise restraint. However, if it continues without resolution, the Israelis will claim it has become an established right. Nevertheless, Egypt would not take action to provoke Israel without consulting the US.

The Secretary asked if the Foreign Minister could give him the Egyptian vision of what an overall settlement of the ME problem would encompass? Fahmy replied that when Sadat says he is ready to accept something, Israel immediately interprets it to mean it is “in its pocket” and then asks for more. When Sadat had been the first Arab leader to agree to end belligerency and sign a peace agreement, Israel had immediately asked for diplomatic and trade relations. Fahmy said the end of belligerency will not take place except in the context of an overall settlement. The key is “acceptable.” The Arabs had refused until October 1973 to recognize Israel’s existence and to deal with it. The ME is like a human body in which a foreign organ has been transplanted. The body rejected this organ for 25 years but somebody (namely the US) gave antibiotics until the body was prepared to accept the transplant. The US succeeded and the body is now prepared to accept the organ. But the foreign organ is not prepared to accept the body. Fahmy asked the Secretary to tell the Israelis that Egypt is ready to sign a peace agreement and end belligerency. “They will say no, we want diplomatic relations, open frontiers and tourism. This is all Israeli acrobatics, to disguise the fact that they don’t want peace.”

Fahmy said the crux of the problem is the Palestinians. The Israelis say they will not sit with the PLO because it is “terrorist” but Israel sat with the PLO in the Security Council.9 What is the difference between the PLO sitting in the Security Council during the Middle East debate and sitting in Geneva which after all resulted from UNSC Resolution 338? The fact is, Fahmy said, the Arabs must solve the Palestinian problem politically to have peace for themselves. As long as the Palestinian problem remains, no Arab state can be assured of peace.

The Secretary said that the Israelis would agree about solving the Palestinian problem. They define peace in terms of a peace treaty, withdrawal from territory and the solution of the Palestinian problem. However, the PLO still stands by its charter and rejects resolutions 242 and 338 as the basis for negotiations.10 He added that the Palestinian problem is broader than that of the PLO since it requires recognition of the legitimate interests of the Palestinians. Fahmy said the Israelis continue to hide behind semantics to avoid peace. If tomorrow the UNSC is convened on the ME, Israel would come and sit with the PLO. It is illog[Page 63]ical that they cannot also come to Geneva. In addition, they want the PLO to recognize them first. This demand for recognition shows that the PLO represents a nation. Otherwise, why does Israel ask for recognition? Fahmy asked what right Israel has to choose who represents whom? Does he have the right to choose who represents Israel? “I might prefer Golda or Peres or Rabin.” Twenty-one chiefs of state have agreed that the PLO represent the Palestinians.11 In addition the US during the Lebanese War had come to him (Fahmy) to ask that he arrange for meetings between US representatives in Beirut and the PLO and Fatah to assist in the evacuation of American personnel. The US had planned to send in the Sixth Fleet to do this. “I stopped the Sixth Fleet. I said let me arrange it. It would have been a big mistake to send in the Sixth Fleet. Fatah cooperated 100 percent in evacuating US personnel. I did this on more than one occasion and received messages of appreciation from President Ford and Kissinger.” Fahmy said one must live with the facts of life. The US Congress makes a problem about sitting with the PLO but the US was able to do so to protect its own citizens. For the past three years Egypt has been told the US was to have contacts with the PLO, but they have always been delayed because of US elections, etc. If Egypt is ready to accept Israel it means automatically that the Palestinians will accept Israel and live peacefully with it perhaps with a link with Jordan.

The Secretary said that there were two separate questions: the solution of the Palestinian problem and the procedural question of how to get to Geneva. He asked what are the positions of the Arab countries and the Palestinians on the procedural question? Fahmy responded that there was no difference among the Arab states. Syria, Jordan and Egypt have all informed UNSYG Waldheim that they are ready to go to Geneva and that the PLO should be represented as an independent delegation. The Secretary said this was the crux of the procedural problem. Fahmy said that he could not and would not wish to negotiate for others, including the Palestinians. Only the Palestinians can do this. Egypt can only press them to change their Charter and they will do so. He added parenthetically that he had been with Arafat this morning. Fahmy thought the Israelis must have told the Secretary that they were in no hurry. “We offer them peace and they say no—no hurry.” Fahmy said that Egypt has rejected a unified Arab delegation but if he played the Israeli game he would agree to a unified delegation led by Arafat, Abu Iyad and Kaddumi. Israel calls the PLO “terrorists” but if they recognize Israel, it will accept them as nice people. In addition, they would accept the PLO as members of the Jordanian delegation. The Israelis are not consistent. What Egypt asked from the US, Fahmy said, is a [Page 64] package deal on a settlement. It could be given, publicly or privately, to Israel and Egypt and both sides will negotiate it with you. “Maybe Geneva is not necessary at all. Give me a package deal, not 20 kilometers.”

The Secretary asked if Arafat would be willing to change the PLO charter in a way that would not affect res. 242? Fahmy said he is trying hard with PLO, but if Arafat accepts 338 Israel would say no. Fahmy said that if the cochairmen of the MEPC issued an invitation in which it invites the PLO to participate in the MEPC stating “having in mind that all countries in the area have a right to live in peace and security within their own boundaries, including the Palestinian people or state,” he will force Arafat to come tomorrow. He reiterated that the Arabs are moving toward peace but Israel is running from the US. He asked who is saying no now? The Secretary said that in his interview in Israel he had made clear that he was seeking the views of all the other parties before making decisions but when asked specific questions he would reply honestly. Fahmy asked for an answer to his proposal on the invitation to the PLO based on above language. He said Egypt is ready to work on the Palestinians to change their Charter and come to Geneva under a “good umbrella” but the US should not ask PLO to commit suicide. Fahmy considers the Palestinian problem as another face of the procedural problem. He said Egypt could not negotiate for others but at Geneva it will use its weight with Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians to move things along.

The Secretary asked if Egypt would be prepared to go to Geneva without preconditions? Fahmy responded he would be prepared to have any subject put on the table and he himself would put everything from A to Z on. He would, for example, ask for the same security guarantees for Egypt that Israel asks for. He said Egypt accepts Res. 242 and, in the final analysis, it would be willing to discuss everything with the Israelis including how the area will develop in the next 50 years. The Secretary asked if that meant normalization of relations? Fahmy said 242 provides for living in peace, and Israel should normalize relations with the PLO and form a common market with the Palestinians. As for Egypt, he said he was not ready as a precondition for Geneva to say he would discuss diplomatic relations, but he asked how could he prevent it. He would discuss everything. If there are disagreements it would be for the US and Russia to facilitate agreement. With regard to diplomatic relations, Fahmy said, international law must be respected. Egypt cannot be told that Israel will not withdraw unless it could have a diplomatic mission in Cairo. This would be a diminishing of Egyptian sovereignty.

The Secretary asked what Fahmy saw coming out of a comprehensive settlement? Fahmy said complete withdrawal to the ’67 borders and “secure boundaries.” Asked to define “secure boundaries,” Fahmy [Page 65] cited Sinai II and the establishment of early warning stations, SFM and UNEF. He said demilitarized zones and other devices could be added to these installations, on the other borders. This would provide “ground security.” Political security was also required and if Egypt signs a peace agreement it would mean that it accepts Israel. Israeli flags would fly on Israeli ships passing through the Canal and visiting Egyptian Canal cities. Egypt would be prepared to grant this immediately and it should not, therefore, be necessary for any force or UNEF to have soldiers at Sharm al Shaykh. He stressed that the peace agreement to be permanent must be just since leaders come and go.

The Secretary asked what the Foreign Minister envisioned for the Palestinians? Fahmy said a West Bank–Gaza state with some kind of link with Jordan. Egypt had already discussed this linkage with Arafat and King Hussein. The Secretary asked if this would be an independent Palestinian state or a confederation. Fahmy said probably two independent states under a confederal system.

Fahmy urged that real movement toward peace be made during 1977. The Secretary said that the US has said there must be movement during the second half of 1977. It is, however, probably unrealistic to get substantive movement during the first half in view of the Israeli elections. Fahmy agreed that they could not get to substantive questions before the second half of 1977 but urged starting earlier. The Secretary said he did not rule out some kind of meeting before the second half of 1977 but was only being realistic. Fahmy said “we are not pushing anyone for substantive meetings before the second half.” Egyptian view is to get the PLO to change a little, the Israelis to change a little, meet in Geneva, and then adjourn. The Secretary asked if there wasn’t a danger in raising expectations by merely putting on a show in Geneva. Fahmy said the UNSC will in any case be meeting in March after Waldheim submits his report.12 He said Egypt would, in any case, not want to go to Geneva until there was agreement on the scenario that would be followed. It would be a major step even though it may be impossible to discuss substantive issues. The Secretary asked what the rush was to get there if no one is ready? Fahmy said he had predicted that Rabin would move up the date of elections to stall. If Egypt had an agreement that it could discuss substantive issues at Geneva in May with the PLO in attendance, he was ready to agree. Since Egypt had no such agreement, it must press for an early meeting. At the Security Council meeting in March he did not plan to ask for a resolution in [Page 66] order not to embarrass the US. If there is a resolution and the US vetoes it he plans to go to the General Assembly under the “Uniting for Peace” resolution.

The Secretary emphasized that the Administration is committed to helping to get the parties together. Fahmy said the parties should play the game as grownups. They cannot fool each other and all sides know it. They should try to examine all alternatives in more businesslike way. Egypt cannot leave 1977 nor accept the Israeli argument of no movement until the end of the Sinai II agreement in 1978. Egypt is obliged to move forward. The Secretary pointed out that the Israeli government had said it was prepared to go to Geneva in the second half of 1977.

The Secretary asked what Fahmy wished to do about press queries on the arms request. Fahmy said to say nothing. But the Secretary said he could not do that. Fahmy said he would leave it to the Secretary. He personally would say nothing. The Secretary said the possibility of a list being presented had already appeared in the American press. He would give more thought to the handling of the press queries and discuss it with Fahmy later. Meeting ended at 1430 hours.

  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. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Lowrie. The meeting took place in the Foreign Minister’s office.
  2. On February 2, the Carter administration transferred $190 million in aid funds to Egypt to assist Egypt’s economy after January riots over price increases for food and various consumer goods disrupted the country. (“U.S. Plans to Bolster Aid to Egypt By $190 Million to Ease Unrest,” New York Times, February 2, 1977, p. 17)
  3. Neither the list nor the written reply has been found.
  4. The list has not been found.
  5. In July 1976, Sudanese forces in opposition to President Gafaar Nimeiry launched a coup that Nimeiry quickly defeated.
  6. Ahmed Laraki was the Moroccan Foreign Minister from 1967 until 1971.
  7. See footnote 12, Document 7.
  8. See Document 7.
  9. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XXVI, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1974–1976, Document 252, footnote 3.
  10. A reference to the Palestinian National Charter; see footnote 6, Document 6.
  11. A reference to the Rabat Conference; see footnote 8, Document 6.
  12. Waldheim submitted a report to the Security Council in February on consultations he held regarding the early reconvening of the Geneva Peace Conference. The Security Council held three meetings in March to consider his report. See Yearbook of the United Nations, 1977, pp. 284–288.