Back to the future: New released documents show Israel, U.S. tensions, circa 1975
The U.S. administration is tired of Israel's intransigence, warmongering and attempts to interfere in its domestic politics. Welcome to the 1970s.
In March 1975, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was shuttling between Jerusalem and Cairo in an effort to reach a second interim Sinai agreement between Israel and Egypt. The Israeli negotiating team included then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Defense Minister Shimon Peres, Foreign Minister Yigal Allon, and IDF Chief of Staff Mordechai (Motta) Gur.
The major obstacle was Israel's refusal to withdraw the Israel Defense Forces to the eastern approaches of the Mitla and Gidi passes. Kissinger was angry at the Israelis for their weakness, their scant political experience and their internal squabbles. He later vented his frustrations to President Gerald Ford. The Israelis were "treacherous, petty, deceitful - they didn't treat us like allies," and they deceived him into thinking that there was sufficient reason for him to come to the region. But now, at a meeting with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in Aswan, after Foreign Minister Ismail Fahmi and Defense Minister Abdel Ghani el-Gamasy had left the room, Kissinger surprised Sadat by handing him a personal letter from Rabin.
The next day, Kissinger had the following description cabled to President Ford: "There was one particularly interesting moment when I talked to Sadat alone. I presented him with a letter from Rabin, which I had suggested and in which, in very human terms, Rabin expressed his strong desire to achieve the agreement with Sadat. This letter moved Sadat to tears, and he said that this was the kind of thing which he had always wanted. I believe this was a good psychological stroke, and I hope that it will have an impact on the considered version which Sadat will convey to me tomorrow night for subsequent presentation to the Israelis."
As far as is known, Rabin's letter to Sadat has never been made public before. In it he wrote:
"I know that no agreement is possible without difficult decisions, but I am ready to grapple with them for the sake of the cause of peace between our countries." In order to convince his people of the need to make these difficult decisions, the Israeli prime minister wrote, he needed to see "that the act of withdrawal marks the real beginning of progress toward peace by deeds and words that demonstrate the intention of peace." This was two and a half years before Sadat shocked the world and flew to Israel to meet with Rabin's successor, Menachem Begin.
The tears shed by Sadat did not help. Rabin was powerless against opponents on his political right in the Israeli cabinet (led by Peres ) and within his party (primarily Moshe Dayan, but also his predecessor, Golda Meir ). Even Ford's blatant 1975 threat to negatively "reassess" American policy toward Israel did not shift the balance of forces within the cabinet. Ford and Kissinger failed, were furious, set out on a reprisal mission - and within five months succeeded in bending Israel to their will.
Most of this chapter in the annals of Jerusalem-Washington-Cairo relations (and it would also be worthwhile to add Damascus ) is well known, as it was conducted before the spotlights. There are some concealed pages, however, that are only now being revealed. The exposure comes in the form of a new compilation of U.S. administration documents in the years 1974-1976, which describes the Middle East policy of Kissinger during the presidencies of Richard Nixon (until August 1974 ) and Ford.
The documents, whose security classification has gradually been lifted over the years (although some were only finally made public a few weeks ago ), highlight Israel's great missed opportunity in the years following the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Not as dreadful a missed opportunity as the one that presented itself prior to the war, but a wretched failure, all the same.
The mutual brawling within the Rabin administration diverted the flow of history into another channel - to Begin and the Likud, and to Ariel Sharon (the great rival of Chief of Staff Gur, back from their days as paratroopers ), who became defense minister and, years later, prime minister; to the entanglement in Lebanon, and to lost opportunities for regional peace, as early as the 1970s.
Kissinger quoted Sadat as saying that Israel's "strategy is to sell its land to us for arms, which they will use to prevent giving up any more land." To the president of Syria, Hafez Assad, Kissinger said, "Israel's negotiating tactic is to move from the intolerable to the impossible and call it a concession."
The Israelis and their backers in American Jewry were trying to meddle in U.S. domestic politics, Kissinger warned Ford: "And the Jews are trying to knock you off. They want a new guy in the White House in '77." Yet, once the new guy, Jimmy Carter, arrived, they soon longed for Ford and Kissinger.
"We cannot be in a position to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world simply in order to stand behind the intransigence of Israel," Ford bristled.
"The tragedy is that we had a good foreign policy," replied Kissinger. "This is no reflection on you, but Israel doesn't think they have to be afraid of you."
"They will find out," Ford said.
"The people will look back at the crisis created by eight lousy kilometers in a pass that nobody knows," Kissinger said, referring to the standoff on negotiations to pull back from the strategic mountain passes in Sinai.
There was a logic to what he was saying. For a moment, Kissinger reverted to the role of Harvard lecturer. "I tell you that if this were a negotiation between Spain and France in which the peace of the world were not dependent on the U.S. financing the whole thing, I would say that these were perfectly reasonable statements. Every country has to decide on the balance between their sovereignty and their security."
The Senate majority leader, the Democrat Mike Mansfield, offered this diagnosis of the Israeli condition: "It is beginning to look as if they have a death wish."
Kissinger: "We must dissociate ourselves a bit from Israel - not to destroy them but to prevent them from becoming a Sparta, with only military solutions to every problem."
Among the secrets revealed in the 1,100-page volume: an Egyptian commitment not to join Syria in a war against Israel: "I can assure you, Mr. President, that I do not want any war. As far as I am concerned, Syria can go to war by itself. I am not intending to start a war," President Sadat told Ford at a meeting in Salzburg, Austria.
This statement led to a three-way agreement between America, Egypt and Israel, stated in a concealed side letter from Ford to Rabin, at the time of the signing of the September 1, 1975, interim agreement.
It was an unprecedented document. Officially, in order to avoid the obligation to report to Congress (from which it would no doubt be leaked ), it was no more than a "minute of record" initialed by Kissinger's deputy, Joseph Sisco, and Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Simcha Dinitz:
"The United States Government has received assurances from Egypt that in the event of a Syrian attack against Israel or in the event of a war of attrition initiated by Syria, Egypt will not participate in hostilities and will refrain from the use of force.
"Should Syria initiate military or paramilitary action against Israel, or should Syria undertake or tolerate acts that might threaten the cease-fire, the United States Government will support Israel diplomatically," it continued. "These acts include the infiltration of terrorists across the Israel-Syria cease-fire lines and the stationing of terrorist groups along the frontiers facing Israel.
"The United States Government takes Egypt's commitment to refrain from the threat or use of force or from military or paramilitary action contained in the agreement to remain binding in the event Israel undertakes appropriate countermeasures against terrorist operations."
In other words, Egypt gave Israel a free hand to respond, in context and proportionately, to Palestinian terror groups within Lebanon, and in so doing was inviting the eastern front to dissolve. For without Egypt, Syria had never embarked on a war against Israel.
A parallel letter - which has never previously been publicized, either - was sent from Kissinger to Egyptian Foreign Minister Fahmi: "Dear Ismail, this is to inform you that with respect to Syria, we have an Israeli assurance that Israel will not initiate military action against Syria. Warm regards."
The style is a bit clumsy, but the intent is clear. Israel does not commit to abstain from a preemptive strike in the face of an imminent Syrian attack on Israel, but Israel will not initiate a war.
Deceiving the president
This was the good ending to the bad chapter. Leading up to it, Israel had completely crossed the line: It had competed with the president on his home court, where it was damned if it won and damned if it lost. Ford, who had been a friendly member of Congress - an average American from the Midwest who, unlike his neighbors there, had "hundreds of Jewish friends" - now found himself under attack.
As Kissinger put it, "I must tell you that I have never seen the President so outraged. He feels deceived. Jerry Ford from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who thinks that all his life he has liked Jews and has supported Israel - suddenly he is faced with this." Kissinger told the President: "I think you should hit Rabin between the eyes."
Eventually, Rabin did fold. The Israeli prime minister then revealed the truth: "I have no emotional attachment to the Sinai and I tell you frankly I see it as a bargaining card to achieve a final peace." Israel was refusing to withdraw from Sinai not only because of the Mitla and Gidi passes and Sharm el-Sheikh [then an Israeli settlement called Ofira], but also out of its desire to control the oil fields there. As Rabin told the president, "Sixty percent of Israel's oil comes from there, making us mostly independent, and it saves about $350 to $400 million."
America had changed, Kissinger said, trying to explain the situation to Jewish power brokers, noting that Congress would not rush into military intervention. "I ordered the alert in October 1973," Kissinger told them . "Although at the time all the Russians were going to do was to put a division at the Cairo airport. Simply to teach them that they could not operate far from home. If they put troops in Syria, we will have to put troops in Israel. But I doubt if Congress would approve it. And do you realize that now 40 percent of our troops are negroes? Think of the possible race riots here. Even if Congress approves, we will have a real Vietnam-type situation."
Kissinger, who back in the Richard Nixon years heard his boss make some contemptible comments about Jews and other ethnic minorities, conducted the following conversation with Rabin, following the June 1975 terrorist attack at Kfar Yuval, along the Lebanese border:
Rabin: "The town was one settled by immigrants from India mainly."
Kissinger: "Do they look like Indians?"
Rabin: "Generally, yes, they do look like Indians."
Kissinger: "Do they act like Indians?"
Rabin: "No, they act much better than that."
Sisco: "Don't you have an Indian orchestra conductor?"
Kissinger: "That's [Zubin] Mehta. He's not Jewish; I know him well and he is a good friend of mine."
In order to untangle the thicket of the Mitla and Gidi passes, and the tight Israeli embrace of the early-warning station at Um Hashiba [in Sinai], Sadat proposed that American-manned early-warning stations be built along the ridges above the passes. It was a more symbolic solution than a practical one, and the administration wondered if there was any good reason to station dozens of bored envoys in these stations. An aide to Kissinger, Harold Saunders, proposed an index to determine the minimum number of observers needed for each station: "You have to give them at least enough for a card game."
Kissinger was reminded of a sordid Israel episode from 1954: "The Lavon Affair in the '50s was about Israelis blowing up American installations in Cairo and blaming it on the Arabs. They could do the same with one of these stations and blame it on the PLO."
The slippery figure
Kissinger's relationship with Rabin and Allon was characterized as an unrequited friendship - as opposed to his relations with Meir and Dayan, which improved considerably after the personal, political and national blow the two of them absorbed in the Yom Kippur War. Their complacent inflexibility, which caused the war, evolved into a practical receptiveness - at least for tactical purposes - although not yet enough to conceive the possibility of grabbing onto the horns of peace.
Kissinger: "I've got the names of four Arab [POWs] that [Hafez] Assad wants released. They look like hard cases."
Dayan: "I have four Arabs I want to give him. Maybe the same ones!"
In negotiating the withdrawal from the Kuneitra and Rafid sectors of the Golan Heights, the American team suspected that the map presented by Chief of Staff Gur did not accurately represent the verbal agreement . Dayan apologized: "Had I been there, they wouldn't have done it. This is not the way - to have a wrong map with the right explanation."
Kissinger: "I told them [the Syrians] there was no attempt to cheat them."
Golda: "Especially since they caught on."
Gur's name is mentioned in passing, as the author of "Azit the Paratrooper Dog" (a children's book that was turned into a film in 1972 ). It was the culmination of a conversation held with Assad and his closest men, including Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, in which Assad explained that Tlass was also a poet.
Sisco: "The Israeli Chief of Staff writes children's books."
Tlass: "He's planting in the minds of children hatred of the Arabs."
Assad: "They are not military?"
Hikmat al-Shihabi (chief of army intelligence, and incoming chief of staff ): "I have read them."
But most intriguing of all is the slippery figure of Mossad agent Ashraf Marwan, the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser's son-in-law and a close associate of Sadat's. In 1974-76, Marwan held a key position next to Sadat, first as his secretary for foreign affairs - the man responsible for foreign missions and contacts with foreign bodies - and later as head of the Arab Organization for Industrialization, which sought to finalize manufacturing, import and export transactions that brought monetary gain to Marwan and his benefactors.
His critics, particularly from the Al-Akhbar daily newspaper, accused Marwan of corruption. His supporters, mainly from the Cairo daily Al-Ahram, dealt with his avarice forgivingly. But it is astounding to find that Marwan was also one of the three senior Egyptian figures, along with Fahmi and al-Gamasy, who spoke with Kissinger - with Sadat's blessing. Upon returning from his travels to Saudi Arabia, where he had good connections with the royal court, intelligence service and foreign ministry, Marwan met with Kissinger in order to update him and recommend how to speak with Assad during his next visit to Damascus.
The question arises of whether Israel succeeded in exploiting Marwan when it came to influencing political negotiations, or whether - just as it missed the opportunity to use this direct channel to Sadat for a dialogue that might have spared Israel the war - it also neglected this possibility.
The question is especially intriguing, because Kissinger repeatedly mentions his name during conversations with Golda and Dayan, who were supposedly aware of the identity of a high-echelon spy whose inside information provided Israel with an early-warning capacity.
Maj. Gen. (res. ) Shlomo Gazit, who was head of Military Intelligence at the time, said recently that, as far as he knew, Israel's political leadership - as well as the Mossad - viewed Marwan solely as an intelligence asset. No one dared to relate to him as a means of achieving peace as well. Perhaps, as Kissinger said, because Israel wanted peace but wasn't willing to pay the price.