The tape recording is fuzzy. You have to listen with headphones and separate the dialogue from the background noise and the rattling of cups and teaspoons. But the effort is worth it. Even decades later, the conversation between Golda Meir and Richard Nixon is chilling.
As a diplomatic correspondent, I have covered a lot of visits by Israeli prime ministers to Washington, but always from the other side of the door. I never heard the actual words that were spoken inside the Oval Office - and here they were in my ear, as heard on a tape released by the Richard Nixon Presidential Library last week.
Golda with her Yiddish accent, Henry Kissinger with his German pronunciation, Yitzhak Rabin with his Israeli English and above all, Richard Nixon. The Watergate scandal had already gone public, but he still sounded dominant in his conversation with Meir as he gave his Israeli guest a lecture on international relations. Even given the time that has passed, it's more gripping than the WikiLeaks documents.
Meir came to the White House on March 1, 1973, both to make sure that the increasing closeness between Egypt and the United States would not cost Israel the Sinai and to secure new combat planes for the Israel Air Force. Nixon wanted to convince her that engaging in peace negotiations was "good for our interests and yours," and to signal that any U.S. provision of arms would depend on developments on the diplomatic front. Planes in exchange for land concessions, just as in the failed deal the incumbent U.S. president proposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Meir stood her ground. Just as Netanyahu told U.S. President Barack Obama, Meir explained to Nixon that Israel wants peace above all and is willing to take risks for peace. She complained that she sent a message to Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president at the time, through the president of Romania, but that the Egyptian leader never replied. The backdrop to the Meir-Nixon conversation was the Egyptian offer of a permanent peace agreement, made to Kissinger the previous week.
Meir was not excited about it. She suggested a limited interim agreement, and said even that would be politically difficult for her. The Egyptians, she said, want the United States to "deliver Israel" to them: for Israel to return to the 1967 borders, and then the 1947 borders, and then to sort out the conflict with the Palestinians - meaning, she clarified, Arafat and the terrorists.
Nixon promised to coordinate positions with Meir. Nixon and Kissinger were more interested in the balance of power between the superpowers than in achieving peace in the Middle East. They began speaking more animatedly only when they demanded that Meir restrain the Israel supporters in the U.S. Senate, who wanted to make detente with the Soviet Union conditional on easing the distress of Russian Jews (the Jackson-Vanik amendment ). Meir held them off and gave a passionate description of the suffering of the Jews behind the Iron Curtain. Nixon depicted himself as a longtime enemy of conservatism; apparently forgetting that he was recording himself and that one day his comments would be released, including the tape with the scathing comments against Jews.
In the most important part of the meeting, Meir said Israel was strong and that was why the Egyptian border was quiet. Not only will we be able to protect ourselves if attacked, she said, we have not been attacked because of that reason. She boasted about information that Israel had from Sadat's conversations with the Soviets (which she got through Mossad agent Ashraf Marwan ).
We're getting the transcripts of the Egyptians and the Russians, Kissinger told the president. The message was understood: Egypt is weak and Israel can lead it around by the nose. Nothing's urgent.
Meir went back to Jerusalem and rejected the Egyptian offer; Israel enjoyed another seven months of quiet, economic growth and political stability. Then the Egyptians crossed the Suez, and history changed irreversibly.
Meir and Netanyahu have a lot in common, in terms of their popularity, their diplomatic experience, their good English and their political positions. Like Netanyahu, Meir also espoused the philosophy of "not an inch," disguised as the argument that there is "no partner." But there is also a fundamental difference between the two prime ministers.
In March 1973, Meir didn't know that the diplomatic freeze would push Egypt to go to war. Netanyahu took part in the Yom Kippur War, when he returned from his studies in Boston and rushed to the front. He saw from up close the price of complacency, of faith in force and scorning the enemy. And if he has forgotten, he would do well to refresh his memory by listening to the tape of Meir and Nixon and asking himself what he can do to avoid repeating her mistakes and keep from dragging the country blindly toward a second Yom Kippur disaster.
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