'The Arabs and Israelis Deserve Each Other'

Looking back on Henry Kissinger's diplomatic efforts in the '70s, it seems that Israeli leaders, be they Labor or Likud, have always been perceived as difficult and uncompromising. It didn't start with Benjamin Netanyahu.

"If you want the Democrats to come out against the 1967 borders, just have us come out for them," said Gerald Ford's secretary of state on March 31, 1976, to Jordan's King Hussein and Prime Minister Zaid al-Rifai, in front of Ford himself.

Two weeks ago that secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, the grand old man of national security advisers, returned to the White House to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Situation Room (as the secure communications room in the basement of the executive mansion is called ), an event presided over by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Golda Meir and Richard Nixon - AP

In many ways, there is continuity between administrations and Congresses. "If every president had to come up with a totally new foreign policy, I shudder to think what state the world would be in," Kissinger said to his Japanese counterpart Kiichi Miyazawa (who later became his country's prime minister ) in April 1975.

Commenting on the Rabin administration's refusal to withdraw from the Mitla and Gidi passes as part of a second interim agreement in Sinai, Kissinger said: "The Arabs and Israelis deserve each other. If they were located anywhere else in the world, we would let them have a go at each other. Unfortunately they are located in a strategic place.

"The Israelis thought we were weak and that I needed a success. These factors combined to make them intractable. We are not that weak. Congress cannot conduct foreign policy. It can vote money, but it can't conduct foreign policy. Previous experience has made that clear. The fact is that no one can make peace in the Middle East except us. If we support Israel, there will be no progress. There might be a war, but no progress. So we won't be pushed.

"The last break-up of talks had benefits. First, it taught the Israelis and Egyptians that they can't get along without us. Even the Soviets know that. Second, it forced us to initiate domestic debate. Third, Congress is not going to fight us on this."

In another conversation, in November 1973, Kissinger commented to South Korean President Park Chung Hee: "I may say that the Israelis are about as tough as the Communists. The Arabs are relatively undisciplined. A problem with the Arabs is that they will proceed from one unjustified assumption to another. They will begin by hoping you have accepted something, and then pretend you have accepted, and then assume that there has been a firm agreement, and will later on claim that you have gone back on some understanding."

No president facing re-election is exempt from electoral concerns, but it is risky for Israel to gamble on this. In January 1974, when he was deeply embroiled in the Watergate affair but not threatened by elections, U.S. President Richard Nixon told British ambassador Lord Cromer: "The Israelis are coming along on disengagement, but they have to be reasonable on the final arrangement. Tell [British Prime Minister Edward] Heath and [Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-] Home not to talk about it, but I am not beholden - I am probably the first president - to the Jewish community. Therefore American political considerations will not affect me. I will work for a settlement. I don't care what Congress thinks - they are not willing to send U.S. troops in. I told Israel it cannot continue to win without U.S. help, and we won't be there."

Israel won't withdraw

In June 1975, Ford and Kissinger hosted Abd al-Halim Khaddam, the Syrian deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, who is now living in Paris and is a leading opponent of Syria's regime.

"Israel says they won't withdraw," observed the Syrian. "Even more dangerous would be a map as published by the Labor Party, showing the Golan, Gaza and the West Bank as part of Israel. Labor is not an opposition party - it is the government. And then, it is softer than the Likud. So what must the attitude of the Likud be?"

Khaddam told his hosts: "There are certain facts. One is that the axis on which the whole situation exists is Palestine. We believe clarity in this will help all to understand. Therefore, I will speak quickly: The basic problem is resolving the Palestinian question. To ignore them would be for a surgeon performing an appendectomy, to find an ulcer but just close the man up after an appendectomy and send him on his way. The Palestinian people exist, as does the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization]. So there are two political alternatives: We acknowledge their existence or we don't."

Ford and Kissinger did decide, behind closed doors, to hold secret talks with the PLO and reveal them only after the 1976 election. In May 1975 Ford asked Iran's Shah Reza Pahlavi to assess Yasser Arafat's worth. "One bullet," he replied, not because he advocated assassinating Arafat but rather because he doubted Arafat could survive in the face of more extreme elements.

If the Palestinians establish a state, warned the shah, "They will have to expand and they will first move to Jordan and then will be on the border of Saudi Arabia. Think of that! But we can't leave out the possibility of a Palestinian state as a solution. Our only hope is some responsible Arabs will get frightened and set up some sort of wall against the expansion of the Palestinians."

"I think they [the Israelis] can't count on congressional support like they did in the past," said Ford. "The situation has changed. I think they are miscalculating."

Pahlavi: "It's also the weakness of the government in Jerusalem. If we only had Golda."

Kissinger: "I never thought I would look back on her with nostalgia."

Before leaving, the shah wished Ford success in the upcoming presidential election. This was in vain. Not only did Jimmy Carter defeat Ford, he also contributed to the shah's fall.

Golda Meir, on her visits to the White House after her retirement, continued to oppose any withdrawals. She had met with Jordan's King Hussein some 30 times, she said. Hussein reported to Ford and Kissinger on more than 500 hours of discussions, and of his disappointment with the Israeli plan to give him only 90 percent of the West Bank (and 95 percent of the Palestinians living there ), not to evacuate the settlements - in their modest, mid-1970s dimensions - and to keep forces along the Jordan. Not Benjamin Netanyahu: Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin.

Right, said Hussein and Prime Minister Rifai, let the Israelis reach an agreement with the PLO. Jordan cannot give up the West Bank; maybe the Palestinians will be able to do so.

The professional politicians in the White House have always tried to analyze the internal power relations in the cadre of potential peace partners. For example, Ford and Kissinger pressured Foreign Minister Yigal Allon to rally support for the withdrawal proposed by Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres without going to the government for approval, which could have brought leaks.

In 1974 Kissinger sighed and said: "In Israel the domestic politics are absolutely disgusting. A year ago [Moshe] Dayan was the leading dove; he has now moved totally to the right. The defense minister in the present government [Peres] is the second man in the Rafi faction, which Dayan heads, and it is important that the seven from this group stay in power." If Dayan is out, observed Kissinger, Rabin's government will fall.

Diplomatically, what Obama publicly proposed to Netanyahu (and the Palestinians ) is a way to unravel the knotty issues of the permanent status agreement into two phases. The first, which would end with a non-belligerance agreement, is the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with land swaps, alongside a secure Israel. In the second phase, there would be a deal - transferring Arab Jerusalem to Palestine in exchange for relinquishing demands for resettlement of refugees inside Israel.

If Obama takes this platform to the 2012 elections and wins, he will not only be free of having to worry about re-election, but will also have a clear popular mandate. Netanyahu's next election, if his government survives that long, will be held only in 2013. Therefore the real choice Obama has posed to Israeli voters, or to their elected representatives, is between forming a more moderate government, either prior to the Knesset elections or following them, and clashing with an American president who is gaining strength.

And in the background, of course, is the price of a war. After 1973, CIA chief William Colby assessed that in the next general war 7,000 Israelis would be killed. This estimate is still as good, or bad, as any. And that was even before the Iranians became enemy No. 1.