104. Editorial Note
Over the course of the day on March 17, 1970, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger and Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin held several conversations to discuss future U.S. economic and military assistance to Israel, a proposed cease-fire agreement between Israel and the UAR, and the discovery of Soviet personnel and new air defense systems inside Egypt.The first meeting took place at 10:15 a.m. and was held in the library of the White House residence. According to the memorandum of conversation, Rabin stated he would like to review the Israeli estimate of the “entire situation” of the Arab-Israeli conflict and reaffirmed that Kissinger was the only U.S. Government official to whom this information was being given. Rabin continued:
“As a result of the continued violations of the cease-fire, Israel had concluded that deep air attacks were the only way to prevent further escalation and to control Nasser’s armed forces. Ambassador Rabin stated that the Israelis consider that the Soviet and Egyptian problem is not the fact that Egypt does not have a sufficient number of offensive aircraft or the equipment necessary to develop an efficient air defense capability. Also, both Egypt and the USSR recognize that the problem involves the inability of the Egyptians to operate the equipment.
“Ambassador Rabin continued that all the Israeli air attacks with a single accidental exception had been against Egyptian military targets and that these attacks had been extremely effective and caused great [Page 342] turbulence in Egypt. For example, Egyptian pilots have been sent to Syria to train, seven Egyptian Divisions along the Canal were pulled back resulting in severe confusion and disruption of Egypt’s overall training plans. As a result of this, Nasser visited Moscow during the end of January to present the criticality of their situation to the Soviets. Apparently, the Soviets tried to handle the problem through the release of some public assurances and a decision to develop a more sophisticated air defense capability for Egypt. This was evidenced by mid-January when the Israelis noticed the beginning of 15 new air defense sites with unique and elaborate facilities (Ambassador Rabin showed Dr. Kissinger a schematic drawing of the T-type missile bunkers which were made of concrete and were 300 meters in length, 60 meters in width and 5 meters in height).
“Ambassador Rabin continued that initially the Israelis did not know what this new facility was and suspected that it was a new ground-to-ground missile site. Subsequently, they noticed the construction of a site in the area of the Aswan Dam and concluded that it had to be air defense because of the remoteness of the location. Since Israel concluded that these were new and sophisticated air defense facilities, they determined to concentrate their air effort against them in order to prevent their completion. Israel now believes that the sites have been prepared for SA–3 missiles despite the fact that the U.S. intelligence has described them as far more sophisticated than the SA–3 sites that have been observed in East Germany. Initial Egyptian reaction to the concentrated Israeli attacks was to bring their conventional antiaircraft artillery back from the Canal to provide greater protection in depth. They also tried to intercept with Egyptian aircraft but after several losses declined further air combat. The pattern of the new Egyptian sites appears to be designed to provide maximum protection over the Canal itself. This permits in-depth displacements since the SA–3 has a range of approximately 22 miles. Dr. Kissinger commented that this was a low-level missile. Ambassador Rabin confirmed this. Ambassador Rabin then concluded that if the Egyptians succeed in emplacing an SA–3 missile system of this sophistication, the Israelis will suffer an increase in both air losses and human casualties.
“Ambassador Rabin continued that because the Israeli attacks against the missile sites had been so effective, the Egyptians decided to seek another solution—one which might enable them to achieve a lull for two or three months, and one which would enable them to complete the sites and then resume the war of attrition. Rabin said they had hard evidence from one highly reliable source that this plan had been worked out with the Soviets over the period of 3 to 5 March and that it had been decided that they would concede on two of their five points and would permit the Soviets to start negotiations again within the two or four-power framework. There other conditions would remain firm:[Page 343]
“1. Insistence on total withdrawal, including Jerusalem.
“2. No face-to-face negotiations with Israel.
“3. Solution to the refugee program on the basis of the 1948 United Nations Resolution.
“Ambassador Rabin emphasized that Prime Minister Meir had concluded that this would be suicide for Israel. Mrs. Meir also expressed severe reservations about the feasibility of an undeclared cease-fire under these conditions for it would, in effect, permit Egypt to complete the sites and to gain time without a public commitment. This would thereby preserve their option to continue the war of attrition as soon as they considered themselves properly postured. Israel had concluded that the Soviets’ objective is to attain these temporary conditions for Egypt, thus enabling Egypt to continue the war of attrition and also to deflect an affirmative decision by the U.S. on the Israeli plane request. Further, this strategy, Rabin added, would permit the continued erosion of the U.S. position with respect to Israel and the Middle East as a whole which had started with our more recent declarations of October 28, 1969 and December 9, 1969. In view of the preceding estimate, the President’s proposal with respect to both the public statement and the private assurances on replacement aircraft was a cause of major concern.
“Mrs. Meir sees great danger in the U.S. position. The public statement would have incalculable impact not only on the Middle East but elsewhere and she, therefore, was making the following request:
“1. Modify the public announcement to make it more positive with the view not towards committing the U.S. to providing more planes but to more positively guarantee a preservation of current Israeli air capability.
“2. Concerning the political language in the public announcement, some insertion should be made reaffirming the U.S. determination to maintain the balance of power in the Middle East . . .
“3. In addition, Ambassador Rabin stated that Prime Minister Meir asks that the U.S. reconsider its position on the practical matter of providing replacement aircraft and that we also provide some positive public expression in our public statement.
“4. Finally, with respect to the cease-fire, Ambassador Rabin stated that Mrs. Meir had considered the issue in great depth and had come to the conclusion that she could accept the undeclared cease-fire under the conditions that there would be no public statement and that it constituted a complete cessation of military activity along the Canal.
“To implement the cease-fire, Mrs. Meir proposed the following conditions:[Page 344]
“1. Elimination of the 60 or 90 day restriction and substitute therefor a period of 3 to 5 days in which Israel would refrain from in-depth air attacks against Egypt. During this period, however, if the Egyptians violated the cease-fire by rifle or artillery fire, for example, Israel would respond in kind, i.e., with an identical response.
“—After the three or five day modified moratorium, if Egypt continued to violate the cease-fire, then Israel would not feel constrained to respond in like manner but would not be limited in their retaliation by either type or distance of penetration.
“—Israel would require one day’s notice in order to implement the three to five day moratorium.
“Dr. Kissinger asked what would be Israel’s attitude if the Soviets and Egypt agree to these conditions but in doing so continue to complete the SA–3 sites. Ambassador Rabin replied that Israel will have to accept this risk, providing they abide by the total cease-fire.
“Ambassador Rabin then commented that even though Golda Meir would accept the foregoing conditions, she was actually furious that she was being forced to do so but, on balance, considered that Israel could accept these conditions in order to avoid higher costs. In accepting these conditions, however, Mrs. Meir felt that the U.S. should double the number of planes to be provided under the replacement formula, i.e., the U.S. should agree to deliver up to 8 Phantoms and 20 Skyhawks by the end of CY 1970 and that an identical number should be provided by the middle of CY 71. Ambassador Rabin then complained that U.S. calculations of attrition differ from Israel’s. He pointed out the U.S. seems to consider only the loss of U.S.-provided planes while, in fact, Israel must consider overall inventory, regardless of source.”
After Rabin summarized Prime Minister Meir’s position and discussed further discrepancies in U.S. and Israeli intelligence estimates, Kissinger explained that the U.S. estimate of the cease-fire proposal, which was only known to the President, General Haig, and himself, was that it would help Israel by providing the United States an additional leverage on the Soviets. He added that President Nixon was “Israel’s best friend,” and wanted to do “everything possible” to resolve the situation.He then told Rabin:
“The President had asked him to assure the Ambassador that he would like to satisfy the whole Israeli arms request . . . [and] stated that the President was anxious to maintain Israel’s current advantage, that he has given Dr. Kissinger full power of attorney on this matter but that unfortunately the realities of the situation prevent him from utilizing it. . . .
“Dr. Kissinger stated that he has no intention of deceiving Israel, stating ‘it would be a simple matter under these conditions to get Israel to accept the cease-fire on a shallow promise but the U.S. has no interest [Page 345] in doing so.’” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 612, Country Files, Middle East, Israeli Aid)
In a memorandum to President Nixon the following day, March 18, Kissinger summarized Rabin’s position:
“At the first meeting at 10:15 a.m. he said Israel was accepting your proposition [see Document 103] with the following provisos:
“1. That the Egyptian ceasefire be total and not confined to air activity and that your Aide-Mémoire be changed accordingly;
“2. That the public announcement of our decision state that we were replacing Israeli losses;
“3. That we commit ourselves to 8 Phantoms and 20 Skyhawks to replace Israeli losses this year and that a similar number would be required in 1971, especially in light of the SA–3s becoming operational and increasing the rate of attrition.” (Ibid., Box 652, Country Files, Middle East, Middle East, Vol. I)
Kissinger saw Rabin again at 4 p.m. in the afternoon of March 17. Rabin handed Kissinger a piece of paper that outlined the actions Israel was prepared to take under a cease-fire and indicated that he would be prepared to sign this on behalf of his government. Kissinger thereupon informed the Ambassador that the United States Government could not change the announcement and would not commit to a flat replacement figure. Rabin took the view that the combination of these decisions “condemned Israel to the same haggling with respect to replacements that they had already experienced with respect to new planes; in short that our commitment was not a commitment.”Kissinger replied that he would arrange an appointment with the President the next day to set his mind at ease. (Ibid.)
Later that evening, Kissinger discussed the Israeli arms request over the telephone with President Nixon. A portion of their conversation reads:
“P: On this Israeli thing, I think you should play it that this is a damn good deal and we will play ours to the hilt and we want them to play theirs. I will re-assure them.
“K: If they don’t get reassurances on the 8 [Phantoms] & 20 [Skyhawks] they will kick over the whole deal.
“P: I will assure them of the 8 & 20.
“K: They don’t want to be in an endless negotiation. That’s my guess. I put it to Rabin very strongly after our talk at lunch and he seemed extremely disturbed.
“P: The 8 & 20—I will back it up to the bureaucracy. Let him play our game. It’s very important.
“K: Right.” (Transcript of a telephone conversation between Nixon and Kissinger, March 17, 1970, 8:07 p.m.; ibid., Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts Box 4, Chronological File)[Page 346]
Before President Nixon had the opportunity to reassure the Israelis of the deal, however, the Defense Intelligence Agency confirmed reports of Soviet SA–3 sites manned by Soviet personnel in Egypt. Upon learning the news, Rabin called Kissinger at 10:10 p.m. to inform him that he was cancelling the agreement:
“R: About 2 hours ago the DIA informed our military attaché that they have got information that 10 sites of SA–3, including a considerable number of Russian experts—that their estimation will be 1500 experts and they are foreign, that is to say Russian. We got this information from them two hours ago. In light of this information, I feel that it’s my obligation to inform the Prime Minister that we have this information and as a result that all that I have told you will have changed.
“K: I understand.
“R: I am sorry but in light of such vital information I feel that it is my duty to tell my government and it may decide to change it on the basis of this information.
“K: When you saw the sites, what did you think?
“R: There’s a difference between thinking and knowing. Third, I am sure that the U.S. Government should also re-consider this decision in light of this information if its message to Congress is to be taken seriously.I cannot find words to explain and to say what would be the meaning and interpretation of the decision by your government in light of the new development. As a result, I must await instructions from my government and I would like as a result not to have the meeting tomorrow.
“K: All right.
“R: I hope you understand.
“K: I understand.” (Transcript of a telephone conversation between Kissinger and Rabin, March 17, 10:10 p.m.; ibid.)
In his March 18 memorandum to Nixon summarizing the day’s events and offering his assessment of the options now available to the President, Kissinger wrote:
“I believe that State’s inability to change the announcement and my inability to guarantee a flat replacement figure convinced the Israelis that they were getting nothing for the ceasefire except a written for an oral promise. My views are as follows:
“1. The Israelis are getting desperate. Convinced that they have nothing to lose, they may well attack. Indeed, had we followed the original scenario and made the original announcement when it was scheduled last week, the situation would probably be out of control.
“2. I would be remiss in my duty if I did not tell you that our course involves the most serious dangers of a Middle East war and of a profound misunderstanding by the Soviets.[Page 347]
“3. You have two choices:
“a. To proceed on our course and make the announcement but use the SA–3 evidence to make a flat promise to Israel of 8 Phantoms and 20 Skyhawks for each of the next two years in return for a ceasefire.
“b. To use the SA–3 evidence to order a complete restudy in the bureaucracy of the issue of hardware to Israel coupled with an appeal to the Soviets to stop the introduction of Soviet combat personnel into Egypt. At this stage I lean toward the second.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 652, Country Files, Middle East, Middle East, Vol. I)
While Nixon decided to defer any commitment to provide Israel with additional aircraft (see Document 105), he nonetheless ordered a restudy of the issue in National Security Study Memorandum 93 (Document 108) in light of Israel’s evidence regarding Soviet-manned SA–3s in Egypt. He also met with Rabin on March 18 to discuss the arms request and Soviet involvement in the Middle East. The meeting was held in the President’s private office in the Executive Office Building. The President’s Daily Diary makes no mention of any meeting with Rabin on March 18, but Kissinger later prepared a record of the conversation that reads as follows:
“The President said he wanted to see Rabin to tell him one thing—that the line of communication to the President was via me [Kissinger]. He knew that the Israelis had legitimate concerns about their security and that they had some doubts on whether we would not nitpick them to death, if they felt their security was in danger. He therefore wanted to tell Rabin to let Kissinger know if the balance of power was in danger. We have great difficulty looking at the problem massively but if you put it to us in an informal way, we will find our way to solve the problem.Quite apart from helping Israel which means a lot to us, we don’t want the power balance to change. Within our bureaucracy, there are many who don’t agree. They think our real interests in the Middle East lie with the Arabs but those others don’t have my power. I am aware of the introduction of Soviet SA–3s and I hope you knock them out. You can’t let them build up.
“Rabin said I know I am speaking to the most powerful man of the most powerful country in the world. I must tell you that the public announcement which you will make produces great concern. It will give great encouragement to the Arabs because they believe Israel has been left alone to defend itself by its oldest friend. It will give great encouragement to the Soviets because it shows them that they are free to do what they want and it will lead them into greater intransigence towards the Arabs. It will have great consequence for the other states in the Middle East, going as far as the Persian Gulf who will draw the conclusion that you have been forced off your course by the Soviets. We Israelis have no one to turn to except to you the President of the United States. We believe in freedom and human dignity and we will defend [Page 348] ourselves but we are only 2.5 million [people]. We would like to knock out the SAMs but we now know that if we knock out the SAM sites we will face the Soviet Union alone. I am in no position to disbelieve the President of the United States but our survival is at stake and I am deeply worried.
“The President replied, when you see that the need exists, convey it to us. What this means is what my letter [Document 101] says.
“Rabin said the need exists now. What is the balance of power in the world today? Egypt has 160 supersonic planes. Syria has 100 supersonic planes. We have less than 90. We are brave but we can’t be superhuman. We will do what I can but the Arabs don’t need more arms. And as soon as they get greater competence, we will be in mortal danger.
“The President [said] when you are in danger, let Kissinger know. We will get it done.” (Record of conversation between President Nixon and Israeli Ambassador Rabin; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 612, Country Files, Middle East, Israeli Aid)
In his memoirs, Rabin recalled that during his conversation with Nixon, he (Rabin) launched into “an emotional charged speech about the perils of a small nation fighting for her life.” Rabin added:
“Whenever the U.S. is believed to be reducing her support for Israel, the Arabs revive their old hope of overcoming us by force. And the longer the war of attrition goes on, the more the Soviets will flaunt their insolence. They will interpret the United States’ decision on arms as a sign of weakness. And if the Russians can station SAM–3s and man them with their own technicians while America continues to deprive Israel of arms, they will take it to mean they can go even further! Once again, Mr. President, I appeal to you as the only man in whose sympathy and understand we have trust: Give us the arms we need!
“I was a bit startled at myself—and all the more at the total silence that ensued. Evidently my emotion had been infectious. The pause went on for a minute or so—to me it seemed like an eternity—as the president sat mute with his eyes averted. Finally he said, ‘Thank you for putting it that way, Mr. Ambassador. I understand you, and I understand Israel’s situation. You can be sure that you’ll get your arms. I only want to go about it in a different way.’ He paused again, and when he continued speaking I thought I could detect a strange glint in his eye. ‘Do you have any more information about the SAM–3s? How do you feel about those missiles being manned by the Russians? Have you considered attacking them?’
“Totally flabbergasted, I blurted out: ‘Attack the Russian?’ Strange, I thought to myself, how complex are the motives of a great power. Was the president suggesting that for fear that we would attack the Russian missiles, with all the attendant risks, the United States [Page 349] would avoid strengthening Israel? Or was it conceivable that he meant precisely the opposite? Could it be that the president of the United States was intimating his interest in our attacking the missiles and their Russian crews? And if he knew that Israel intended to do so, would he provide us with all the planes we had requested—and perhaps even more?
“The president did not reply further to my outburst, and, frankly, I didn’t want him to elaborate on the subject. If he had said, ‘Yes, go ahead and attack,’ it was doubtful that Israel would have been able or willing to. If he said, ‘No, do not attack them under any circumstances!’ and developments later made it imperative for Israel to destroy the missiles, she would run the risk of defying the president of the United States and disrupting relations with her strongest ally.” (The Rabin Memoirs, pages 171–173)