36. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • Yitzhak Rabin, Ambassador of Israel
  • Harold H. Saunders

Caution: The conversation recounted below was labelled by Rabin as strictly personal. Therefore, no distribution of this memcon should be made beyond those with an immediate interest, and in no case, should Rabin or any other Israeli be confronted with the substance of the Ambassador’s remarks.

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Background. As background to this conversation, two points need to be made:

1. On May 13, while waiting with Rabin, Bitan and Argov for Dr. Kissinger to see them,2 I had remarked in the course of our conversation that it was very difficult for us to know exactly what Israel’s position on a territorial settlement is. Ambassador Rabin said he could not understand my remark since Foreign Minister Eban last November had told Secretary Rusk very specifically that Israel, in a settlement with the UAR, would require an Israeli position at Sharm el-Sheikh and land access to it.3 I recalled that comment but noted that always when we had heard such remarks from Israeli officials, they had been couched as “illustrative” rather than as firm Israeli government positions. In fact, we had been repeatedly told right up to the present that the Israeli Cabinet would not take a firm position on a territorial settlement until the Arabs presented themselves for direct negotiations. Prime Minister Eshkol, and other Israeli officials quoting him, had repeatedly said that they would not have a Cabinet crisis over a hypothesis.

2. On the afternoon of June 20, during the call of Rafael, Rabin and Argov on Dr. Kissinger,4 Dr. Kissinger had commented that the time was coming when he felt it would be to Israel’s advantage to state more precisely its territorial requirements and to come out from behind the screen of “sacramental words—‘just and lasting peace’ and ‘secure and recognized boundaries.’” Ambassador Rabin had taken exception to that remark, saying that Foreign Minister Eban last November had told Secretary Rusk specifically that Israel required an Israeli position at Sharm el-Sheikh and land access to it. When Dr. Kissinger asked my reaction, Rabin stepped right in and, smiling, told Dr. Kissinger that I would say that the remarks by Israeli officials had been “illustrative.” I then went on to add that we had repeatedly been told by Israeli officials that the Israeli Cabinet would take no position until the Arabs sat down to negotiate with them. After another comment by Dr. Kissinger, Rafael spoke up and said that the Israeli government would not take a firm position until the Arabs sat down and negotiated with them. Ambassador Rabin looked about as angry and disgusted as I have ever seen him look.

Conversation. Walking downstairs beside Ambassador Rabin after dinner at the Siscos’ that evening, I asked Rabin whether he blamed me for being confused. When he asked what I meant, I recalled that after[Page 125]noon in Dr. Kissinger’s office when I had seen demonstrated right before my eyes within about 75 seconds precisely the contradiction which I had been talking about. He paused for a moment and then said, “No, I don’t blame you for being confused.”

He said that when he had been in Israel he had, in his private conversation with Prime Minister Meir, explained that the Israeli Government position is not firmly understood in Washington. He recommended to her that she come to Washington and explain to the President exactly what positions the Israeli Cabinet has taken. He said he had told her that he did not believe she would return home with any “political victory” but that she did not badly need this and it was far more important that the President of the United States understand clearly Israel’s position.

He then motioned me to a chair and proceeded to explain the Israeli Cabinet decisions on this subject in the following general way:

When Eban had made his comment to Rusk in November 1968 about Israeli desire for a position in Sharm el-Sheikh and land access to it, Eban was speaking from a firm Cabinet decision. Recalling the Israeli scurrying to ready a position vis-à-vis Jordan before the UNGA session, I asked whether that decision had been made in August or September. He said that it had been taken in December 1967. He added that he, as then Chief of Staff, had not been told of the decision at that time. He had only learned of it as he prepared in May 1968 to come to Washington as Ambassador. He said he asked for and got the record of the Cabinet meeting. When he had learned of it, he had told the General Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, and Prime Minister Eshkol had been “very angry” at Rabin for telling them. He had then gone to Dayan who had been surprised that the US had not been told. Rabin then summarized the position the Cabinet had taken on its four fronts as follows:

1. On the UAR front, the Cabinet had made a definite decision to require an Israeli position at Sharm el-Sheikh and land access to it.

2. On the West Bank, the Israelis had needed a position to ready for the Jordanians and there was “an 80–85% consensus” in the Cabinet for the Allon plan.5 At one time, Dayan had suggested an alternative of fortifying the heights, but no one pressed that plan now.

3. On Syria, the Cabinet had decided not to decide.

4. On Lebanon, there is no territorial issue.

I asked him whether he did not feel that the Israeli position on Sharm el-Sheikh would rule out the peace settlement with the UAR. I said I realized that the Israelis may judge that such a settlement is impossible now anyway and that this would not disturb them.

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He made two points in reply:

1. If the Egyptians unexpectedly show themselves to want peace, the Cabinet could always revise its own decision.

2. More realistically, Rabin—emphasizing that he was speaking strictly personally—said that responsible Israelis fully realize that peace can not come about all at once. He therefore thought the objective was to create a situation which would gradually reverse hostility and create a situation in which Arabs and Israelis could learn to live together. He thought, for instance, that it might be possible to agree that the Israelis would occupy Sharm el-Sheikh for a period of five–ten years with the possibility of review at the end of that period. If at that time it appeared that there had been substantial progress toward living together in peace, then the Israelis might as well decide that they could return that position.

When I asked what evidence the Israelis would consider adequate manifestation of Egyptian desire for peace, he repeated the familiar position that Nasser’s willingness to negotiate directly with the Israelis—“under Jarring, of course”—would be the first step.

I said that if this were the case, I could not see why the Israelis objected so strongly to our current diplomatic exercise if we were simply trying to find out whether the Russians could deliver the Egyptians for direct negotiations, and, what I felt was even more important, deliver an Arab willingness to recognize the political independence, the territorial integrity and inviolability of Israel and renounce the use of force or threat of force against Israel. Rabin replied that these would be very important for Israel, but that our document had not supplied that kind of recognition for Israel.

He volunteered that when he had last been in Israel, he had been asked at the Cabinet to explain U.S. intentions in this diplomatic exercise with the Soviet Union. Rabin said that he personally felt that the US without committing itself to the principle of withdrawal, had been trying to probe how far the Soviet Union and the UAR were willing to commit themselves to peace.

I said we had developed our position in June 1967 on the assumption—confirmed by Israeli statements—that Israel had no territorial aspirations. Rabin replied, “You were justified.”

Comments:

1. The nuance which is not clear is whether Rabin is referring to a firm but secret Cabinet decision or to a consensus, such as Eban refers to. While there may be a technical difference to cover Eban, Rabin’s blunt characterization may be more accurate in describing the net effect of the Cabinet action.

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2. Rabin himself noted that the Cabinet could reverse itself, but he clearly sharply disagrees with the Eban-Rafael formulation that the Cabinet will make a decision only when the Arabs negotiate. Whatever the technicality, Rabin states firmly that the Cabinet has made up its mind as far as its UAR border is concerned, and Eban-Rafael continue to suggest that the Cabinet has yet to commit itself. Rabin seems to believe that the “politicians”—to his dismay—have misled us and feels strongly they should now state their position forthrightly.

3. Going back to re-read the report of the November 3, 1968, Rusk-Eban conversation, I am struck by the careful way both Eban and Rabin seem to be avoiding stating that Israel wants permanent annexation of Sharm el-Sheikh. They seem to be talking carefully about “a position” and not “sovereignty.”

Harold H. Saunders 6
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 604, Country Files, Middle East, Israel, Vol. II. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Saunders on June 25. The conversation occurred on the evening of June 20 at Sisco’s home. Saunders attached his record of this conversation to a July 1 “eyes only” memorandum for Kissinger noting: “There are no immediate operational conclusions to be drawn from this, except to be wary of Eban’s vague statements.” Saunders explained that because of the “extremely personal nature of Rabin’s talk,” he would not distribute the memorandum “through the system.” (Ibid.)
  2. Memorandum of conversation, May 13. (Ibid.)
  3. See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume XX, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1967–1968, Document 303.
  4. Memorandum of conversation, June 20. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1319, Unfiled Material)
  5. See footnote 8, Document 4.
  6. Saunders initialed “H.H.S.” above his typed signature.