Thursday, September 3, 2015

Turning Point to Peace: The First Rabin Government and the Sinai II Agrement, September 1975: Part 2

Part 2: From Crisis to Resolution and Signing of the Agreement, April-September 1975


For Part 1. see here

For the Hebrew documents, see our blog here

"Reassessment", Israel's Reaction and the Return to the Talks

Ford carried out his threat and announced a complete reassessment of US policy. No new contracts with Israel would be signed and supply of missiles and F-15 planes was held up. Kissinger had promised not to blame Israel for the failure, and he and Ford were careful not to criticize Israel in public. But Dinitz complained to the assistant secretary, Lawrence Eagleburger, that the secretary was giving briefings to journalists on the Israeli government’s intransigence. He said that Israel would have no choice but to defend itself (see File MFA6859/8)). Kissinger’s meeting with a group of pro-Arab experts in Middle East policy, some of them linked to the oil companies, infuriated many American Jews. Kissinger’s emotional involvement in the success of the talks was made clear in his private conversation with Dinitz on 8 April (in the same file), when he said "I treated you [the Israelis] with more trust than I did my colleagues….. I spoke with the three ministers on Friday night as if they were my own brothers." He often claimed that, as a Jew, he could never take any action which would endanger Israel and would resign rather than do so. Yet Jewish critics accused him of irrationality and self-hatred in his reaction to Israel's stand.

The rift with Israel widened further when sections of journalist Matti Golan's book on Kissinger's "Secret Conversations" appeared in the US, although Rabin used the military censorship to prevent publication in Israel. The book showed Kissinger's management of the Yom Kippur war and the disengagement talks as duplicitous and manipulative. Kissinger complained to Mordecai Shalev, the Israeli minister in Washington (see telegram to Allon, File MFA6859/10). He believed that Peres had leaked documents to Golan, and from then on he communicated exclusively with Rabin.

Allon and Eban in turn make the pilgrimage to an angry Kissinger, April 1975
Cartoon by Dosh, courtesy of Miki Gardosh

A series of generals and politicians, among them Allon and ex-Foreign minister Abba Eban, arrived in the US to explain Israel’s stand. The campaign reached its height in a letter addressed to the president signed by 76 senators from both parties, calling on him to make clear that America would not abandon its ally (see Dinitz report, File MFA6859/10). When Ford decided to run in 1976, he realized that he could not afford to coerce Israel. The pressure by the Administration had not caused it to change its stand.

The senators' letter to Ford




Although Congressional and public support for Israel was solid, Dinitz urged the government to take the initiative. The American public did not care who was responsible for the failure of the talks, but it did want to prevent another war in the Middle East. On 28 April he sent a memorandum (in File MFA6859/9) warning against leaving a vacuum in the diplomatic field. If Israel did not make concessions, it would be forced to enter serious talks on an overall settlement. If there was no dialogue with the Americans, they would be free to ignore Israel’s views.  

Breaking off the talks led Rabin's popularity to soar, but also made it difficult to make concessions. Even the Likud supported the decision, and Begin claimed that Egypt’s refusal to agree to end the state of war proved that it still threatened Israel’s existence. However Rabin said that he would prefer an agreement to favorable polls, and Allon tried to restart the talks. The Americans again demanded withdrawal from the passes and a corridor to Abu Rudeis. Allon replied that if Egypt changed its stand, Israel would reconsider. Considering the alternative for a settlement – renewing the Geneva conference with the Soviets – all three parties, including Egypt (see File A271/9) realized that an interim agreement was still the best option.

USS "Little Rock" leads the re-opening of the Suez Canal
Photograph: US Navy

A unilateral move by Sadat broke the stalemate. On 5 June he reopened the Canal in a flotilla led by a US warship. After a warning from a UN official, James Jonah, that Gamasy was nervous about opening the Canal with the IDF so close, and he might reinforce Egyptian troops on the eastern bank (see file A271/9) Rabin made a gesture. He announced a reduction in Israeli troops, armour and guns near the Canal and promised not to deploy missiles in a zone 40 kilometres from it. 
 At a meeting with Ford in Salzburg, Austria,  Kissinger pressed Sadat for concessions. Sadat made a key suggestion: that Americans should man both warning stations in the passes. Their presence would protect Israel against a surprise attack. He also agreed to sign an agreement for three years, and the Americans promised there would be further progress in the peace process in 1977, after the elections.
 Rabin came to Washington to meet Ford, Kissinger presented the idea of US presence in Um Hashiba as an American one. Rabin gladly accepted. It was now his turn to make concessions. He convinced Kissinger that Israel needed the eastern end of the passes for military reasons, not political ones (see file MFA5978/9). But when he showed Kissinger a map with Israeli positions 10 kilometres inside the passes, another crisis threatened. It seemed that again he had misled the president. On 13 June Ford telephoned Rabin and told him that Israel had not moved far enough: "I must say to you , Mr Prime Minister, it is very disappointing. We have developed a very fine rapport...but your present position, I can't justify it to myself or in my saying it to the American people". He urged Rabin to reach a line with Kissinger that could be presented to Sadat.

Rabin, Ford and Kissinger in the Oval Office, 11 June 1975.
 Photograph: Yaacov Sa'ar, Government Press Office 


In Jerusalem Rabin told his colleagues that Ford claimed that he preferred an overall solution at but in fact he was "dying" to reach an interim agreement (see File A7025/5). After Sadat rejected the Israeli position, an angry letter from Ford demanded that Israel make "fundamental decisions". He did not regard standing still as a viable choice (see File A7025/13). The president's demand could not be ignored and even Peres realized that a compromise was inevitable. They agreed on a line that could be presented to Sadat as withdrawal, but would allow Israel to retain its positions based on the eastern slopes of the passes. Peres proposed that US and Soviet forces should hold a square of territory outside the passes but controlling the entrances. Dinitz was sent to present this idea (without the Soviet element) to Kissinger, who was on holiday in the Virgin Islands. If this line was not acceptable  Kissinger himself should propose one. Rabin would not fight to convince the government to adopt a new line unless he knew that the US would approve it. (see Peres' briefing for Dinitz, File A7069/9 and Dinitz' report, File MFA5978/8). Kissinger and Ford would not agree to send US forces to Sinai but they accepted more warning stations. According to Kissinger these were of no military value and the main aim was to allow Peres to present a facesaving formula.

Rabin met with Kissinger in Germany and they settled on the line and a map. A parallel road to Abu Rodeis would be built under Egyptian control. Kissinger would tell Egypt this was the most he could get from Israel. Now Israel also demanded US undertakings and aid in a "package deal" (see File MFA5978/8).

The final shuttle and signing the agreement

 After Israeli and American teams had drawn up a draft of the agreement in Washington, Kissinger arrived for a shuttle, to settle the final details. He was met by right-wing demonstrators who blocked roads and laid siege to the Knesset. By now neither side wanted to endanger what it had achieved for a few kilometres in Sinai, and they accepted arrangements that would have seemed unbelievable earlier. Israelis would operate the warning station under nominal American management. When it proved impossible to build two roads to Abu Rudeis, Israel and Egypt agreed to use the same road on different days. Peres was won over and helped to mobilize public support for the agreement. Sharon became  Rabin's adviser and helped to draw up the lines.

Opponents of the agreement said that the US was buying the government's support for withdrawal.
A "Kissinger dollar" given out at the demonstrations. Private collection

During their arguments in Washington Rabin's obstinacy led Kissinger to call him dishonorable and a "chisler". But it helped him to improve the agreement, which gave Israel major advantages in return for a minor withdrawal.  Kissinger tried to withdraw the US offer for more warning stations claiming that Ford and Sadat were agaisnt them. But ifn fact Sadat had proposed the idea, and Ford told Kissinger before he left that , if needed, he would put the proposal through Congress.Peres insisted that Israel could not trust the UN. If there was a  US station in Sinai in 1967 perhaps the war would have been avoided (see meeting with Kissinger on 22 August, File MFA7032/4)/

In the meeting on 28 August (see File MFA7032/5) Rabin claimed that the Israeli team felt they had gone too far with their concessions, and they had received a "quid pro quo" from America in terms of arms, money and political support, but not from Egypt. Kissinger said that even in a peace treay Israel would give up territory for promises. This was the most that Egypt could give at this stage. The final text on non-use of force was very close to non-belligerency. It was initialled by Rabin and Sadat on 1 September and, after approval by the Knesset, was signed in Geneva by Israeli and Egyptian officals and military representatives on 4 September. The Soviets boycotted the signing and protested sharply against the American presence in Sinai.

The agreement was accompanied by a memorandum of understanding with the US, which was accompanied by a letter from Ford giving qualified support for Israel's position that it should remain on the Golan Heights in talks with Syria. The memorandum also affirmed US refusal to negotiate with the PLO, until it recognized Israel. Another clause said that the agreement would not be linked to progress in talks with other states. Egypt also received secret but vague promises that the negotiations would continue.The US promised at least $2b in aid and arms and guaranteed Israel's oil supply. These incentives, with the proposal for direct US involvement, helped to persuade the rest of the government, the Knesset, and the public, and Rabin himself to take the risk.

The Interim Agreement convinced Sadat that he could achieve his goals through negotiation. He was bitterly attacked in the Arab world, but after a while the attacks subsided. They actually helped to persuade the Israeli public of the importance of the agreement. As Rabin told a group of political correspondents on September 10 (see File A7024/6), they showed the major revolution in Arab thinking involved in giving up the use of force. Sadat was compelling the Arab world to accept Israel. 


Another important achievement was the basis for trust and co-operation created by the talks between the generals and defense establishments on both sides. When Begin came to power in 1977 a new US president was pressing for an overall settlement. Begin was determined to return to Israel's traditional aims – direct talks and a full peace agreement. Nevertheless, his success built on the foundations laid by Rabin and his ministers – the "first peacetime government since 1967 that had proved that it could decide on and deliver territorial concessions".

Rabin and Kissinger shake hands after the initialling of the interim agreement, 1 September 1975

The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding with the US, 1 September 1975.
Photographs:Moshe Milner, Government Press Office 






Turning Point to Peace: The First Rabin Government and the Sinai II Agreement, September 1975: Part 1

In his memoirs Yitzhak Rabin wrote that President Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem and the peace treaty signed in 1979 "would never have happened were it not for the course his government adopted in signing the Interim Agreement with Egypt", also known as Sinai II. This week we mark the 40th anniversary of the agreement, signed on 4 September 1975 and now almost forgotten. We think it’s time for a new look at the background to this document, one of Rabin's most important achievements in his first term as prime minister.

Yitzhak Rabin, 1 September 1975
Photograph: Ya'acov Sa'ar, Government Press Office
In June 1974 Rabin had replaced Golda Meir who was forced to resign as a result of the interim Agranat Report on the Yom Kippur war. He was seen as a weak prime minister, the butt of the “Nikui Rosh” satire show. Rabin’s rivalry with Shimon Peres, who stood against him in the party leadership election and lost by a small margin, overshadowed his term of office. He was forced to give Peres the Defence Ministry, where Peres followed a hawkish line and supported the Gush Emunim movement which set up unauthorized settlements. Nevertheless Rabin succeeded in his main aim – rebuilding the IDF after the losses of the war with American help. To get this aid he agreed to carry out another step in Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s “step by step” diplomacy, which had already resulted in the separation of forces agreements with Egypt and with Syria, about which we have already written. Kissinger wanted to encourage President Anwar Sadat of Egypt to move into the Western camp, and Sadat wanted another Israeli withdrawal in Sinai. Rabin was strongly pro-American, but he also valued another agreement with Egypt for its own sake. A move which took Egypt out of the conflict with Israel, even without a formal signature on a peace treaty, would break up the alliance with Syria.

Henry Kissinger and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, November 1973
Photograph: Central Intelligence Agency website 

In this publication in two parts, we present a collection of documents, illustrations and maps on the Sinai II agreement , among them some of the minutes of Kissinger’s meetings with Rabin and the Israeli negotiating team, most of them in English. You can see the Hebrew documents mentioned here on our Hebrew blog. The first part focuses on the shaping of the  government’s policy in the indirect talks with Egypt and on Kissinger’s disastrous shuttle in March 1975. The second part describes how the US Administration blamed Israeli obduracy for the failure and carried out a “reassessment” of its policy in the Middle East, Israel’s reaction, the renewal of the talks, and the compromises on all sides which brought about the agreement.

The documents show the personal and the political motives underlying the diplomatic moves:  how Rabin ensured Israel’s security interests and how he and Kissinger found ways to overcome their suspicion of Sadat, who had made many dramatic switches in policy in the past, such as the sudden expulsion of the Soviet advisers in 1972, or indeed the Yom Kippur surprise attack. Many Israelis who still believed Sadat wanted to destroy Israel opposed giving up strategic assets such as the Mitle and Gidi passes in Sinai, with the electronic warning station in Um Hashiba. Nonetheless the government managed to put through the agreement with the help of US guarantees, and its success helped to prepare the way for the peace treaty of 1979.

Part I: June 1974-March 1975, Nine Months of Preliminary Talks and an Unsuccessful Shuttle
Educating Rabin
At the beginning of March 1975 Rabin told the editorial team of Israel’s popular evening newspaper, “Yediot Achronot” that a government which did not seek any chance to achieve peace was evading its moral and political responsibility. Egypt,  the leading Arab state, was the key to peace. “There has been no war between the Arab states and Israel unless Egypt was directly involved in it. The war will not end unless Egypt decides to stop it.” Unlike his foreign minister, Yigal Allon, Rabin did not see the Palestinians as a bridge to peace.

At that time Kissinger was about to arrive in the Middle East for a decisive shuttle between Jerusalem and Cairo. Rabin surveyed the lengthy contacts which led up to the shuttle from the   end of May 1974 on. According to US documents Sadat and Kissinger met after the disengagement agreement with Syria, Sadat asked if Rabin had "guts like Mrs. Meir". Kissinger said that Rabin did not have "guts" and was more of an intellectual, but he could be "educated" to move in the right direction. Kissinger told the Israelis about this talk, emphasizing that Sadat was urging him to get things moving. But Rabin was in no hurry to move ahead until the arms and aid promised to Israel after the Syrian agreement had been delivered.
Rabin replaces Golda as Prime Minister, caricature by Shmuel Katz, 1974
Courtesy of the Katz family

In September 1974 he reached a deal with President Gerald Ford, who replaced President Nixon on his resignation, that Israel would receive most of the promised aid by 1 April 1975 if it agreed in principle to an interim agreement with Egypt. This deal prevented pressure to renew the Geneva Conference with the Arab states, which had met in December 1973, where an overall agreement would be on the table. 

In the summer of 1974 both Egypt and Jordan were eager for negotiations with Israel. Rabin did not want talks with Jordan, since he planned to bring the National Religious party into his government, which had a majority of 1. The NRP leadership opposed all negotiations on the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). In any case, Rabin did not believe that King Hussein would be the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel. In October 1974 Kissinger visited Egypt for talks with Sadat on the shape of the next agreement. Sadat wanted to move the IDF away from the Suez Canal so it could be opened to shipping. Egypt badly needed the revenue from the Canal  and the oilfield of Abu Rudeis. In return for withdrawal, Israel demanded political concessions from Egypt, specifically termination of the state of war. After Kissinger had rejected this demand, Allon had submitted a list of elements of non-belligerency (in File MFA6858/3) instead. Kissinger now agreed to support them and Sadat agreed to direct talks with Israel, in which he demanded withdrawal from the passes and Abu Rudeis.


Henry Kissinger and Rabin on the balcony of the State Department, 11 September 1974
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Governemt Press Office


Defining Israel's Stand: Major or Minor Withdrawal?

Meanwhile the Israeli leadership debated whether to offer a major withdrawal for non-belligerency, or a minor withdrawal for less. Peres'  stance reflected his experience after the 1956 Sinai campaign, when withdrawal was forced on Israel by the US. The assurances given then had proven ineffective in 1967. However, Rabin was supported by the chief of staff, Mordecai “Motta” Gur. Gur called for direct talks with Egypt and unilateral withdrawal, putting a wide buffer zone between the two armies. In 1956 he had commanded a paratrooper unit trapped inside the Mitle Pass. He believed that in case of war, Israel should fight in the open in central Sinai. This would give it time to mobilize and force the Egyptians out of their missile umbrella. He supported withdrawal to the El-Arish–Sharm el-Sheikh defense line, even without non-belligerency. There was also a legal problem: a declaration ending the state of war was normally the first clause in a peace agreement and on its own had no legal meaning. If Egypt agreed, it would be recognizing the legality of Israel's occupation of the rest of Sinai.
Chief of staff Motta Gur and Ariel Sharon standing above the Mitle pass, February 1976
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Governement Press Office 
The Israeli government decided to offer a withdrawal of only 30–50 kilometers without the passes. During Kissinger’s visit, he and Rabin agreed to start negotiations in November and to hold direct talks on steps which would effectively “take Egypt out of the war" (Rabin's talk with Kissinger, File A7045/1). However the timetable was disrupted as a result of the Rabat conference of Arab states, where the Soviet backed PLO was recognized as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

Meanwhile Kissinger told Sadat unofficially about the Israeli proposal and they agreed it was not good enough. Israel must give up the passes and the oilfield. The gap between the two sides seemed wide, but Kissinger had acquired a reputation as a diplomatic wizard who was able to do the impossible. There were encouraging signs that Egypt did want peace – the rebuilding of the Canal cities and the return of 700,000 civilians. Like Golda Meir before him, Rabin used a visit to Teheran to see the Shah as an opportunity to pass a message to Sadat. After he had received hints that Egypt was interested in a separate agreement, without Syria or other Arab states, Rabin asked the Shah to find out if Egypt would agree to direct talks. It seems that the answer was negative (see Rabin's message, File A7028/2).

During the winter of 1974-1975 Allon visited the US twice and put forward Israel’s demands. These included a solution to the problem of oil supply after withdrawal from Abu Rudeis, at a time of rising oil prices and political instability. Unlike the disengagement agreement, which had to be renewed every few months, Allon proposed an open ended agreement to be renewed indefinitely. Israel would resume negotiations on peace after 4-5 years. Ford asked for a definite commitment to leave the passes and the oilfields. Allon replied that Israel’s concessions would depend on Egypt’s stand.

 Kissinger decided to speak to Sadat himself, since each side was waiting for the other to spell out their stand. In February 1975 he planned an exploratory visit. He asked the Israeli ambassador in Washington, Simcha Dinitz for Rabin and Allon’s maximum concessions and their minimum demands from Egypt. Allon instructed Dinitz not to reply, and Kissinger complained he was not being taken into their confidence and was “being set up as a patsy” for the failure of the talks (see telegram to Allon, File MFA6859/2) .

Before Kissinger arrived Rabin told the ABC network that Israel might leave the passes and the oilfield  – in return for a declaration ending the state of war. This was intended as a trial balloon for the public and the Egyptians, but it laid Rabin open to an attack by Opposition leader Menachem Begin and made concessions more difficult later. Kissinger even accused Rabin in a private talk (see File MFA5976/15) of trying to sabotage the US strategy. Sadat might be treacherous, but his treachery could not be overcome by means of a legal formula or the paper guarantees Israel demanded. In the end, the Israeli leaders would have to decide whether to take a risk. 
When Kissinger met the negotiating team of Peres and Allon (see record of the meeting in File A7104/6), Peres too accused Sadat of trying to drive a wedge between Israel and the US. However progress was made on other issues. In Cairo Kissinger was given a list of extreme demands by the foreign minister, Ismail Fahmi, but Sadat agreed to undertake not to attack Israel if it did not attack Syria. Kissinger believed that on his next visit the Israelis would agree to a larger withdrawal if the Egyptian proposal was reasonable. However he was worried about the weakness of the Rabin government, and even more about Syrian and Soviet opposition.
The shuttle which failed
In his memoirs, Kissinger described this trip as “one shuttle too many” and blamed the failure on Peres’ intransigence. The ISA documents show a more complex picture: Rabin too was ambivalent about the agreement. The shuttle took place in a discouraging atmosphere. Kissinger’s mood was grim as the settlement  with North Vietnam, for which he received a Nobel peace prize, fell apart. A North Vietnamese offensive threatened the pro-Western regimes in South Vietnam and Cambodia, and Congress refused to vote money to save them. Ford was seen as a weak president who might not be elected in 1976. In Egypt, the Army, the mainstay of the regime, was restive and the economic situation continued to worsen. The Egyptian press suggested that Peres would make difficulties in order to prevent progress until the election year. The PLO carried out a terrorist attack on the Savoy Hotel in Tel Aviv, and Ford wrote to Rabin warning him of an attempt to disrupt the talks.
Defence Minister Peres visiitng the scene after the storming of the Savoy Hotel and an explosion caused by the terrorists
6 March 1975. Photograph: Yaacov Sa'ar, Government Press Office 

On 5 March Rabin gave the interview we already mentioned (in File A7025/5)), hoping to persuade the journalists and the public that an agreement with Egypt was in Israel’s interest and not just a response to US pressure. Rabin described the conditions he had set: a formal statement by Egypt implying progress towards peace and renouncing the use of force; practical steps such as demilitarization of  evacuated territory and supervision by an outside body and a fixed duration for the agreement. He admitted that Israel would have to take risks and that Sadat might be deceiving it, but in these matters “there is no insurance policy ….. and one can’t hide behind mother’s apron”.


Rabin was asked if he believed in Kissinger’s good intentions. He replied that the question was irrelevant: Kissinger was the secretary of state and not the Israeli foreign minister. With all his faults, he had done much for Israel. If he were not Jewish, he would be treated with more respect.

On 9 March  Kissinger arrived in Jerusalem and described his talks with Sadat and General Gamasy, a veteran of the war and the previous talks who was now Minister of War. Gamasy, like Gur, proposed moving the IDF away from the canal and a wide buffer zone. But he also wanted an Egyptian advance east of the passes, while Israel demanded that any evacuated territory be demilitarized. The army’s support was vital for Sadat. Eventually Israel agreed that Egypt could advance to the present Israeli line at the western end of the passes, which would be held by a UN force, The two sides inched closer, but each was reluctant to make concessions until the other had spelled out its own. Israel refused to give Egypt a line or map and Egypt would not make political concessions until it did.
Maps of the Sinai I and Sinai II agreements,
Source: Congressional Quarterly Almanac 1975, Library of Congress

The Americans urged Rabin to make Sadat a generous offer since he was not interested in details. An offer he saw as insulting would bring an extreme reaction, but if he felt there was a basis for an agreement he would be flexible. Rabin sent a message to Sadat carried by Kissinger saying that he was trying to understand Sadat’s considerations, but he had to convince his own public that withdrawal was a step to peace. In a meeting with the Israeli team (see File MFA6859/5)  on 14 March Kissinger gave them Sadat’s reply (in the Ford Presidential Library): "The main thing I want Yitzhak Rabin to know is the spirit behind the phrases. My spirit is that we will never have use of power again.” Both parties should declare that they “consider that this conflict will not be solved by military force or power and they will solve it by peaceful means only."

Although progress was made on a declaration renouncing the use of force, Egypt’s demand to 
advance into the passes and Israel’s insistence on retaining the Um Hasheiba station were the main obstacles to an agreement. Rabin faced serious opposition, as ex-generals declared that the IDF must remain near the Canal and Ariel Sharon declared evacuation of the passes a national disaster. Meanwhile Sadat and Fahmi made declarations that not one Israeli soldier should remain in Sinai, and there were troop buildups, and even mobilization of the reserves. Rabin’s popularity rating was 30%, while Peres had 70%. Israeli officials too made extreme statements  (File A271/8).

According to his memoirs, on March 19 Gur warned the government against enshrining the status quo and presented his support for a unilateral withdrawal, since Egypt would end the state of war only if Israel withdrew from all Sinai:
"You cannot get a declaration of non-belligerency from another people while you are on its territory … But we can create a situation where it is not worthwhile for them to go to war, because we will be very strong, and we will be very strong only if we have close long-term relations with the United States … to get this we have to understand and to assist American interests. One can't ask the United States for 1.5 billion dollars a year and insist on every worthless millimeter in Sinai."
 The government did agree to withdraw – but only to the middle of the passes. Israel suggested that both sides have a warning station there. Abu Rudeis would become an Egyptian civilian enclave. Nevertheless the Egyptians refused to allow Israel to keep the Um Hasheiba station. Fearing Egypt’s reaction if Israel rejected its latest proposals, Kissinger decided to use the president's influence. He told Ford that Israel was still demanding non-belligerency and asked him to send Rabin a stern message threatening a "reassessment" of relations with America. After the government meeting he warned that the talks were about to break down and told Rabin and the ministers of the threat. Rabin, who guessed that Kissinger had drafted it, was not impressed (see meeting with the US team on 20 March, File MFA6859/6) .

Sadat still demanded complete evacuation of the passes and control of the road to Abu Rudeis, but Rabin would not recommend that the government accept his demands. An official letter from Ford arrived (in File MFA6859/7), and Kissinger called Dinitz to stop him from passing it on (Dinitz' notes are in File MFA6859/6). However Rabin had already read it to his colleagues and it only strengthened their determination to resist. Although he knew that none of the Israelis apart from Peres thought that retaining the passes was worth confrontation with the US, Kissinger decided to end the talks. After he had visited Masada he compared Rabin and his ministers to the zealots of the Revolt, with their  tragic and misguided heroism. The US would not pressure Israel, but the pressure was inherent in the reality of the situation.

That evening he announced the suspension of the talks. His aides felt that they had been cut short. One of them told David Turgeman of the Israeli embassy that they had discussed symbolic issues and not real ones (report on talk with Robert Oakley, File MFA6859/8 ).  Some of them even wrote to Kissinger and proposed that the US should make suggestions and propose a new line. But Kissinger was eager to return to Washington. He needed a quick agreement to counter the debacle in South East Asia and to show the Arabs he could deliver. He suspected that Israel wanted to spin out the negotiations until 1976 and thought both sides needed shock treatment.

In Washington he told the president that Israel had misled him and praised Sadat’s concessions. Israel was counting on its supporters to withstand the US pressure. In his reply to Ford (File MFA 5977/2) Rabin emphasized Egypt’s intransigence and Israel’s concessions. Israel was still willing to continue its efforts for peace. A day earlier, on 29 March, Sadat made a speech signaling that the negotiations were not over (see report in File A271/9). He announced that Egypt would open the Suez Canal on 5 June, the anniversary of the Six Day War, and renew the mandate of the UN force in Sinai for 3 months. He also announced the return of the bodies of 39 missing soldiers, which Israel had been demanding since the Yom Kippur war. Four months later the parties came back to the negotiating table.  
Defence Minister Peres, the Chief of Staff and the commander of the Southern Front salute during the transfer of the remains of the Yom  Kippur War dead by the Egyptians, 5 April 1975
Photograph: Moshe milner, Government Press office, 


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Military Escalation, a Presidential Message and a Political Decision: Israel Accepts the Rogers Plan, Part 2

For Hebrew documents, see the ISA's Hebrew blog.

For Part 1, see here

The fighting with the Egyptians continued alongside the diplomatic activity, and on 22 July the Soviets moved a squadron of MIG 21 pilots to al-Mansurah airfield, 70 kilometres from the Suez Canal. They began to patrol together with the Egyptian pilots at a distance of 40 kilometres from the canal.

On 23 July it became clear that this time the Arabs would not oppose the initiative to start negotiations.In his speech on the anniversary of the Free Officers’ revolution, Nasser said that Egypt would accept Rogers' proposal of 19 June. However he ignored the sentence requiring the parties to appoint representatives for negotiations, and claimed that the plan required Israeli withdrawal from “all the territories” occupied in 1967, and not “from territories” according to the Israeli interpretation of Resolution 242. Three days later Jordan too accepted the ceasefire.

Now that Egypt had taken a position, on 24 July Nixon sent Golda a message asking Israel to reconsider the Rogers Plan and to give a positive answer. He added that Egypt would probably demand Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied territories and a solution to the refugee problem based on Resolution 194, allowing the refugees to return to their homes or to receive compensation. Nixon assured Golda that the US would not press Israel to accept these demands, that it believed that the borders should be fixed in negotiations between the parties and that “no Israeli soldier should be withdrawn from the occupied territories until a binding contractual peace agreement satisfactory to you” had been achieved. He reaffirmed the US commitment to Israel’s existence and security.

Sisco told Rabin that the US would veto any resolution in the Security Council demanding complete withdrawal or the return of the refugees. They were willing to declare in advance that if there was a change in the Egyptian deployment after the ceasefire, Israel would be free to use force, with the blessing and support of the US. In view of Nixon’s message, the government held a series of meetings on 26, 29, 30 and 31 July and on 4 August to decide on its reply.

At the same time the clash with the Soviets escalated. On 25 July the pilot of a MIG 21 fired a rocket at an Israeli Skyhawk returning from a mission west of the Suez Canal. The plane was hit but the pilot managed to land. The Soviet pilots continued to fly close to the canal .

In the government meeting on 29 July Eban presented the ceasefire on the Jordanian front and the question of possible terrorist attacks across the border afterwards. He explained that the Americans would allow Israeli to react, as long as the position of King Hussein was taken into account. Attacks on the Jordanian army would not be tolerated.

The government also decided to take action agaist the Soviet pilots, and on 30 July this decision was carried out in Operation Rimon (Pomegranate) 20. The Israel Air Force sent four Mirages on a photographic reconnaissance mission over the Gulf of Suez, accompanied by two Phantoms, and two more staged an attack south of Suez City. On Dayan’s instructions, they were not to penetrate deep into Egypt. Nevertheless, the Soviets sent more than 20 MIGs to intercept them. Then eight Israeli Mirages came out of hiding and joined the battle. An IDF electronic warfare unit managed to jam the communications systems of the Soviet pilots and even to confuse them with false orders. It was estimated that between four and five MIGs were shot down and three Soviet pilots were killed.
Soviet MIG21 with Egyptian Air Force markings
Photograph: Wikimedia


An hour later the Soviets transferred their squadron from Al-Mansurah to an airfield inside Egypt. But they also prepared nightly ambushes of SA2 batteries dug in close to the canal. These batteries were used against Israeli planes attacking visible missile batteries, some of them decoys. In this way they succeeded in shooting down a Phantom on 3 August. Another was hit, but the pilot managed to land. In total, the IAF had lost five Phantoms since the Soviets had joined the air war. This development threatened Israel’s air superiority. Attacking the batteries was likely to bring heavy losses and to endanger its ability to act if the Egyptians tried to cross the canal.  Without US backing and replacement of damaged planes and spare parts, Israel would find it difficult to continue the fight.

Air battle during the War of Attrition - video clip

There was satisfaction in the government at the results of the battle. In the meeting on the same day, Bar-Lev said that the Russians were in battle for the first time “and their lack of experience was certainly felt. We concentrated our top pilots here."  Eban mentioned the decision not to publish the fact that the pilots were Russian. Begin was sceptical, and Golda said that the Army censor would try to prevent publication but news might leak out to the press: “There are masses of journalists here, and near this building stands an army of all the TV journalists in the world….I assume they will find a way of passing on the news. It cannot remain secret.” And indeed, although Israel did not publish the results of the battle, a report appeared in the British “Daily Express” newspaper.
COGS Bar-Lev and Secretary Rogers on a flight over Sharm el-Sheikh, 7 May 1971
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Governemt Press Office

Nevertheless, the government was moving towards a decision to accept the ceasefire. Golda shared her misgivings with her colleagues: “My question is: my God, with whom are we waging battles here? I must admit that I am taking this step with an aching heart, and not with joy of any kind, certainly not….With whom have they not allied and with what devil are they not willing to join? All this against the small group of the Jewish people in the state of Israel. It is not a great joy to me to accept it but God did not promise me that I would have only joys in this country.” She added that when she first heard about the air battle she was happy, but afterwards she began to ask questions: “Will this be the end of it? Will this be the last battle?” Shlomo Hillel answered her: "At the moment the situation is that the Russians have agreed to this proposal, the Egyptians have agreed, the Jordanians have agreed and we cannot change it now. We are in an uncomfortable strategic position.”


Israel accepts the ceasefire and Gahal leaves the government

When the debate resumed the next day, 31 July, the leader of the National Religious party, Josef Burg, read out the NRP's decision to accept the American proposal and called on Gahal not to leave the government. Yisrael Galili presented a draft for a decision to accept Nixon’s proposal of 24 July (and not that of Rogers) while continuing to maintain the government’s existing policy guidelines. A representative would be sent to the Jarring talks on the basis of Resolution 242. He proposed to agree to a temporary ceasefire and to set up a committee to draft the reply. His proposal was accepted by a majority of 17. A clause was added specifically rejecting the previous Rogers plans and his proposals of 17 June. Begin’s alternative proposal to reject the plan received six votes. As a result, he initiated a decision by the governing body of Gahal to resign from the government.

On 4 August, while the battles in the south continued, the decisive meeting was held. The six Gahal ministers announced their resignation. Begin explained their decision and praised Golda’s leadership and the friendly atmosphere in their meetings. He said: “We have gone through a considerable period together in mutual trust…We know that no-one around this [table] is happy about our leaving.  I know that all the members of the government, even those who while they were sitting here thought it might be better for Israel if Gahal left, are sorry about it today. We certainly did not wish  it. But the matter was inevitable in my opinion…. I at all events will always view these three years as one of the best chapters of my life. We will go into opposition. It is not a new task for us.” Yosef Sapir noted that Gahal had joined the National Unity government in June 1967 unconditionally to save the state from danger. In 1970 the situation was different, although he saw new dangers and no prospect of peace. Ezer Weizman, the ex-commander of the air force, emphasized that only an air attack could destroy the missile batteries. The advance of the missiles towards the canal had created a new situation.
Golda Meir and the National Unity goverment with President Zalman Shazar, December 1969
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office


Golda did not argue with Begin and the Gahal ministers. She too said that they had worked well together in mutual confidence despite their differences of opinion and regretted their premature departure. At this point the ministers left the meeting. Golda said that “the Americans must know that we are going to this [ceasefire] with difficulty, with doubts and debates.” They had rejected the previous Rogers plans, but who knows what plan Rogers might yet come up with, worse than the previous ones, when he started to talk. They could rely to some extent on its relations with the president, “but much as I like him, I do not want to make him responsible for Israel’s fate.” The government adopted the decision proposed by the committee unanimously. They emphasized that Israel’s withdrawal from the territories must be to secure, recognized and agreed borders.When Rabin presented the decision to Kissinger, he emphasized the decisive role played by the president’s letter. Israel was taking on itself major political and military risks. The government  was sceptical about the success of the initiative and would not accept Soviet missiles along the length of the canal. If they were deployed there, Israel would break the ceasefire.


On August 4 Golda presented the government’s stand to the Knesset. Gahal Knesset member Esther Raziel-Naor tried to embarrass the government with a proposal to continue to seek a negotiated peace according to its own guidelines. Her proposal was rejected by 63 votes to 30, and the government’s policy was approved by a majority of 66, with 28 against and 9 abstentions.

On 8 August the ceasefire came into effect and the guns fell silent. But under its cover the Egyptians brought more missiles up to the canal, a move which had serious implications for the future. Meanwhile the Israeli soldiers were able to come out of their bunkers and look around, as we see in this videoclip.

The War of Attrition was accompanied by political protest and criticism of the government in Israel. Two posts on aspects of this protest, the letter by a group of twelfth graders to Golda and the antiwar satire by Hanoch Levin, “Queen of the Bathtub’ can be seen on our Hebrew blog.





"Stop Shooting and Start Talking": From Opposition to Acceptance of the Rogers Plan, June-August 1970, Part 1

45 years after Israeli acceptance of the Rogers Plan to end the War of Attrition with Egypt, the ISA reveals for the first time the government discussions leading to the decision.

On 8 August 1970, the ceasefire  between Israel and Egypt came into effect, bringing to an end the war on the Suez Canal. This conflict, now largely forgotten, had continued intermittently since March 1969 and claimed the lives of hundreds of Israeli soldiers, while thousands were wounded.  Egypt too paid a high price in human life and economic damage.

The "War of Attrition" campaign ribbon
 Photograph: Wikipedia

45 years after the guns fell silent, the ISA has declassified and published a series of dramatic government meetings held in June-August 1970 on Israel's reply to the initiative of US Secretary of State William Rogers to end the fighting and start talks between the Arabs and Israel. At the time a National Unity government was in power, headed by Golda Meir and including the right wing Gahal party led by Menachem Begin. At first, the ministers rejected the plan, but under heavy pressure from US President Richard Nixon, they eventually agreed to accept a slightly different version. The Gahal ministers  opposed this decision and resigned.

The publication includes nine stenographic records of government meetings, giving a first-hand view of the full and authentic record of events. These records are in Hebrew and are shown on our Hebrew blog, but they contain large sections in English, including exchanges with the US. They are supplemented by documents from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and other English documents from the ISA and by photographs and video clips on the War of Attrition from our holdings.
Israeli troops returning from the Shadwan Island operation, 23 January 1970
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office
The publication is in two parts: the first on the discussions until 19 July and the second ending with the government meeting of 4 August and Golda’s parting words to the Gahal ministers: “I confess that when I took on this position I didn’t really believe in it, but I wanted us all to see the day when peace will come. And if not – then at least to succeed as [her predecessor] the late Eshkol did, to preserve this partnership. I am sorry that we have not reached peace. I am very sorry that it was my lot to head a government which lost a group of its members.”

Background: The War of Attrition and UN and US Peace Initiatives

As a result of the Six Day War Israel and Egypt faced each other across the Suez Canal. At first the situation was calm, and a film clip made in December 1967 shows unarmed Egyptian soldiers fishing in the canal opposite  IDF soldiers on the other side. But at the beginning of March 1969 President Gamal Abd-el Nasser announced that Egypt was no longer bound by the ceasefire of June 1967. Soon afterwards a war of attrition began along the canal. There were repeated and lengthy shooting incidents, as well as border incidents with Jordan and Syria. In the clashes with Egypt, Israel lost over 300 soldiers and the Egyptians some 10,000.The cities near the canal, damaged after the sinking of the Israeli destroyer “Elath” in October 1967, were completely destroyed.

To restore the ceasefire two diplomatic initiatives were made: the first by UN mediator Gunnar Jarring and the second by US Secretary of State William Rogers. In December 1969 he proposed a plan based on UN Security Council Resolution 242and demanded that Israel return to the international boundary with Egypt. The government rejected the plan and  stood by its decision of 31 October 1968, demanding a land corridor to Sharm el-Sheikh. The Egyptians also rejected the plan and the USSR said it was one-sided. In June 1970 Rogers proposed a second plan and this time he was successful.

The US Proposal and Israel’s Response

After Israel carried out deep penetration bombing raids into Egypt, in January 1970 Nasser went to Moscow to demand surface to air missiles, which needed Soviet crews to operate them.  In March 1970 Soviet missiles were deployed near Cairo and Alexandria.

A CIA report on missile sites in Egypt as of May 1970
Source: Wikimedia
Realizing that the war involved a danger of confrontation with the USSR, on 19 June 1970 the Administration proposed a plan for negotiations between Israel and Egypt, with a ceasefire as the first step. It was presented to Golda Meir and Foreign Minister Abba Eban by US Ambassador Walworth Barbour, and by Rogers to Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin in Washington. On 20 June it was presented to Egypt and Jordan and also passed on to the USSR.

On 21 June Golda told the government of an" important development in relations with the US".  Eban reported on the paper they had received from Barbour, which expressed US concern that the war of attrition would cause Egypt and Jordan to abandon Resolution 242, with dangerous implications for moderate Arab states such as Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. As Israel had asked, the US had protested to the Soviets about their actions which endangered Israel's security and survival. But it proposed a diplomatic initiative, as well as a military one, to counter the Soviet threat. The commitments of the parties should be tested: Egypt to the principle of peaceful coexistence with Israel and Israel to the principle of withdrawal as expressed in Resolution 242. In order to allow resumption of the Jarring mission, the US proposed a ceasefire from 1 July until 1 October. The agreement would include provisions on preservation of the status quo on the canal front and preventing shooting and incursions.

The Americans asked Israel not to reply publicly until Egypt's reply had been received. If the Arabs rejected it, the onus would be on them. But if Egypt responded positively, Israel would have to do the same and to accept a proposal for peace "substantially within its 1949–1967 borders."

The talk with Barbour was also a reply to Israel's request for more planes. The plan specified that US supply of arms to Israel would continue but the supply of planes would be limited while "efforts to get the parties to stop shooting and start talking" continued. The Americans agreed to give Israel three Phantoms in July and three in August. The planned order for six Phantoms in 1971 would not be affected. They also agreed to earmark 18 Phantoms and 16 Skyhawks in the future in order to make up for expected losses.  They expected Israel to continue to refrain from deep-penetration bombing. (At the time the US needed war planes for its own forces in Vietnam.)

According to Eban, Golda had said that she was deeply disturbed by the linkage between arms supply and political demands. She would have to inform the government of this capitulation to Nasser.  She both rejected a temporary ceasefire or the prospect of opening negotiations before the firing had ended, while Soviet arms flowed to Egypt but arms to Israel were held up.  She warned that she would recommend to the government to reject the proposal. After a long discussion the ministers decided unanimously to adopt Golda’s negative reply to Barbour, but not to publish its reply until after a statement by the Administration.

In the next government meeting on 25 June Golda said: “I know what I have to hold onto with regard to public opinion: this is [stoppage] of arms supply, this is a ceasefire which is a death trap.” However she postponed her reply to a message from Nixon and proposed to call Rabin home for consultations. On 29 June she would make a political statement in the Knesset. On the same day Rogers told a press conference about the initiative for a ceasefire and for talks under Jarring's auspices. However he refused to give details or to discuss publically military assistance for Israel.  


Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, 2 October 1969
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office
On 28 June the government renewed its discussion, together with Rabin. He warned against a negative answer to the president and a possible crisis in relations with the US. Nixon already knew from Barbour and Rogers's reports that Israel’s stand was negative. Begin fiercely opposed the American initiative and claimed that it would return Israel to the borders of 4 June 1967, quoting Eban’s well- known saying that "this map represented Auschwitz". Minister Yisrael Galili proposed conveying Israel’s reply to Nixon secretly. Moshe Dayan’s main concern was the fear that the plan would lead to the return of the refugees. Golda repeated her opposition to any plan based on complete withdrawal to the 1967 borders. Although the Americans kept begging Israel not to publish its stand and to let Egypt take responsibility for the plan's failure, the head of military intelligence Aharon Yariv warned that this time Egypt and the Soviets would not reject the initiative as they had the first Rogers plan.

On 29 June Golda told the Knesset that Israel was in continuous dialogue with the US Administration, but she would not give details until the US had published its plan. She argued that Nasser had no intention of reaching a true ceasefire or peace negotiations, citing his speech in Benghazi on 25 June  "fanning the flames of hostility and giving the conflict a pan-Arab character". He demanded full Israeli withdrawal and rights for the Palestinians.

On July 1 Golda wrote to Nixon repeating her negative stand. She added that over the last two days the Soviets had started to deploy SA2 and 3 missile batteries to cover the area up to the Canal Zone. These batteries could be used to protect a Canal crossing, and Israel had no choice but to destroy them. In these circumstances it needed increased supplies of planes.  The letter was given to Joseph Sisco, the assistant secretary for Middle East affairs, by Rabin and reported to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. This report noted that the US was deeply concerned over the new developments and that it was clear that the Israeli government was strongly opposed to the US proposals.

Golda also called Barbour to her office in Tel Aviv on half an hour's notice. Accompanied by the Chief of the General Staff, Haim Bar-Lev, she briefed him about the deployment of the SAMs near the Canal. Each battery was manned by a few Soviet troops. The air force had lost two Phantoms within an hour from attacks on the batteries, and a Soviet major had been severely wounded.  Barbour reported to Rogers that Israel was urgently requesting planes and new electronic equipment. Nixon decided to give the electronic equipment at once and to speed up the supply of planes.

One of the greatest fears in the Prime Minister's Bureau was of a confrontation with the USSR, which would use its full force against Israel.  The Israeli decision makers knew that the IDF was designed to fight Arab armies, but it could not take on the Soviets.  They wanted to know how the US would react in such a case. The head of the bureau, Simcha Dinitz, sent a message to Rabin asking Kissinger to arrange a personal meeting between Golda and Nixon. She wanted his help in deterring the Soviets before they had strengthened their hold in Egypt. Dinitz added that "the prime minister is not afraid personally to start a campaign which she has no reasonable hope of winning. Our view of the situation is so serious….that considerations of prestige or effort are not a factor." Rabin met Kissinger but his impression was that there was little enthusiasm. A visit in September would be approved, on condition it was not to be devoted only to arms requests.

On 12 July in another government meeting, Yosef Sapir of the Liberal party said that as Nasser had gone to Moscow for help,  Golda should go to Washington to see Nixon. Golda warned that she could not propose a visit unless she was sure the US would agree. Eban described the increased arms supply from the US and added that there was only one explanation: the Americans wanted Israel to succeed in the current battle. "In order to sit on the eastern bank of the Canal and do nothing, there is no need for all the equipment they are rushing to us."

On 15 July Nixon sent Golda a reassuring message through Arthur Burns, head of the Federal Reserve Bank who was visiting Israel. In her reply she thanked him for his concern but warned that Israel was facing increasing Soviet involvement. "It is natural that this should deepen our anxiety and strengthen our resolve. Both your words and deeds are crucial for us." In the government meeting Eban reported no new developments. It was unlikely that the Soviets would reject the American initiative outright. There were signs that Egypt would accept a limited ceasefire, and Israel would be in a delicate position. World opinion did not care about the semantics of a ceasefire resolution, but it was worried about an international clash. He concluded: "We have differences with the United States. But if there is one point of agreement, it is that we must stay on the Canal line until [there is[ peace….in order to preserve what they call superiority."
Abba Eban receives Rogers at Lod airport, May 1971
Photograph: Fritz Cohen, Government Press Office