6. Richard Nixon
and Gerald Ford
An Unrecognizable Episode
President Richard Nixon came to office in 1969 intending to pursue an impartial policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, but he had no interest in, and knew little about, the Palestinian situation or its political ramifications. When Nixon was forced to resign the presidency following the Watergate scandal over five years later, in August 1974, the Palestinians had still apparently not made much of an impression on him, although they had begun to thrust themselves on the world stage by launching a campaign of international terrorism and sparking a civil war in Jordan. Neither Secretary of State William Rogers nor National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger was any better informed or any more deeply interested in the Palestinians than Nixon himself when the Nixon administration took office. Kissinger, who became secretary of state in 1973 and remained in that position when Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon, did become keenly aware of the Palestinians and the centrality of the irrole in the Arab-Israeli peace process, but he spent much of his last three years in office trying to undermine their growing political strength and ignore them as a political factor in peace negotiations.
Disregard for all Arabs, including the Palestinians, was inevitable in the atmosphere prevailing after the 1967 war. The fiery rhetoric of militant Arabs and their lurid threats against Israel had cast them as pariahs, as had the belligerent declaration of the Arab heads of state shortly after the war that there would be no recognition of Israel, no negotiations, and no peace agreement. The fact that six Arab states broke off diplomatic relations with the United States during the war, as well as their increasing alliance with the Soviet Union, the Cold War enemy, increased the Arabs’ isolation from Americans and the sense that they were all alien. The Palestinians’ resort to terrorism in the late 1960s added greatly to this alienation. At a time when
popular support for Israel was exploding, the Arabs had clearly, in the minds of Americans, placed themselves on the wrong side.
Nixon’s and Kissinger’s policymaking frame of reference was shaped primarily around the Soviet Union and the question of how each policy step would affect Cold War tensions; within this framework, given the widespread pro-Israeli and anti-Arab sentiment in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Israel naturally maintained its paramount place. The United States was unable to look at the Middle East except from a vantage point, for the most part rigid and unnuanced, that viewed Arabs as pro-Soviet radicals who wanted Israel destroyed.
Perceptions changed markedly after the 1973 war, when the United States began dealing directly with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad and the media began conveying to the U.S. public a somewhat more favorable image of Arabs. Increased press interest in the Middle East also brought a slightly better, although limited, understanding of the Palestinians. U.S. policymakers themselves gradually became aware of the political nature of the Palestinian issue and its centrality to the Arab-Israeli conflict. But domestic political constraints prevented the United States from seriously addressing the issue, and by the end of the Nixon-Ford-Kissinger era a new body of assumptions, having to do with the unacceptability of the PLO, had arisen to constrain policymaking flexibility. Although it became more acceptable to talk about the Palestinian people’s needs, U.S. policymaking horizons remained limited by the refusal to deal with the PLO, and this refusal came to form a new blind spot within the frame of reference.
Nixon and Kissinger were foreign-policy globalists, guided by a single impulse: to thwart Soviet goals and in the East-West tug of war always to maintain a strategic and diplomatic advantage over the Soviets. All U.S. policy moves with regard to the Middle East throughout Nixon’s term, and throughout the term of Ford, who was carefully tutored and guided in his foreign policymaking by Kissinger, were motivated primarily by this overriding goal.
In the Middle East, Nixon and Kissinger initially approached their primary goal via differing routes but, given their common global political interest, the differences were ultimately ones only of nuance. As a private citizen, Nixon had written to Secretary of State Dean Rusk during the 1967 war observing that the Soviet Union had blocked all previous attempts to
find a peaceful solution and would continue to do so, extending its influence in the Arab world, unless the United States was able in the aftermath of the war to demonstrate that its own interest in peace between the Arabs and Israel was impartial. He came to office in 1969 believing the Arab world had aligned itself with Moscow because the United States had not been impartial, and he espoused “evenhandedness.” Kissinger, however, believed that the way to combat the Soviets in the Middle East was to strengthen U.S. allies while weakening Soviet allies and undermining their confidence in the Soviets. This belief meant never accommodating those Arabs who were Soviet friends, particularly not at the cost of exerting pressure on a U.S. ally, Israel. It meant guaranteeing Israel’s security by maintaining Israeli military superiority over the Arabs. And it meant frustrating Soviet efforts to satisfy the Arabs’ diplomatic demands, always demonstrating that the Soviets were unable to produce diplomatic progress. Ultimately, because Nixon was far more concerned with thwarting Soviet aims than with favoring or not favoring one side or the other in the Middle East, he came over to Kissinger’s strategy for weakening Soviet influence.
Throughout the first two to three years of Nixon’s first term, Middle East policymaking was dominated by sharp tension between the Nixon-Kissinger globalist strategy centered on defeating the Soviets and a regionalist strategy pursued by the State Department under Secretary of State Rogers; the regionalist approach saw events in the Middle East as driven primarily by local factors rather than as inspired by the Soviet Union.
According to the globalist approach, the issues involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict were less important than the impact of the conflict on U.S.-Soviet competition. Kissinger had no appreciation for the regional nature of the conflict, according to former Ambassador Richard Parker, until almost five years into his tenure, when he went to the Middle East in the wake of the 1973 war and finally met some Arab leaders. Indeed, in his first few years in office Kissinger advocated that the United States specifically avoid any serious effort to resolve the conflict, in the belief that stalemate was in the U.S. interest because it would frustrate the radical Arabs and the Soviets.
The State Department’s regionalists, however, believed that conflict in the Middle East had local causes unrelated to the Soviet Union and that the Arabs had turned to the Soviets chiefly because the United States was perceived to be totally pro-Israeli. The Soviets could and did exploit tensions to gain advantage, and for that reason the United States should work to resolve the underlying disputes. Deadlock, in the State Department view,
only increased the possibility that the U.S. position in the Arab world would deteriorate further.
This fundamental divergence of strategic outlook prevailed in uneasy balance throughout the first two years of Nixon’s term. In establishing the division of responsibilities for foreign policymaking in his administration, Nixon initially gave responsibility for shaping Middle East policy to the State Department, while preserving direct White House responsibility over most other major issues by assigning them to Kissinger as national security adviser. There were several reasons for assigning primary responsibility for the Middle East to the State Department: initially desirous of establishing better relations with the Arab states, Nixon thought that Kissinger’s Jewishness might stand in the way; he also feared that because the Arab-Israeli conflict was so intractable any U.S. initiatives would fail and that failure should be kept as far away from the White House as possible.
As a result, Secretary of State Rogers and the regionalists under him enjoyed a free hand for a while to devise strategies while Kissinger chafed and maneuvered in the background to undercut them. One of these initiatives was the Rogers Plan of 1969, which called for Israeli withdrawal to the borders existing before the 1967 war, with only “minor adjustments.” Because of his own initial ambivalence about the best way to combat Soviet influence, Nixon let the State Department have its head in putting forth the plan as a signal to the Arabs, but he also privately signaled the Israelis, as did Kissinger separately, that the United States did not wholeheartedly support the initiative.
In the kind of globalist perspective from which Nixon and Kissinger approached foreign policy, every local crisis took on the aspects of a global confrontation and tended to be perceived as a test of strength between the United States and the Soviet Union, even if the Soviets were not involved. This outlook prevailed during the Jordanian civil war in September 1970. This crisis was the Nixon administration’s first encounter with the Palestinians, but because Nixon and Kissinger were focused on the Soviet angle and uninterested in anything about the Arabs except their perceived radicalism or moderation, neither man recognized the regional causes of the Jordanian conflict or the significance of the Palestinians’ emergence as a political factor in the Arab-Israeli equation.
Following the 1967 war and the striking performance of Palestinian armed groups against Israeli forces in the March 1968 battle of Karameh, the numbers of armed Palestinian guerrilla groups, called fedayeen (meaning “self-sacrificers”), had grown dramatically, as had the numbers of crossborder
raids into Israel. Arafat’s organization Fatah continued to be the largest fedayeen group, but several other groups—some beholden to one or another Arab state, most independent; some Marxist, most not—emerged after 1967. Each had its own following among Palestinian civilians, particularly in refugee camps; each had its own armed group. Among the best known of these new groups were the Marxist-oriented Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), led by George Habash and Wadi Haddad. For the most part, the fedayeen used Jordan as a base of operations, and as they gained in strength and boldness, they began increasingly to act like a state within a state, challenging King Hussein’s authority and taking physical control of parts of Jordan, including parts of the capital, Amman. At least two assassination attempts were made against Hussein, and some of the radical fedayeen groups, particularly the PFLP, were calling for the overthrow of Hussein and the Hashemite monarchy.
After sporadic fighting between fedayeen and the Jordanian army in mid-1970, the crisis came to a head in September when the PFLP hijacked four international airliners, blew up one in Cairo after removing the passengers, and flew the other three to an abandoned airfield controlled by the PFLP in a remote area of the Jordanian desert. The PFLP had already burst on the international scene by hijacking an Israeli El Al airliner in December 1968. After holding the passengers from the three airliners hostage for several days, the hijackers released them and destroyed these three planes as well. The PFLP’s stated objective was to force Israel to free fedayeen prisoners, but it also hoped to provoke a full-scale confrontation with Jordan’s army—a confrontation it expected the fedayeen to win with the help of Syrian and Iraqi forces. The Jordanian army struck against the fedayeen a week after the hijackings, but the situation soon moved beyond a pure civil war. Within a few days, Syrian tanks crossed the border into northern Jordan to aid the fedayeen, and King Hussein, fearing that his military could not fight off a Syrian invasion, asked for U.S. and Israeli help. Israel prepared a plan for air strikes and ground intervention against the Syrians, but intervention proved unnecessary when Syria withdrew the tanks following an air strike by the Jordanian air force.
Although there was never good evidence that the Soviet Union was involved in the Jordan confrontation, Nixon and Kissinger were convinced otherwise and saw the crisis purely as a face-down with Moscow and not as what it was—an indication of festering Palestinian discontent after two decades of statelessness and dislocation. Both men believed that Soviet incitement of the Palestinians had caused the crisis in Jordan and that the Soviets were behind Syria’s moves against its neighbor. In fact, all evidence
indicates the contrary. The Soviets had not established a relationship with the fedayeen or the PLO at this point; they had no particular reason for overthrowing Hussein; and when Syrian tanks moved toward Jordan, they warned against intervention and urged restraint on all concerned in démarches to Syria and Egypt. Former Ambassador Talcott Seelye, who headed the State Department’s special task force during the crisis, has characterized as “pure nonsense” any suggestion that the Soviets were involved or that the United States forced them to back down.
Nixon and Kissinger were products of the times in their thinking on the Arab-Israeli conflict, their views shaped by the conventional wisdom about Israelis versus Arabs and by their global perspective. The Soviet-centered frame of reference that guided their thinking on Middle East issues was of necessity focused on Israel rather than the Arabs. A strategy that had as one of its essential elements guaranteeing Israel’s security in order to thwart the Soviets could not, perforce, view the Arab-Israeli conflict from an Arab perspective and certainly not from a Palestinian perspective. In a globalist framework, Arabs were one-dimensional, either “radicals” or “moderates” according to how much they threatened Israel and how much military equipment they obtained from the Soviets. Globalist policymakers saw no nuances in the Arab position or in Arab thinking. Arab grievances, the root causes of their enmity toward Israel, the reasons for their ties to Moscow were of little or no interest to a United States concerned at this point almost exclusively with broad strategic questions. Moreover, when they did address the Middle East, policymakers tended to see only the situation created by Israel’s 1967 victory. Resolving the new issues raised by Israel’s occupation of vast stretches of Arab territory became the priority task, tending to push the Palestinians’ original grievances even farther to the background.
Nixon and Kissinger themselves knew virtually nothing about the Arabs when Nixon’s term began and even less about the Palestinians. Nixon had been in the Middle East during and shortly after the 1967 war and had gained some understanding of the depth of Arab feeling about Israel and about the United States as Israel’s supporter, but because his overriding interest was in frustrating Soviet advances, he had little interest in the origins of the conflict or any of its intricacies. He tended to accept unquestioningly most of the conventional wisdom about the conflict. In describing the 1970 Jordanian crisis in his memoirs, for instance, he recalled that he had feared that the United States would be drawn in because the United States
“could not stand idly by and watch Israel being driven into the sea.” The notion that Israel was in danger of being driven into the sea had become such a standard part of the rhetoric that Nixon seems to have used it unthinkingly, for Israel was not in danger during the 1970 crisis.
Nixon could and did criticize Israel. His memoirs referred more than once to Israel’s “total intransigence” in the wake of its 1967 victory toward negotiating a withdrawal from the territories it had occupied, and he was openly critical about the pressures of the pro-Israel lobby. Having received only about 15 percent of the Jewish vote in 1968, he clearly had no sense of indebtedness or obligation to the lobby or the Jewish community. Eban says he rarely heard Nixon say a “sentimental word about our country and its cause.” But Nixon clearly had high regard for the Israelis. He admired their patriotism and liked the fact that they showed what he called “guts” and “moxie.” He often used florid language that was anti-Semitic or bordered on it, but by most personal accounts he was not anti-Semitic, and he was quite comfortable with the several Jews among his close advisers. In addition to Kissinger, these included Leonard Garment, a high-ranking domestic adviser; speechwriter William Safire; Max Fisher, a prominent Republican contributor and a chief connection to the Jewish community; and Rita Hauser, the U.S. delegate to the UN Human Rights Commission.
Nixon may not have been sentimental about the U.S.-Israeli relationship, but it was clearly in his mind a strategic tie invaluable to U.S. global interests. Israel fit perfectly into his global frame of reference because it was on the correct side of the radical-moderate divide. U.S. interests, Nixon wrote in a 1970 memorandum to Kissinger, “are basically pro-freedom and not just pro-Israel because of the Jewish vote. We are for Israel because Israel in our view is the only state in the Mideast which is pro-freedom and an effective opponent to Soviet expansion.”
Nixon thought of the Arabs according to the rote formulas current throughout the United States. In his 1978 memoirs he recalled having traveled to Egypt as a private citizen in 1963 and meeting Egyptian President Nasser. Although he indicated that he was surprised at Nasser’s dignity and quiet manner in private, he could think of no reason for the Egyptian’s enmity toward Israel other than “his blind intolerance of the Jews.” Any notion that the Arab position on Israel had something to do with the displacement of the Palestinians had long since been forgotten by Nixon as by the rest of the country. Palestinians thus generally appeared to him not as a people with a political grievance nor even the way they had appeared for the previous two decades as refugees but, because they had set out on a path
of international terrorism and revolution, as radicals doing the Soviets’ business. Palestinians had a functional status in Nixon’s mind but little more. He did not think enough about them to mention them more than twice in his 1,100-page memoir, published four years after he left office, and then his reference was to the Palestinians as guerrillas or extremists, not as a distinct people.
Palestinians were not real for Kissinger either—nor were most other Arabs until he began shuttling around the Arab world in the aftermath of the 1973 war. Before he came to Washington in 1969, Kissinger had never visited an Arab country and knew so little about the Arab-Israeli conflict that he thought his leg was being pulled when shortly after taking office he first heard the phrase “a just and lasting peace within secure and recognized borders,” one of the central elements of UN Resolution 242, which the United States regarded as the basis for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement.
Israel was a different matter entirely for Kissinger. He did not hesitate to pressure Israel hard during negotiations over the several disengagement agreements with Egypt and Syria after the 1973 war, which won him opprobrium from Israeli supporters in the United States and more than once occasioned anti-Kissinger demonstrations by Israeli hard-liners in Jerusalem. But Israel for Kissinger was a vividly personal cause. Aides have described him in his dealings with the Arabs and Israel as “objective but not detached.” He was proud to be a Jew, had a strong sense that Jews and Israelis were “his people,” and is said to have been anguished by the attacks on him from the Jewish community during the negotiations. Associates say he dealt with the Israelis less as a statesman than as a friend and adviser, sharing his insights and analysis with them, and he sincerely felt that the concessions he asked of Israel would make Israel and Jewry prosper.
One scholar has observed that Kissinger’s long two-volume memoirs contain virtually no reference to the issues themselves—”no review of history, no effort to assess the competing claims and myths of the parties, no probing of their psyches, no analysis of their strategic conceptions.” Kissinger’s superficial knowledge of the issues was evident in this description of the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict from his memoirs:
The movements of Zionism and Arab nationalism, to be sure, were spawned in the late 1800s but they were not directed against each other. Only when the centuries of Ottoman rule had given way to the British Mandate, and the prospect of self-determination for Palestine emerged, did the Arab and the Jew, after having coexisted peacefully for generations, begin their mortal struggle over the political future of this land.
The modern era, which gave birth to this communal conflict, then bestowed all its malevolent possibilities upon it. The Nazi holocaust added moral urgency to the quest for a Jewish state. But no sooner was it established and blessed by the international community in 1948 than it was forced to defend its independence against Arab neighbors who did not see why they should make sacrifices to atone for European iniquities in which they had had no part.
This is a striking example of the observation by the late scholar Malcolm Kerr that even among sophisticated Americans the Palestinians’ displacement had become an unrecognizable episode. Kissinger showed a rare understanding here that the conflict grew out of nationalism and had not, as was the common wisdom, been going on for centuries or millennia. He also indicated an understanding of the Arabs’ resentment at having to “make sacrifices” for Israel’s benefit, but his description omitted other essential ingredients in the Palestinian story—including, most strikingly, any mention of the Palestinians themselves or their displacement. The conflict according to Kissinger grew mysteriously out of an inchoate malevolence in the modern era. His analysis is a demonstration of the extent to which Palestinians had ceased, in the public mind and in policymaker perceptions as well, to be a part of their own story.
The 1970 Jordanian crisis should have been a signal to the United States that although the fedayeen had been defeated for the moment, the Palestinians and the Palestinian problem could no longer be ignored. But in their sense of triumph about what appeared to be a clear-cut victory by moderates over radicals and Soviet proxies, Nixon and Kissinger hardly noticed the implications of the Palestinians’ defeat. Within the administration, those who had argued that the conflict had local causes and needed to be addressed at its source lost influence. Kissinger increasingly consolidated his hold on Middle East policymaking, undercutting the State Department and Secretary of State Rogers, and Nixon was won over to the Kissinger strategy of what one scholar calls “standstill diplomacy”—strengthening Israel while deliberately frustrating Arab hopes for diplomatic progress.
The Jordanian crisis was a watershed in U.S.-Israeli relations, establishing Israel as a strategic asset by virtue of its readiness to intervene at U.S. request and seeming to confirm the correctness of Kissinger’s belief that a strong Israel was in the interest of the United States. Before the crisis, the United States had extended military credits to Israel for the fiscal years
1968, 1969, and 1970 in the amounts of $25 million, $85 million, and $30 million, respectively, whereas in the three years following the crisis—fiscal years 1971–1973—military credits increased by a multiple of almost ten, reaching $545 million, $300 million, and $307.5 million, respectively. Military aid during the October 1973 war increased the total during fiscal 1974 exponentially again, to $2.2 billion. The United States had delayed responding to Israel’s requests for Phantom jets and other sophisticated aircraft throughout 1969 and most of 1970 in the belief, pressed by the State Department and initially supported by Nixon, that Israel already enjoyed military superiority and would be less inclined to make territorial concessions for peace if strengthened further. One month after the Jordanian crisis, in October 1970, however, President Nixon approveda$90 million arms package for Israel and sought a $500 million supplemental appropriation for the current fiscal year to cover arms expenditures. In December 1971 during a visit to Washington by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, the United States signed the first long-term arms deal with Israel, agreeing to provide new Phantom and Skyhawk aircraft over a three-year period and thus avoiding repeated haggling and supply disruptions whenever shortterm agreements expired.
By this point the United States had long since ceased objecting to Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons. Indeed, although Israeli officials never acknowledged Israel’s capability to the United States, the implicit knowledge throughout the U.S. government came to be another point of shared intimacy, a kind of conspiracy of silence. Nixon and Kissinger believed that the spread of nuclear weapons was inevitable and not something the United States should oppose. They disdained the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and decided early on not to press any nation to sign it. Former National Security Council staffer Morton Halperin remembers that Kissinger saw nothing wrong with the Israelis having nuclear weapons and winked at reports that in 1969 Israel stole weapons-grade uranium from a plant in Pennsylvania. It was common knowledge at the White House, according to Halperin, that Kissinger had no qualms about Israel making nuclear weapons or stealing the material to do so.
In the period following the Jordanian crisis, when the United States opened the arms pipeline to Israel, the administration also gave Israel several diplomatic assurances that amounted to making the United States and Israel diplomatic partners. In response to Israeli requests, Nixon promised in 1971 not to press Israel to withdraw to the borders existing before the 1967 war, not to force Israel to participate in negotiations for a comprehensive
peace settlement but to concentrate only on small incremental steps in the peace process, not to force Israel to accept the Arab version of a refugee settlement, and in general not to be a party to any peace settlement that Israel felt would endanger its security. Israel also sought assurances that the United States would veto any anti-Israeli resolution in the UN Security Council. Although Nixon refused to give such an assurance in a formal way, in fact the United States used only its second veto ever in September 1972 on a resolution condemning Israeli attacks in Lebanon and Syria and in the next twenty-five years cast vetoes more than thirty times on Middle East issues, usually to protect Israel.
The closer alliance with Israel brought out a tension between two schools of thought within the Nixon administration over whether the alliance was truly of strategic benefit to the United States or was only of sentimental value because Americans felt affection for Israel and a moral obligation to preserve its existence. Those in the first school, which tended to include policy globalists and politicians responsive to outside political pressures, generally saw Israel as an essential barrier to Soviet penetration of the Middle East. The other school, usually including region alists and nonpolitical careerists in the bureaucracy, saw the alliance as nonstrategic and dictated primarily by U.S. affinity with Israel. Seen in this light, Israel could be a burden rather than an asset and, instead of serving as a block to Soviet penetration, was a cause of increased Soviet influence because the Arabs might be much less influenced by the Soviets were it not for the fact that the United States supported Israel.
Although Kissinger used both arguments when it suited his purposes—occasionally arguing, for instance, that Israel was not a strategic asset and that the attachment was only asentimental one, presumably in order to justify withholding aid when he wanted concessions from Israel—his basic position was the globalist one that Israel’s military superiority served U.S. Cold War interests. The corollary to the argument between these two perspectives was the conflict over whether providing more arms to Israel made it more or less ready to make concessions toward a peace settlement. Although he was not averse to occasionally exerting pressure on Israel as a tactic, Kissinger’s basic belief was that withholding arms would make Israel feel insecure and therefore intransigent and would raise Arab hopes, and he had argued from the beginning against the Nixon—State Department inclination to withhold arms in the hope of inducing flexibility. In 1970 he won his point.
Another inescapable corollary of making Israel a military and diplomatic
partner was that the Arab and particularly the Palestinian point of view could never be taken into account equally with Israel’s when the United States made policy on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although this had been the case from the beginning, the new reality of long-term military-aid agreements and explicit pledges effectively giving Israel a diplomatic veto over aspects of U.S. policy introduced a formality that had not existed previously. The Israel-centered frame of reference in which policy had always been made had now become a matter of formal agreement.
The events of 1970 induced in the United States a kind of diplomatic torpor with regard to the Middle East that Kissinger believed was good strategy. The administration tended to look only at the surface, and it assumed that all was right with the world: U.S. ally Israel had seemed to prove its worth as a barrier against the Soviets; Jordan’s King Hussein, another ally, was safe; the radicals and Soviet proxies had been put down; the Soviets were quiescent; peace, or at least a condition of no war, prevailed. In fact, however, the United States was allowing its perceptions to be guided by its desires, seeing only what it wanted to see. After a major war in 1967, a drawn-out war of attrition along the Suez Canal in 1969 and 1970, and a serious flare-up in Jordan, all of which threatened to draw the United States and the Soviet Union into direct conflict, the administration so wanted the relative quiet that characterized the status quo from 1971 to 1973 to continue that it let wishful thinking form the basis of its policy.
Kissinger in fact has acknowledged in retrospect that the United States misjudged the situation in many respects, noting in his memoirs that he underestimated Egyptian President Sadat, missed the significance of Sadat’s February 1971 proposal for an interim agreement with Israel along the Suez Canal—which ultimately proved to be a model for the Sinai disengagement agreement signed following the October 1973 war—and failed to respond to Sadat’s expulsion of fifteenthousand Soviet advisers in 1972. In its pursuit of stability, the administration failed to recognize that just beneath the surface frustrations were mounting in Egypt and Syria and among the Palestinians—were mounting in fact in direct proportion to the warmth of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
The October 1973 war, launched by Egypt and Syria in a coordinated surprise assault on Israeli forces in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights in the hope of retrieving those territories from Israeli occupation, shattered the complacency that had characterized U.S. and Israeli policy for the previous three years. The war set in motion an intense diplomatic process that would focus U.S. foreign policy on the Middle East for the remainder
of Nixon’s period in office and throughout Gerald Ford’s, and that would culminate, more than five years later, in an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
The strongly pro-Israeli mood in the country had a profound impact on the mood and the decisions of policymakers. Senator Henry Jackson, one of Israel’s best friends in Congress during his several terms in the House and Senate, was asked in the 1970s whether the pro-Israel lobby was “taking over” Congress. He scoffed at this notion, saying, “These people don’t understand. They refuse to realize that the American people support Israel. Americans, whether Gentile or Jew, respect competence. They like the idea that we are on the side which seems to know what it’s doing.”
Jackson conveyed an accurate picture of U.S. popular support for Israel in this period. Since 1967, Americans had been taking sides in a much more definite way. Israel was perceived to be with the United States on the side of right and justice; Arabs were enemies of the United States, as they were of Israel. A poll taken in 1975, in which respondents were asked to indicate whether various value-laden words applied more to Israelis or to Arabs, indicated overwhelmingly that Americans thought of Israelis as possessing good qualities and Arabs as exhibiting bad qualities. Respondents applied virtually all positive characteristics—”peaceful,” “honest,” “friendly,” “moderate”—to Israelis rather than to Arabs by margins of six or seven to one. Unfavorable terms—”backward,” “greedy,” “barbaric”—were applied to Arabs by similar margins. Perhaps most telling, 50 percent of all respondents assigned the phrase “like Americans” to Israelis, only 5 percent to Arabs.
Policymakers do not always make policy on the basis of polls, but they are certainly aware of the pulse of popular opinion and often share it. The sentiment that such polls reflect creates an atmosphere that inevitably does have an impact on policymaking. In direct impact, the actions of organized lobby groups have a greater influence, but the pressures of public opinion and of lobbies are so intertwined that it is impossible to measure where one leaves off and the other begins. In the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1970s, the two dovetailed fairly closely, the pro-Israel lobby simply giving shape and direction to the public’s pro-Israeli feelings and acting as a conduit to communicate those feelings to Congress and the administration. As it happened, public opinion and the lobby both also dovetailed in a broad sense with the Israel-first policy pursued by Nixon and Kissinger for strategic reasons.
The pro-Israel lobby gained a great deal in strength throughout the early to mid-1970s, and its impact on policymaking, at least in always reminding the administration of Israel’s interests and trying to keep it on a rigidly straight and narrow pro-Israeli path, was considerable. The principal pro-Israel lobby group, AIPAC, for instance, opened the 1970s with a burst of energy by bringing fourteen hundred Jewish leaders from thirtyone states to Washington in January 1970 to protest the Rogers Plan. The lobbyists were able to see 250 congressmen, almost half the entire Congress. In this instance, Nixon and Kissinger needed no inducement to ignore the State Department plan, but the knowledge that pro-Israeli activists could mobilize such a sizable force to dramatize their point was a lesson for the future for the administration.
Probably as important as lobbying on specific policy issues, and perhaps more important, were the educational efforts of organized Israeli supporters. AIPAC, for instance, maintained a steady information campaign for the benefit of Congress, the administration, and whoever among the public was interested. A publication called Myths and Facts, which gives the Israeli perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict, went through six editions and 750,000 copies between 1964 and 1980. By the early 1970s, a regular newsletter published by AIPAC, the Near East Report, had a circulation of thirty thousand, including among congressmen and senators.
Some organizations were formed specifically as educational groups. JINSA, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, was organized after the 1973 war specifically to keep the issue of Israel’s security and its contribution to U.S. security interests always before U.S. defense officials. Galvanized by the fear that Israel’s very existence was on the line during the 1973 war and that it was saved only by a massive U.S. resupply effort, several prominent U.S. Jews maintained contact with Pentagon officials throughout the war and established JINSA afterward to institutionalize the contact. JINSA’s sole objective, by its own account, is to shape a frame of reference focused on Israel and on what one official has called the “strategic symbiosis” between Israel and the U.S. JINSA is not interested in lobbying, one organization leader has said, “but in shaping thought.” Many of JINSA’s leading members moved to influential positions within the government, in the State and Defense Departments and the National Security Council staff, where they played a key role in shaping policymaker thinking.
The dovetailing of public support for Israel and lobby activism on behalf of Israelin theearly 1970 shadan impact on policy making as much in an in direct and implicit way as in a direct way. Public and lobby interest in Israel
and concern for its security had tended increasingly over the years, but particularly after 1967, to define boundaries around policymaking that the administration felt it could not go beyond. This kind of unspoken pressure tends to make policymakers shape their decisions in anticipation of direct pressure that in the end may never have to be exerted. It also helps establish or maintain a mind-set centered on Israel by always keeping Israel and its concerns before policymakers. The kind of institutional tie that pro-Israeli organizations like JINSA established with government agencies in the 1970s had a powerful indirect influence on policymaker thinking. One student of Washington lobbying describes the modus operandi: activists like JINSA’s “don’t actually go into someone’s office and ask them to do this or that. Instead, they make friends with them, suggestideas, ‘educate’ them, and hope they’ll make decisions in keeping with JINSA’s philosophy.” In the absence of any similar pressures on behalf of the Arabs, and given the strong popular support for Israel throughout the country, policymakers generally had no other philosophy to guide them.
Although the Palestinians precipitated the 1970 confrontation in Jordan, the crisis reinforced the U.S. tendency to ignore the Palestinians. Their emergence as a political force was a considerable complication for U.S. policymakers, whose frame of reference remained so centered on Israel and so accustomed to a one-dimensional image of Palestinians that a sudden major shift in focus was all but impossible. Kissinger dealt with the Palestinians throughout his next six years in office as if they would quietly disappear if ignored.
Some in the State Department apparently hoped immediately after the crisis to deal more directly with the Palestinian issue but, with Kissinger enjoying increased influence in setting Middle East priorities and State itself engaged in an ultimately unproductive initiative toward Israel and Egypt, the impulse came to naught. Over the next three years, during the period of Kissinger’s “standstill diplomacy,” the administration did not deal with the Palestinian issue at all, even as a refugee problem. It was an easy issue to ignore in these years. The Jordanian civil war and the Palestinian resort to terrorism against Israeli, U.S., and international targets in the late 1960s and early 1970s had appeared to prove the correctness of the Nixon-Kissinger view that Palestinians were radicals, but in defeat after the Jordan insurrection, the Palestinians seemed not to be an issue with which the United States needed to be concerned. Even terrorism was not a major issue, in the sense that it did not require a major focus by senior policymakers
or a major shift in policymaker attention. In their assumption that all Palestinian actions were Soviet-inspired, policymakers saw no need to look at Palestinians in another dimension or to look beneath the surface to discover whether any grievances underlay the terrorist acts or how Palestinian anger might be reconciled with Israel’s existence.
In the wake of the 1973 war, any serious diplomatic effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli crisis inevitably had to involve the Palestinians in some way, but the United States devoted considerable effort over the several years following the war to finding ways to skirt the issue and, in assurances made to Israel, bound itself to restrictions that severely limited its diplomatic flexibility. The reasons devised now for avoiding the Palestinian issue—that Palestinians were unchangeably radical, natural terrorists bent uncompromisingly on Israel’s destruction; that the PLO itself was radical; that any indication of moderation was insincere and designed to deceive—came to constitute a new set of assumptions and a new mind-set.
It is interesting to trace the growing awareness of the Palestinian issue—and the growing tendency to deal with it by denying it—in the commitments the United States made to Israel as the negotiating process began to unfold following the 1973 war. Israeli Prime Minister Meir had made her now well-known comment that there was no such thing as Palestinians during an interview published in the London Sunday Times in 1969. “It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people,” she had declared. But two years later, when she sought diplomatic assurances from the United States, the Palestinian issue clearly had not concerned her enough to demand assurances on that score. By December 1973, when the United States and the Soviet Union were making arrangements for the opening of the Geneva peace conference that followed the 1973 war, alarm bells had begun to ring in Israel. Clearly more concerned than Kissinger about the likelihood that a peace process would in evitably come around to dealing with the Palestinians, Israel balked at attending the Geneva conference when the initial draft of the joint U.S.-Soviet letter of invitation stated that the question of future Palestinian participation would be discussed during the first stage of the conference. To accommodate Israel, Kissinger negotiated watered down wording in the invitation that excluded any specific mention of the Palestinians. He also gave the Israelis a secret memorandum of understanding promising explicitly that no other parties would be invited to future meetings at Geneva without the agreement of the initial participants, thus giving Israel a veto on Palestinian participation.
Israel’s demands on the United States became more insistent. At Israeli
request, the United States committed itself further in the aftermath of the war not to be a party to any effort to interpret UN Resolution 242 in a way that would alter “the character of the State of Israel”—meaning that the United States would oppose any attempt to resolve the Palestinian refugee problem by means of a massive repatriation of Palestinians to Israel.
PLO Chairman Arafat made at least four overtures to the United States in the form of private messages shortly before and during the 1973 war, indicating acceptance of Israel and a desire to participate in peace negotiations, but the United States rebuffed the overtures, both because Arafat threatened Jordan and more fundamentally because Kissinger assumed the PLO to be unrepentantly radical. Ignoring the significance of this first Palestinian indication of a willingness to coexist with Israel, making no effort to see whether the PLO could be argued out of whatever designs it had on Jordan, and assuming that a PLO-run Palestinian state was “certain to be” irredentist and incapable of maintaining any moderate stance, Kissinger sent what he calls in his memoirs “a nothing message” in response to the first PLO overture in August 1973, ignored a second and a third, and finally responded to a fourth message sent during the war, but then only as a tactic to keep the Palestinians quiet. Kissinger feared that the PLO could disrupt the nascent peace process begun after the war, so in the hope of putting the PLO “on its best behavior,” he sent an emissary in November 1973 to meet with an official of the PLO and listen to, but not negotiate over, its proposals. The emissary was General Vernon Walters, then deputy director of the CIA, who had previously assisted with Kissinger’s secret negotiations with North Vietnam.
Kissinger’s objective was not seriously to probe the PLO position but simply to keep the PLO quiescent while he made a first exploratory postwar visit to Egypt. During the meeting with Walters, Arafat agreed, through his emissary, to halt terrorist attacks by Fatah on U.S. and other Western targets. Although Arafat clearly hoped for some kind of recognition and some diplomatic progress in return for his efforts to protect Americans overseas, nothing political came of the contacts with the United States. One more meeting occurred in 1974 with Walters, who again had only a listening brief, but no political progress was made, largely because the United States wanted no progress.
Kissinger appears to have been somewhat nonplussed by the emergence of the Palestinian issue as a political question that might require U.S. attention and of the PLO as an organization that might be prepared to show some political moderation. “It is important to recall how the PLO appeared at that time,” he wrote much later in his memoirs, by way of explaining his
consternation at having to deal with the issue. In 1973, he said, the Palestinians “were still treated as refugees in the UN, as terrorists in the United States and Western Europe, as an opportunity by the Soviets, and as simultaneous inspiration and nuisance by the Arab world.” Everyone showed “extraordinary ambivalence” in their approach to the Palestinians. This passage perfectly describes the shape of the U.S. and international mindset at the time and explains why Kissinger seems to have had difficulty shifting his thinking to encompass the notion of Palestinians as legitimate claimants to any part of old Palestine.
The PLO’s emergence was, of all Israel’s nightmares, the most elemental, as Kissinger has observed; it posed a psychological and an existential challenge although not necessarily a physical threat to Israel. The possibility that a group claiming all or any part of Palestine might gain legitimacy was so nightmarish for Israelis that few in Israel or in the United States could—or would—conceive of it. Thus, any thought of the PLO as a legitimate organization and any thought that it might have qualities that would tend to enhance its legitimacy, such as political moderation or flexibility, tended to be generally excluded from the frame of reference.
Arafat’s overtures worried Kissinger enough that he believed something had to be done to ensure that the Palestinians were bypassed. His hope was for some sort of agreement on the Jordanian front that would result in an Israeli pullback from small areas of the West Bank and a reassertion of Jordanian administrative control. The longer an agreement to resolve Israel’s occupation of the West Bank was delayed, he believed, “the more inexorable the growth of the political status and weight of the PLO.” In discussions in Israel in early 1974, he argued the need for an Israeli-Jordanian agreement by noting that Israel had a choice between dealing with Jordan immediately or facing the PLO later. His own concern was not for any of the particulars of such an agreement but for working out a strategy to foreclose the issue before the PLO was strong enough to force its way in.
Kissinger was probably naïve to believe that the PLO could be shut out for long under any circumstances, but he was correct in believing that if a deal were not negotiated with Jordan soon, Jordan itself would be shut out. After the attempt to forge an Israeli-Jordanian agreement failed in the summer of 1974, leaders of the Arab states, meeting at a summit in Rabat, Morocco, in October, endorsed the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people, meaning that the Arab states no longer recognized Jordan’s right to resume control of the West Bank or any part of it that might be removed from Israeli occupation. This decision was a turning point, for it thrust the Palestinians forward as the key issue in the Arab-Israeli
conflict, giving them and the PLO a legitimacy neither had previously enjoyed, even from the Arab states, and focusing attention on the political nature of the Palestinian issue.
Amonth later, Arafat was invited to speak at the UN in New York, where his now well-known plea—”I have come to you bearing an olive branch and the freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand”—was widely acknowledged outside the United States to be conciliatory. The Palestinians were making their mark on the international community. Within days of Arafat’s speech, the UN gave the PLO observer status, and the General Assembly passed a resolution affirming the “inalienable rights” of the Palestinian people, including their right to selfdetermination and to national independence and sovereignty—strong evidence of the PLO’s diplomatic success in putting across to the world a sense of the centrality of the Palestinian problem.
The United States was not convinced, however. Reacting to Arafat’s UN speech, the United States carefully ignored his olive branch, concentrating on the revolver he carried on his hip and denouncing his failure to make an explicit overture to Israel. Kissinger, disturbed that Arafat had called for the establishment of a democratic secular state in Palestine in which Jews and Arabs would live together, dismissed the speech in a press interview two days later. “Our reading of it,” he said, “is that it called for a state which really did not include the existence of Israel and therefore was dealing with a successor state, and we do not consider this a particularly moderate position.” Nor did the U.S. press, which generally ignored the speech’s conciliatory aspects and interpreted it as an attack on Israel.
Arafat expressed chagrin that what he intended as an appeal for reconciliation was disdained in Israel and the United States. In meetings with Senators George McGovern and Howard Baker in March and April 1975, respectively, Arafat pointed out that the Palestine National Council, the PLO’s legislative arm, had taken a “bold” and “realistic” step the previous June by formally deciding to establish a Palestinian “national authority” over any occupied territory relinquished by Israel, meaning that the Palestinians would accept sovereignty over a limited territory. Asked specifically whether the PLO’s position meant that it accepted Israel within the 1967 borders, would settle for a state limited to the West Bank and Gaza, and would agree to mutual recognition, Arafat said “yes.” He disavowed any Palestinian intention to destroy Israel and said that the goal of a democratic secular state was a long-term vision of a day when the Jewish and the Palestinian people would live together. Senator Baker later asked Saudi Crown Prince Fahd if he thought Arafat had the personal capacity to change from
a guerrilla leader to a responsible government leader. Fahd responded that the transition would be “almost automatic” and that if the United States extended its hand to Arafat and cultivated him, his position among the Palestinians would be so strengthened that extremist Palestinian factions would “wither on the vine.”
Several months later, in September 1975, as part of Sinai II, the second disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt, Israel demanded and received from the United States a commitment on the Palestinian issue that was to tie U.S. hands in the negotiating process for almost the next decade and a half. In a separate memorandum of understanding given to Israel when the disengagement agreement was concluded, the United States agreed that it would “not recognize or negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization so long as the Palestine Liberation Organization does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and does not accept Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.” (Resolution 338 brought the 1973 war to an end and called for the start of peace negotiations on the basis of Resolution 242.)
This pledge allowed the United States some flexibility; administration spokesmen, including those directly involved in negotiating the memorandum of understanding, have noted that, in forswearing formal negotiations with the PLO, the United States deliberately left the door open for less formal exchanges of views with the organization, for instance in order to work out understandings with it about its participation in peace negotiations. Nonetheless, as Harold Saunders, who was deputy assistant secretary of state at the time and closely in volved in the negotiations, has acknowledged, there were political constraints against using whatever flexibility the United States had allowed itself, and in fact the pledge constituted a rare self-limitation on U.S. foreign-policy autonomy. It conveyed the idea—to the Arabs, to the international community, to the U.S. public, and, of course, to Israel—that this sector of U.S. foreign policy was subject to Israeli guidance. The pledge had a psychological impact as well, for it gave Israel and its supporters a handle for strenuous opposition to any move that even hinted at an overture to the Palestinians, and this threatened opposition proved to be inhibiting to policymakers disinclined to take on an irate pro-Israel lobby.
The commitment, moreover, established a mind-set that cast the Palestinians as radical and intransigent for not accepting the UN resolutions and not recognizing Israel’s right to exist, even though both were unusual demands. The Palestinians had always felt that they could not endorse Resolution 242 because it did not deal with them in a political context, making no mention of Palestinians except as refugees and even then not by name.
The demand that the PLO recognize Israel’s right to exist was also out of the ordinary, for specific recognition of a nation’s “right” to exist, rather than simply of its existence, had not been a requirement of diplomatic discourse for any other nation or entity. Although many Palestinians were ready by this point to accept Israel’s existence as a reality that could no longer be denied, most Palestinians felt that specifically recognizing its “right” to exist—that is, its moral legitimacy—was psychologically unacceptable because this would mean recognizing Israel’s right to have displaced the Palestinians. These were nuances that most in the policymaking community seem not to have noticed.
Some of Kissinger’s aides have said that he did recognize that the United States would sooner or later have to face the issue of Palestinian control over the West Bank. Other scholars give him less credit, believing he had a blind spot where the Palestinians were concerned because he continually put off the necessity of dealing with the issue in the hope that some way around it would appear. Whatever may have been going on in Kissinger’s head in terms of recognizing the inevitability of dealing with the Palestinian issue, he gave no outward sign, either in his decisions while in office or in his later memoirs, that this recognition had dawned on him. Deliberately foreclosing U.S. options on negotiating with the PLO was part of his blind spot.
Ford, who was in office throughout the maneuvering over the possibility of a West Bank disengagement agreement and the negotiations for Sinai II that produced the pledge not to negotiate with the PLO, was even more inclined to deny the significance of the Palestinian issue. Although he presided over one of the most critical periods in U.S. decision making on the issue, a period in which the Palestinians clearly emerged as a factor to be considered in any Arab-Israeli peace process and in which the United States was making pivotal decisions on whether and how to deal with the issue, Ford did not discuss the Palestinians anywhere in his 1979 memoirs. In a curious denial of all aspects of the issue, he failed in the memoirs even to make any mention of the Palestinians in connection with his discussion of possible West Bank negotiations—a treatment that was itself surprisingly brief. As late as 1979, Ford acted, to a greater extent than most policymakers, as though the Palestinians did not exist.
Ford was not an experienced foreign-policy strategist; he had been a politician all his life and was heavily influenced by what was politically feasible. His instincts were political rather than policy-oriented, and he learned most
of what he knew about foreign policy from Kissinger. Ford had had virtually no contact with Arabs and had little knowledge of the Arab perspective on Arab-Israeli issues, his exposure in U.S. politics having been almost entirely to the Jewish and Israeli perspective. His relative lack of sophistication in foreign affairs, however, does not adequately explain his denial of the Palestinian problem when he later wrote his memoirs. The first year or more after Ford took office in August 1974 marked a radical change in the international acceptability of the PLO and the Palestinians. The Rabat Arab summit decision in October 1974 to declare the PLO the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people was only the first indication of a new Palestinian prominence. This decision was followed only a month later by Arafat’s speech at the UN. The fact that Ford did not mention any of these developments in his memoirs says as much about how unimportant a part of anyone’s frame of reference the Palestinians were as it does about the superficial nature of Ford’s engagement in foreign-policy issues.
Ford quickly learned how politically dangerous the Middle East minefield was. He angered Israel’s supporters when in March 1975, believing that Israeli inflexibility had caused the breakdown of Kissinger’s attempt to negotiate a second Israeli-Egyptian disengagement agreement, he announced that the United States would reassess its policy toward Israel and would suspend new military an deconomicaid agreements with Israel while the reassessment proceeded. The reassessment went on for three months, but, principally because of heavy pressure from the pro-Israel lobby and Israel’s supporters in Congress, it resulted in no policy changes either toward Israel or in the direction peace negotiations were taking.
Ford was chagrined to find that, despite his career-long friendship with Israel, several leaders of the Jewish community labeled him anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic for suggesting that Israel owed the United States some quid pro quo, in the form of diplomatic flexibility, in return for U.S. assistance in maintaining Israeli military superiority. Ford was further disconcerted when in the midst of the reassessment seventy-six senators signed a letter urging him to “be responsive” to Israel’s request for $2.59 billion in military and economic aid. Recognizing, he said in his memoirs, that the letter was inspired by Israel, Ford admitted that he was “really bugged” by the influence the missive demonstrated. Because of the letter, “the Israelis didn’t want to budge. So confident were they that those seventy-six Senators would support them no matter what they did, they refused to suggest any new ideas for peace.”
The letter did indeed demonstrate that it would be extremely difficult politically for the United States to change course in either the peace process
or its relations with Israel. The reassessment was quietly wrapped up with no change in policy. Aid to Israel was resumed. The nearly unanimous advice Kissinger had received during a round of meetings with outside experts to pursue a comprehensive peace settlement that would address all Arab-Israeli issues was shelved in favor of continuing with the step-bystep, agreement-by-agreement process that he had thus far been pursuing and that Israel favored. As a result, Kissinger tried again in September 1975 for a second Israeli-Egyptian disengagement agreement, concluding the Sinai II agreement with its separate codicils calling for new arms agreements with Israel and no negotiations with the PLO.
The reassessment process provided an example not only of the critical role domestic political pressures play in shaping policy but also of how policy might be made but is usually not. Kissinger’s consultations with a wide range of academics, prominent foreign-policy and cabinet figures from past administrations, U.S. ambassadors in the Middle East, and his own aides, intended primarily to discuss future options in the negotiating process, were a rare example of senior policymakers going outside their own tight circle of advisers. Among former policymakers, Kissinger’s interlocutors included Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, George Ball, Douglas Dillon, Cyrus Vance, George Shultz, Robert McNamara, David Bruce, Peter Peterson, John McCloy, William Scranton, Averell Harriman, and Charles Yost. His consultations with academics included talks with Zbigniew Brzezinski, Malcolm Kerr, and Nadav Safran. Ford himself met with prominent supporters as well as critics of Israel—including Eugene Rostow and Arthur Goldberg among the supporters and William Fulbright and George Ball among the critics. Ford also met with a group of Arab Americans, the first president ever to do so.
Although the weight of the advice from these consultations was to return to the Geneva conference to pursue a comprehensive settlement on all fronts that would include Israeli withdrawal more or less to the 1967 borders and strong security guarantees for Israel, the Israelis strongly objected to this approach, and pressures from Israeli supporters caused it to be dropped. Kissinger’s State Department Middle East specialists advised him unanimously that an attempt to pursue comprehensive negotiations could not possibly survive the assault of Israeli supporters, the letter from the seventy-six senators being a case in point. Both Kissinger and Ford feared in any case that this option involved such complex issues that it would produce only stalemate.
What is interesting about this exercise is, first, that it was undertaken at all, that an administration made such an unusual effort to look beyond its
own restricted perspective and solicit ideas and advice from experts not so constrained by political pressures and the minutiae that can often limit the vision of policymakers; and, second, that pressures from Israel and the pro-Israel lobby were so intense as to foreclose the option most heavily favored by the outside experts. It is a moot point whether the administration would have been able to withstand the further pressures that surely would have been brought had the Geneva conference option been pursued regardless. The point is that no one in the administration thought it safe to try.
The notion of a role for the Palestinians in peace negotiations did not figure in these consultations. Senator Fulbright may have raised the issue in his meetings with Ford; he had spoken as early as 1970 of the need to involve the Palestinians, noting in a speech on the Senate floor that they had been done a great historical injustice and were entitled to some form of selfdetermination, although they could not expect to do an equal injustice to Israel by driving Israelis from their land. But if he raised the issue at all, he did not press it, and few of the other experts consulted had yet even focused on the Palestinian issue. Journalist Edward Sheehan sat in on Kissinger’s meeting with several academics during the reassessment and himself asked Kissinger what plans he had for the Palestinians. “Do you want to start a revolution in the United States?” was Kissinger’s curt dismissal of the issue. Sheehan says he left the meeting wondering what the point was of having a U.S. plan for peace if Kissinger intended to exclude both the Palestinians and the Soviets.
This, of course, was part of Kissinger’s fundamental dilemma, what has been called his blind spot, with regard to the Palestinians: how he could pursue a peace plan, whether a comprehensive plan that would tackle all issues at once or a step-by-step process that would ultimately have to confront all issues in some sort of progression, without recognizing and dealing with the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Kissinger was not unaware of the centrality of the Palestinian issue, but he made policy as though it would somehow go away. Throughout his shuttle diplomacy in 1974 and 1975, Egyptian President Sadat and Syrian President Asad constantly raised the subject of the Palestinians, arguing that the core of the conflict was not Soviet Cold War machinations or baseless Arab enmity toward Israel, but the Palestinian problem. But Kissinger did not want to or know how to address the issue.
With no other options in mind, he allowed a trial balloon to be floated in November 1975 that would prove to be of no policy import at the time but was symbolically of great significance. In prepared testimony before the Middle East Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which
was holding hearings on the Palestinian problem, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Saunders stated that “in many ways” the Palestinian problem was the “heart” of the Arab-Israeli conflict and that final resolution of the conflict would not be possible until a just and permanent status was defined for the Palestinians. They regarded themselves as having their own identity, Saunders noted; they desired a voice in determining their political status, and they were a political factor which must be dealt with if peace were to be achieved. Noting that the PLO had given some indications that Palestinians might be ready to coexist in a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Saunders suggested that some sort of diplomatic process might be initiated to determine more clearly what Palestinian interests and objectives were.
The statement, which came to be known as the Saunders Document, was worded extremely cautiously. The novelty of the U.S. government taking a position on the Palestinians that defined the issue in a political context is indicated by the hesitancy with which Saunders even recited their name, referring to them as “the Arab peoples who consider themselves Palestinians.” His reference to the Palestinians’ sense of identity as a people was carefully couched in terms that put this idea forth as a Palestinian, but not necessarily a U.S., belief. Saunders also carefully committed the United States to nothing in regard to the inclusion of the Palestinians in the negotiating process. Because this hearing came only two months after the United States had pledged not to negotiate with the PLO unless it made certain precisely defined concessions, he said that the next step should be an effort to elicit a “reasonable definition of Palestinian interests,” only after which might negotiation on Palestinian aspects of the conflict be started. He specifically noted that because the PLO had not recognized the existence of Israel or explicitly stated a willingness to negotiate peace with Israel, “we do not at this point have the framework for a negotiation involving the PLO.” Saunders himself has said that the statement presented a problem, not a new policy. As the lowest ranking of those who could have been sent to give the testimony, he was chosen specifically so that it would appear analytical rather than political or policy-related.
Ignoring the tentative nature of the statement and interpreting it as a crack in the solid front against dealing with the Palestinian issue, Israel and its U.S. supporters reacted angrily. Kissinger himself had carefully checked and revised the wording in the document before Saunders delivered it and is reported to have cleared it with President Ford, but as soon as the outcry against the testimony surfaced, he publicly dismissed it as an “academic exercise,” without trying to defend or justify it.
The Saunders Document was a milestone in U.S. Middle East policy,
even though it was officially repudiated and made no difference in policy at the time. In most ways it was almost three decades late, a recognition of the origins of the conflict that the United States had not acknowledged since 1948. But in many ways it was before its time; as is evident from Israel’s anger and Kissinger’s reaction, few in the United States or in Israel were yet ready to recognize the “unrecognizable episode” and accept the necessity of dealing with the Palestinians, so enduring was the established frame of reference. It took a policymaker of unusual insight to look beyond the conventional wisdom; Saunders, whom Middle East scholar William Quandt has praised for his analytical skill and his “sense of the human dimensions” of the Arab-Israeli conflict, fit this bill.
Saunders’s statement was intended to signal that after the second Israeli-Egyptian disengagement agreement, Sinai II, the necessary next step was to address the Jordanian and Syrian fronts, where the Palestinian issue would have to be on the agenda. More than that, by acknowledging the Palestinians’ own sense of political identity, the statement signaled the first U.S. awareness that the Palestinian issue had a political context. Despite Kissinger’s disavowal of the Saunders Document, policymakers did spend 1976—a year that Saunders calls a “down year” in policymaking terms because of the presidential election—attempting to learn more about the Palestinian question, particularly studying land use in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Although Ford was not reelected, this material constituted a body of analysis for the Carter administration, in which many of the State Department’s principal Middle East policymakers continued in key roles.
Recognition of the centrality of the Palestinian issue dawned earlier in some circles outside the government than it did among policymakers, although the dawning was extremely limited and slow. Some few others in Congress followed Senator Fulbright’s 1970 speech in the Senate about the historic injustice done to the Palestinians with similar statements, but their impact was minimal. In 1971, Indiana Democrat Lee Hamilton gave a speech in the House saying the Palestinians needed political, humanitarian, and economic justice. He advocated self-determination for the Palestinians in the form of either an independent state on the West Bank, a semi-autonomous entity connected to Jordan, or full union with Jordan. For the times, these statements showed remarkable understanding of the true nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but they were so much outside the prevailing frame of reference that they had little impact on policymaking.
A few isolated voices in the media also began to notice the Palestinians
in these early years. The outlook of these individuals and their experiences with others in the media provide an insight into the closed mindset that then prevailed. Foreign correspondent and syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer has described a personal awakening that is revealing. She visited the Middle East for the first time in 1969. “I soon became shocked at myself,” she has said, “over my own lack of knowledge and about my prejudice against Arabs.” She feels she was prejudiced before the trip because she had never known any Arabs and “had been exposed to highly prejudicial writing about them.” Meeting Arabs proved to be an enlightening encounter for her. “For the fair-minded journalist,” she notes, “the Middle East involves a special confrontation—a confrontation with oneself and one’s previous prejudices.”
Once she had had her own enlightenment, Geyer found it extremely difficult to get the Arab and Palestinian perspective across in the media. She said Americans generally received a distorted picture of Arabs:
I became appalled at the unfairness of the picture presented in the American press of the “dirty street Arab,” or the Arab with the knife in his teeth, or the fat and lazy desert shaykh. The cartoonists were and are particularly culpable on this, although the Arab terrorists give them quite enough fodder. Nevertheless, what one saw in the American press at that time, because of a combination of liking for Israel, emotional reaction to the Holocaust, and the limited nature of Arab efforts to present their position, was one of the most grotesque characterizations in journalistic history. The kind of prejudice that would not have been permitted with regard to any other subject was a daily phenomenon when it came to reporting on the Arab world.
A few other media correspondents experienced the kind of perceptual change that hit Geyer after visiting the Middle East; however, before the 1973 war, which brought an exponential increase in U.S. public interest in the Middle East, media interest in and knowledge of the area and specifically of the Palestinians remained extremely limited. ABC correspondents Peter Jennings and Barrie Dunsmore produced a documentary on the Palestinians in 1970 specifically intended, according to Dunsmore, to refute the general public image of Palestinians as “ragged refugees” and to show that they “had developed into a very important influence in the Arab world.” Until after the 1973 war, however, this sort of coverage remained quite an unusual, pioneering undertaking.
The war, the Arab oil embargo that accompanied it, and Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy all opened up the Middle East to the U.S. media. Vietnam was winding down as a focus of foreign-policy attention; for the first time
U.S. interests were directly affected by an Arab-Israeli war because of the oil embargo; and also for the first time the United States was directly and deeply involved in Middle East diplomacy. Fourteen reporters accompanied Kissinger on his shuttles from Israel to Egypt to Syria, and they spent a great deal of time in the Middle East, meeting people on both sides of the conflict. Inevitably, these reporters, like Geyer, learned about the Palestinian problem and about the Palestinians themselves, and an increased awareness of the Palestinians seeped through to the U.S. public. Also inevitably, a few reporters, through questions at press briefings and the like, kept the Palestinian problem before policymakers, adding, however slightly, to the pressure Kissinger received on this issue from the Arab leaders he dealt with. The process was extremely slow; public opinion remained overwhelmingly pro-Israeli, and the pro-Israel lobby continued to have a significant impact on policy formulation as well as on public opinion. But this was the first stage in altering a public mind-set that had excluded the Palestinians from consideration for a quarter century.
The Arabs themselves played a considerable part, in diverse ways and in both a positive and a negative sense, in shaping U.S. perceptions about the Arab-Israeli conflict. On the negative side, until the mid-1970s most Arab states, and the Palestinians as well, created such difficulties for journalists and imposed such severe restrictions that reporting from the Arab world was extremely difficult. For instance, during the 1967 war—the first Arab-Israeli war covered by television—virtually no reporting was done from Arab countries because they made it so difficult. ABC News had correspondents in both Cairo and Beirut, but their access was so limited that they could do little. The correspondents in Cairo were jailed and deported. As a result, all on-the-scene reporting in 1967 was done from Israel, which has always been hospitable to journalists. When Jennings and Dunsmore were filming their 1970 documentary on the Palestinians, they were arrested three times in various Arab countries. The Palestinians themselves harassed them constantly, even destroying film, in an apparent attempt to sabotage what they feared would not be a fair story.
The atmosphere for reporters in the Arab world improved considerably after the 1973 war, although the degree of access journalists could count on varied from country to country and often from one period to the next. Criticism, to which many Arab states were extremely sensitive, often assured that a journalist’s access was cut off, whereas journalists who pandered to the Arabs or to a particular Arab country were given red-carpet treatment. Geyer found that, notwithstanding some untoward incidents like the Jennings-Dunsmore experience, the Palestinians were the best public-relations
people in the Arab world. During her 1969 trip, the Palestinian leadership gave her ready access to Arafat and other leading PLO figures, and she was able to maintain the contacts in later years. Geyer did have difficulty, however, with what she characterized as a cultural gap, largely involving rhetoric and a tendency to declaim rather than give information. She recounts an instance in 1978 when she went to the West Bank to do research on Israel’s occupation practices. She was seeking information on such things as confiscation of Palestinian land, water issues, expulsion of Palestinian inhabitants, and prisoners, but when she met with a Palestinian mayor, he ranted for two hours, repeating the historic injustices done to the Palestinians but not giving her hard information.
Egyptian President Sadat made considerable public-relations gains in the United States for all Arabs in the years after the 1973 war by not delivering bombast. Virtually unknown by the U.S. public and disdained by U.S. policymakers as an ineffectual leader before the war, Sadat turned out to be a particularly appealing figure. He made himself accessible to journalists, who returned the favor by giving him a great deal of air time in the United States, and the relatively measured terms in which he spoke brought a new image of Arabs to a large segment of the informed U.S. public. He was able to put across the Arab point of view in a way that had never been done before, and although he won opprobrium in the Arab world for concentrating too heavily on Egypt’s interests at the expense of the interests of other Arabs, in the United States all Arabs, including the Palestinians, benefited from the image he presented of Arabs as personable, reasonable, and, all in all, not wholly unlike Americans.
It is important to examine the quality of the Palestinian image in this period, for it was double-edged. For two decades after Israel’s creation, there was no “Palestinian image.” The Palestinian people were largely forgotten. Without a state, a leadership, or an army, and facing a conscious attempt by Israel to forget them, they were unable to remind the world of their existence until they undertook a campaign of terrorism. The smallscale cross-border raids that continued throughout the 1950s and 1960s had accomplished little of significance militarily or psychologically. They had raised tensions, sometimes enough to spark full-scale warfare between Israel and the Arab states, but the Palestinian ingredient was always more or less unrecognized. Hijackings of international airliners, terrorist attacks on Israeli targets inside and outside Israel, and attacks on U.S. targets such as the murder of two diplomats in Khartoum, Sudan, in March 1973 finally brought the name Palestinian to the world’s consciousness.
Not, of course, favorably. The word terrorist was automatically associated with Palestinian, the two becoming synonymous in the minds of probably most Americans. This connection tended to continue to divert attention from the central political issues and gave Israel and its supporters a justification for strong opposition to any effort to address the problem seriously or to deal with the PLO. The terrorist image lingered for decades, well beyond the start of peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO in the mid-1990s and long after the PLO had ceased terrorist operations and publicly renounced terrorism. The widespread public revulsion against PLO Chairman Arafat himself, who came to be the embodiment of terrorism for many Americans, also lingered.
Paradoxically, however, the impact of the upsurge of Palestinian terrorism in the late 1960s and early 1970s was not wholly negative. As one scholar has noted, the Palestinians needed publicity for their plight, and terrorism became a “form of mass communication.” Some concept of the Palestinians as a people and a national entity did filter out along with the negative image. Journalists who covered terrorist incidents and their aftermath gradually gained a broader picture of the Palestinians in the course of their reporting and conveyed it to audiences. Policymakers who dealt increasingly with Arab leaders also began to get a less one-dimensional impression of the Palestinians. Had terrorism not brought a measure of international notoriety to the Palestinians, the Arab states would most likely not have focused negotiating authority on the PLO by declaring it the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians in 1974, the UN would most likely not have invited Arafat to plead the Palestinian case before the General Assembly in November 1974, and the United States would most likely not have come around to the position enunciated in the Saunders Document in 1975, recognizing the centrality of the Palestinian issue to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Former Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Meron Benvenisti has observed that Israelis could not abide the notion of a symmetry between their own claims to Palestine and those of the Palestinians. “Israelis have a profound feeling,” he said, “that once they accept the symmetry that the other side is also a legitimate national movement, then their own feeling about their own right and legitimacy will be dimmed.” As the Palestinians began to come out of their long limbo in the 1970s, this fear of symmetry—what Kissinger described as Israel’s most elemental nightmare—dictated the reaction
of Israel and, in its Israel-centered perspective, of most of the United States. The Palestinians threatened not Israel’s physical security but its peace of mind and its sense of legitimacy. In reaction, the Israelis and their supporters in the United States began a distinct effort to undermine any Palestinian national claims and to delegitimize the PLO as the Palestinians’ political representative. New boundaries were drawn around thinking on the issue, and the frame of reference took on new aspects.
By the mid-1970s, the frame of reference on the Arab-Israeli question had for so long ignored the Palestinians as a political factor and the tentative efforts to recognize them were still so occasional that a substantial mental shift was required to focus thought on the Palestinians in the first place; recall the senator who as late as the 1980s asked where on earth the Palestinians had come from to begin with. Those who made the mental shift encountered strong resistance. In the United States, a country generally ignorant of Palestinian grievances or the origins of the conflict, it was relatively easy for Israeli supporters, picking up the dark images of Arabs that had prevailed for a century or more and linking them with the vivid evidence of Palestinian terrorism, to portray the Palestinians, and particularly the PLO, as irredeemably evil and a threat to the existence of Israel.
More subtle arguments were designed to undermine any national Palestinian claim and to “prove” that, no matter how deserving the Palestinians might appear to be, in fact they had no real basis for their claim. The prominent and respected Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, for instance, published a lengthy article in the magazine Commentary in January 1975 arguing against the Palestinian case in scholarly terms. Palestine had never had precise borders until the British Mandate was established, Lewis argued; Palestinians had considered themselves Syrians during Ottoman times or part of the whole Arab nation and had only recently begun to call themselves Palestinians; Palestinians had no sense of separate nationality when they were first dispersed; the Arab states, particularly Jordan, were themselves doubtful about the wisdom of establishing a Palestinian national entity; and so on. Lewis’s arguments were so sophisticated that the reader tended not to notice that some—for instance, the assertion that Palestinians had no separate sense of national identity—were wrong and that most others were beside the point or—like the lack of precise borders or precise name—applied equally to Israel before its establishment as a state.
Because the PLO was so widely portrayed as radical—”a nest of terrorists,” according to Lewis—moderation became a catchword, something
much to be desired but seemingly never exhibited by Palestinians. In the view of Hisham Sharabi, a leading Palestinian intellectual living in the United States since the 1940s, the difference between Palestinian moderation and Israeli moderation has always lain primarily in the desire of the Palestinians to remember and of the Israelis to forget. “I know moderation through direct experience,” Sharabi has written ironically. “Like many Palestinians in the United States, I had to be ‘moderate’ to be heard, that is, to be allowed to tell our side of the story. … This meant, above all, restricting our discourse to the practicalities of the present and always refraining from dredging up the past. What was the point in talking about 1948, about the dispossession, expulsion, exile, and suffering of the Palestinians, when Jews could talk about the Holocaust?”
As peace negotiations proceeded after the 1973 war and contacts with Arab leaders became a regular thing, U.S. policymakers were increasingly made aware of the centrality of the Palestinian issue, but the possibility of a change in policy was stymied both by the limited, Israel-centered perspective from which senior policymakers themselves approached the issue and by the kind of intense lobby pressure that could mobilize threequarters of the Senate on behalf of Israel. The Saunders Document had a considerable impact in removing the blinders that had always formed the context for policymaking on the Middle East; both within and outside the government, Palestinians who had been thought of only as refugees, as fe dayeen, or as terrorists would now to a much greater extent be seen as “a people” with a collective identity and collective interests. But, at the time, this was only a small step.
It cannot be known with certainty whether the United States might have been able to begin a negotiating process involving the Palestinian issue if it had gone farther at the time—if it had followed up on overtures from the PLO and tried to establish a dialogue, if it had not agreed to impose a gag on itself about negotiating with the PLO. But there is every reason to believe that a determined effort to start a negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians might have produced in the mid-to late 1970s a peace process no worse, and perhaps somewhat better, than what was finally begun in the 1990s after thousands had died, particularly on the Palestinian side, during the intervening two decades. Some U.S. policymakers believe that the bloodshed of the October 1973 war could have been avoided if the United States had marshaled the same intense diplomatic effort in 1971 or early 1973 that it did after the war.
The diplomatic straitjacket in which the United States placed itself in
1975 concerning contacts with the PLO, however, restricted policymaking for some time to come. The new U.S. blind spot concerned the PLO. The new ingredient in the conventional wisdom was the idea that the PLO did not truly represent the Palestinians and that if only it could be bypassed, some solution could be achieved for the Palestinians. For another fifteen years or more, despite efforts by Jimmy Carter to alter the conventional thinking, this became the easy way to avoid seriously addressing the Palestinian issue.