Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Golda Meir to Kissinger, May 1974: "The only natural resource that we can build on is the spirit of the people"

This is the first in a new series of blog posts on Israel's foreign relations, which will present mostly documents from the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office. In Israel, the Prime Minister tends to keep foreign policy-making and relations with key states in his or her own hands. The archives hold hundreds if not thousands of files with material from the bureaus of Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin, which are already available to researchers. We'd like to give you a glimpse of some of the fascinating stories found there.

During the ongoing turmoil in Syria, Israel's northern neighbor, you may have heard mention of the "separation of forces agreement" between the two countries. This agreement, signed on May 31 1974, ended the Yom Kippur war on the Syrian front. A similar one was signed with Egypt; it was later replaced by the Interim Agreement of September 1975 and the peace treaty of March 1979. No peace with Syria was signed, and the separation of forces agreement has remained in force ever since.

The agreement was the result of a month of intensive mediation by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who "shuttled" between Jerusalem and Damascus to resolve the differences between the government of Israel, headed by Prime Minister Golda Meir, and President Hafez al-Assad, father of present Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hafez al-Assad was described by Kissinger as "the toughest and least conciliatory Arab leader I have met." In the State Department's publication on the Yom Kippur war you can see Kissinger's famous six and a half hour conversation with Assad on December 15 1973 where that latter outlines his conditions for attending the Middle East peace conference at Geneva. Only at the end of the conversation did Assad mention that Syria actually had no intention of coming to the conference.

Golda Meir was no pushover either. After initial setbacks, IDF forces had ended the war deep inside Syrian territory. Assad demanded that Israel should not only restore this territory but also withdraw from part of the Golan Heights captured in 1967, specifically the town of Kuneitra. Golda could not understand the justice of this demand, and rejected it indignantly.

However the Syrians held two important bargaining cards: they carried on a war of attrition, causing Israeli losses and forcing the country to continue mobilizing reservists, and they held a group of Israeli prisoners of war and refused to allow the Red Cross to visit them. Hair-raising rumors spread about the fate of the prisoners and Golda was under great pressure from their families. On the other hand, the settlers on the Golan Heights and the nascent Gush Emunim movement protested fiercely against any withdrawal in the Golan. The conflicting pressures on Mrs. Meir and Kissinger's counter-arguments to her concerns can be seen in these extracts from their conversation on May 12, 1974.

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