Thursday, September 3, 2015

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 ISA documents give a fuller and more accurate picture of the Israeli stand than the version in Kissinger's memoirs or US documentary collections like Volume 26 of the Foreign Relations of the United States series. 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 the 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 "worked on" 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 go 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
The Presidents' and Prime Ministers' Memorial Council, Prime Minister's Office
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, Government 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 coffins of the Yom  Kippur War dead by the Egyptians, 5 April 1975
Photograph: Moshe Milner, Government Press Office, 


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