Thursday, September 3, 2015

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

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

For Part 1. see here

For the Hebrew documents, see our blog here

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

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

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

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

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

The senators' letter to Ford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final shuttle and signing the agreement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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