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Lyndon Johnson Administration: Saunders Explores Ideas for Peace with Evron

(April 9, 1968)

In this memo, Harold Saunders, a member of the National Security Staff reports on a conversation with Israeli ambassador Ephraim Evron about the prospects for a peace settlement. Some interesting ideas emerge regarding Israel's positions on negotiations with the Palestinians and compromises on the West Bank and Jerusalem.


Exploration with Evron

As you suggested, I broached with Eppie the question of how the President might make a major effort for a Middle East settlement, explaining that this was a purely personal and private conversation. I started with the notion that some Israeli indication that a decent settlement is at the end of the track is necessary to get negotiations going. We talked about the validity of this premise and about how far the Israeli Government might go in sending such a signal.

Our conversation was most revealing. I believe the answer, in short, is that the Israelis are waiting till Nasser falls and aren't anxious for any US initiative that hurries them toward peace before that happens. Eppie musters all sorts of reasons-some sensible, some marginal-but this is what I think it boils down to.

To me, this means that we have to make our own judgment and then set out with all our energies to change the Israelis' minds (probably via an emissary). To do this, we have to have a convincing answer to their arguments that (a) Nasser can't or doesn't want to negotiate peace; (b) they can't negotiate a settlement with a schizophrenic; (c) Nasser must go before other Arab governments can be free to pursue their own interests in a settlement.

The choice before us is between (a) letting forces play out as they are with an occasional tactical prod to keep Jarring in motion and (b) playing for a substantial shift in Israel's tactical position on the assumption that such a shift would get serious negotiations started. So far, while everyone is uneasy about our present course, no one has made the hard final judgment that would shift our approach to leaning hard on the Israelis. We came close last week but were diverted by the seeming break on the Jarring front. I will be doing a separate memo to you and Luke on this. For the moment, here's how my conversation with Eppie went:

Eppie doubts-"with real regret"-that any kind of Presidential initiative or Israeli compromise now would get negotiations started

He believes the Arabs will choose to wait for President Johnson's successor. Any sign that we were urging compromise now would lead the Arabs to believe that pressures are building up on the US to push Israel into a more flexible position. Any sign of change in our position would encourage the Arabs to believe that the President's successor would have to start at least from that point and that greater compromise would be possible later. He pointed out how unanimously the Arabs view the President's Vietnam proposal as a sign of weakness and failure.

He further believes that the Arabs have all the signals they need from Israel-that the main obstacle to negotiation is that the Arabs themselves aren't ready to negotiate. In the way of signals, he cited particularly Eban's 12 February interview with Ha'aretz. Having said that much, the Israelis believe any more signs of compromise would be signs of weakness in Arab eyes.

Eppie is playing with a new idea. He believes that feelings of Palestinian separatism are growing stronger right under the surface on the West Bank. Since he doubts that King Hussein is a free (from Nasser) agent in negotiating a settlement, he wonders whether Israel shouldn't start with a settlement negotiated with the Palestinians and then let them determine their own relationship with Jordan.

I suggested that, even to do this, Israel would have to make up its mind on the shape of a final settlement. He asked what we had in mind. I told him we had not drawn any lines on the map. I said that our main concern was that Hussein get back a big enough portion of the West Bank to call it a settlement and a significant role in Jerusalem. He hinted that the Israelis are thinking about a substantial modification in the old armistice line, pushing it eastward at least as far as the heights that run down through Nablus past Jerusalem and Hebron (looks like 15-25% of West Bank area). In Jerusalem he spoke of Jordanian administrative custodianship of the mosque area and, at most, a corridor of access to the old city.

I said it sounded to me as if he advocates our standing back and letting events take their course. He denied this. He feels that there is already substantial Arab reason to believe that an eventual military solution would be possible because we have stood back. He harked back again to the idea that our greatest mistake in 1967 was to continue our suspension of arms shipments while the Soviets were rearming the Arabs. The Arabs do not believe we are firm in denying the area to the Soviets or in opposing the radical Arabs. In his view, we have never even made it clear that the Sixth Fleet will remain in the Mediterranean as long as it is needed. This American wishy-washy-ness is, in his eyes, the greatest encouragement the Arabs could find to believe that a military solution will become possible someday. It's the old line of making Israel so unbeatable that the Arabs will be forced to their knees.

Far from advocating our simply letting events take their course, he proposed a policy of "active passivity." He saw three things that could be done:

-Nasser should be eliminated. "There are plenty of things you could do." He claims that we continue to help keep him afloat by acquiescing in Western European and IMF programs to reschedule UAR debts. He believes we have dropped our conditions for resuming relations and are now encouraging Nasser to think that he can place conditions on resumption.

-Aircraft for Israel. The Arabs must be certain that the military balance will continue to favor Israel.

-We must make clear that we are going to stand firm against the USSR. "You should hear what even your friend, the Shah, says about your policy." He deeply fears that the mood in this country is to pull out.

I summed up by suggesting that the US could follow one of three courses:

(1) We could sit back and let local forces play themselves out.

(2) We could keep hands off the Jarring process but become more active in creating conditions that would be riper for bringing the Arabs around and convincing them that a military solution is impossible.

(3) We could press for some sort of Israeli signal and try to get the Jarring negotiations started.

He felt that the middle course was best.

Comment: This illustrates to me, more sharply than anything I have heard, the limits of trying to deal with the Israelis on the basis of friendship. They deeply distrust our "softness" in dealing with the Arabs. They will cultivate closeness with us as long as it suits their purposes. They will not open up to us on basic strategy because they disagree with us fundamentally over the question of whose side time helps. If we disagree, we will have to make up our own minds and take them on. Eppie promised to come back with more refined thoughts after he'd had time to think this over, but I thought you'd be interested in his initial reaction because it's so revealing.


Sources: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, V. 20, Arab-Israeli Dispute 1967-1968. DC: GPO, 2001.