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Shuttle Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Dispute

(1974 – 1975)

In January and May 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger engaged in “shuttle diplomacy,” a term coined by the members of the media who followed Kissinger on his various short flights among Middle East capitals as he sought to deal with the fallout of the October 1973 war. After three weeks of fighting, a ceasefire found Israeli forces entangled with the Egyptian and Syrian forces. This presented President Richard Nixon and Kissinger with an opportunity to play a lead role in disengaging these armies from one another and possibly laying the groundwork for further steps to peacefully resolve the 25-year conflict. In January 1974, Kissinger helped negotiate the first Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement in eight days, and in May, he arranged a Syrian-Israeli disengagement after a month of intense negotiations. Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy secured one last deal in September 1975 with the conclusion of a second Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement.

The map of the second disengagement agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1975. (Office of the Geographer, U.S. Department of State)

The origins of the first shuttle started with Israel’s proposals for disengagement with the Egyptians on January 4 and 5, 1974. Israel’s proposals demonstrated to Kissinger that the two sides were close enough for him to engage in intensive diplomacy between Jerusalem and Cairo to find a way to negotiate a solution. Nixon, who had become severely distracted by the growing Watergate crisis, encouraged Kissinger to make the trip, but Nixon’s involvement in this negotiation and the ones to follow before his resignation was minimal.

On January 11, Kissinger arrived in Aswan, Egypt where President Anwar Sadat worked during the winter. The negotiations would center around three key items: first, where the forward line of each army would be located; second, the size of the zones where armor was to be limited; and third, the types of armor to be limited in these zones. The Israelis also wanted the Egyptians to reopen the Suez Canal and sought assurances guaranteeing Israeli passage through the Suez Canal, the Straits of Tiran, and Bab el-Madeb. Furthermore, Israel desired Egypt to reconstruct cities along the Suez Canal so as to ensure that the danger to Egyptian civilian populations would deter Egypt from starting another war. Kissinger shuttled between Israel and Egypt for a week, reaching an agreement on January 18. The highlights of the agreement included limited Egyptian and Israeli forces divided by a U.N. buffer zone on the east bank of the Suez Canal. Egypt also agreed to most of the assurances that Israel had requested.

Following the conclusion of this Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement, commonly known as Sinai I, U.S. attention moved to Syria, the other country with armies entangled with Israel’s forces. Kissinger hoped moving on the Syrian-Israeli front would lead the Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) to lift the oil embargo they had imposed on the United States in retaliation for American assistance to Israel during the war.

Unlike the relatively short negotiations that led to the Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement, negotiations for a Syrian-Israeli disengagement proved far more arduous and took much longer. By March 18, OPEC lifted the oil embargo, but it would be subject to review on June I. With a need to show progress in negotiations between Israel and Syria before then, Kissinger moved forward in laying the groundwork for another shuttle. Through the end of March and most of April, Kissinger met separately in Washington with Israeli officials and a senior- level Syrian emissary to discuss the groundwork for negotiations.

By the end of April, Kissinger decided the time was right to begin his second shuttle in the Middle East. On May 1, he left for Jerusalem to begin nearly a month of intense negotiations between the Israelis and Syrians. The negotiation centered on the town of Quneitra in the Golan Heights, three kilometers within the zone Israel had captured during the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Since Quneitra did not include any Israeli settlements, the Syrians wanted the town returned as part of any agreement, as well as the territory taken during the October war. After the first week of negotiations, the Syrians and Israelis had shared with Kissinger their views of a line of disengagement. They were close to one another; however, control of Quneitra and three hills that surrounded the town remained the key stumbling block. By mid-May, both sides had agreed to compromises that put their proposals within a few hundred meters of each other, and Israel had assented to a civilian Syrian presence in Quneitra. Despite the progress, neither side would close the gap needed to complete an agreement. On May 16, Kissinger offered an American proposal that sought to find the common ground necessary to reach a compromise. Both sides wanted modifications to this American proposal, however, and negotiations dragged on for another two weeks with Kissinger almost ceasing the negotiations on three separate occasions. Finally, on May 31, Syria and Israel signed a disengagement agreement.

On August 9, Nixon resigned the presidency, and Vice-President Gerald Ford assumed the office while keeping Kissinger on board as both Secretary of State and National Security Adviser. During the fall, much to the U.S. Government’s disappointment, an Arab summit in Rabat, Morocco virtually eliminated any hopes of a Jordanian-Israeli agreement. The Arab representatives announced a resolution on October 28 that recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole representative of the Palestinian people and affirmed its right “to establish an independent national authority over all liberated territory.” Despite previous Jordanian efforts during the year to engage the Israelis in negotiations over the West Bank and Jerusalem, this resolution forced King Hussein to defer to the PLO in future negotiations with Israel over the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

With Jordan no longer in a position to press the United States for a negotiation with Israel, and Israel unwilling to talk with the PLO, Sadat convinced President Ford and Kissinger that they should spend 1975 pushing for a second agreement between Israel and Egypt over the Sinai. Unlike Sinai I, however, negotiations for this second agreement proved far more challenging and lasted several months. After initial discussions with the Egyptians and Israelis, Ford concluded that the Israelis were not as forthcoming as Egypt, and in March, he called for a reassessment of U.S. policy towards Israel. This sparked an outcry from the U.S. Senate, and Ford backtracked during the early summer. Ultimately, by August, an agreement was within sight, and Kissinger finished the second Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement, known as the Sinai Interim Agreement or Sinai II, which Egypt and Israel signed on September 4. This agreement led to the withdrawal of Israeli forces further east in the Sinai and a U.N. buffer zone put in the place of the Israelis. The agreement also committed major U.S. resources through the establishment of three manned stations and three unmanned electronic sensor fields in the Sinai.