Looking back over the course of U.S. involvement in the Middle East since World War II, and of my own personal involvement for much of that period, I am struck by the unanimity and consistency in America's perception of both its national interests, and its policy objectives, in the Middle East.

Specific national interests, largely unchallenged across the political spectrum, can be summarized as: unimpeded use of the area's sea and air routes, essential to fulfill our strategic responsibilities as a global power; access to the area's vast oil supplies for ourselves and our allies; and the security and survival of the State of Israel, a long-standing commitment based on historical, moral and political considerations.

Policy objectives to protect these interests have been consistently defined as essentially three-fold: the existence of stable governments on friendly terms with the United States; peaceful resolution of regional conflicts, above all, that between Arabs and Israelis; and the prevention of a dominant Soviet influence in the area which would undermine American interests.

This much said, I have found neither unanimity nor consistency in the policies adopted and the measures taken to protect these interests and pursue these objectives.

Debate and differences of opinion about U.S. Middle East policy have been an almost continuous feature of the American political scene for over three decades, as Americans in and out of government faced a constantly changing, and at times bewildering, Middle East. This policy debate has, over the years, revealed the lack of national consensus about our priorities when the pursuit of one set of interests and objectives suggests policies which make the pursuit of others more difficult.1 As a corollary, it seems to me we have often been ambivalent about what political costs we are prepared to assume, internationally and domestically, to pursue a given policy course in the Middle East. Our actions have often reflected that ambivalence.

This leads me to another general observation about our perennial national debate over American Middle East policy. The policymaker's task is frequently complicated by the need to strike a balance between foreign policy considerations on the one hand, and domestic political considerations on the other. This dilemma is, of course, not unique to the United States, nor is it unique to the formulation of Middle East policy. In my experience, however, domestic political considerations have probably carried more weight in determining American Middle East policy over a longer period of time than they have on any other major foreign policy issue since the days of the China Lobby. I say this not as a criticism, but as a statement of fact. It is a fact which Israel has long recognized, but which Arab leaders-with the sole exception of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat-have tended to wring their hands about rather than including it in their own calculations.

American policymakers, in searching for strategic concepts to guide Middle East policy through the shifting mosaic of regional, global and domestic factors, have tended to adopt one of two broad approaches which, at the risk of oversimplification, can be defined at follows:

-One approach views the conflicts in the Middle East through the prism of the global East-West conflict. According to this view, consideration of global strategy and efforts to enlist the support of Middle East nations against the Soviet threat take priority over initiatives designed to resolve the underlying causes of regional conflicts, and, specifically, the Arab-Israeli conflict.

-The other approach holds that regional conflicts have their own roots and are more a cause than a result of superpower confrontation. According to this view, while we cannot ignore external threats to our interests in the region, efforts to deal with the root causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict, including above all the conflicting Israeli and Palestinian territorial claims in the area west of the Jordan River, must be dealt with before we can realistically hope to enlist the support of Middle East states on our side of the global conflict with the Soviet Union. Underlying this view is the premise that regional conflicts like that between Arabs and Israelis, by destabilizing the area, provide fertile ground for exploitation by the Soviet Union in the East-West conflict.

American Middle East policy has swung like a pendulum between these two approaches-sometimes even trying to swing in both directions at once. Even during periods when we have adopted the latter, regionalist, approach, we have not always pursued it resolutely because of our disagreements over priorities and our ambivalence about paying the political costs involved. What follows is an overview of how these swings of the pendulum and differences over priorities and costs have influenced our policy. At the end, I suggest some lessons we can draw from the history of this period as we seek to shape policies to protect American interests and achieve American objectives in the Middle East for the years to come.


During the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and its immediate aftermath, American policy supported U.N. efforts to end the fighting. In the early 1950s, the pendulum began to swing the other way. Hope for early Arab-Israeli peace faded with the hardening of Arab attitudes toward recognition of Israel. The one Arab leader who was seriously negotiating a peace settlement, King Abdullah of Jordan, the grandfather of King Hussein, was assassinated.

This was a period of growing Western preoccupation with cold-war issues, of efforts to insulate the Middle East from Soviet inroads and preserve Western hegemony in the region. While work continued on aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict,2 American policy focussed increasingly on the role of the Middle East in U.S. global strategy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and the threat of international communism. Egypt and the other Arab countries, however, saw Israel as a greater threat than the Soviet Union. Rejecting American proposals for a Middle East Defense Command, Egypt and Syria turned for arms to the Soviet Union in the mid-1950s, enabling Moscow to establish a foothold for the first time in the heart of the Arab world.

In 1956-57, the United States strongly opposed the British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt and forced an early Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. This opened the lowest era in the history of U.S.-Israeli relations and won for the United States a short-lived upsurge of popularity in the Arab world. But it quickly became clear that the driving force behind American policy during the Sinai war was not so much to support the Arabs against Israel as it was a desire to preempt Soviet exploitation of the crisis.

We followed with renewed proposals to the Arab states to join us in an alliance against the dangers of international communism, but once again, most Arabs saw this as the wrong threat and declined to respond. The only Arab government to participate was Iraq, which had earlier joined with Turkey, Pakistan, Great Britain and Iran in the Baghdad Pact, remaining a member until its pro-Western government was overthrown in the revolution of 1958. Washington's perception of a Soviet hand behind the Iraqi revolution, and, at least initially, in the Lebanese civil war the same year, reflected the extent to which the pendulum of American policy in this period had swung toward the "global strategy" approach to the Middle East, and away from a recognition of the role of indigenous national and regional factors in determining the course of events in the area.

Historians will long argue whether the United States, preoccupied with efforts to bring key Arab states into its global strategy in the 1950s, missed an opportunity to move the Arab-Israeli conflict toward a settlement in that early period. In particular, did our insistence on rapid Israeli withdrawal from Sinai in 1956-57 deprive Israel of an opportunity to utilize its occupation of Egyptian territory to seek Egyptian concessions on peace and recognition? My own view is that given the regional and global political circumstances of that period, the time was probably not ripe for Arab-Israeli peace. For one thing, Egypt, then as now, was the only Arab neighbor of Israel that was strong enough to take the political lead; for Egypt to have done so, however, would have unleashed a backlash in the Arab world inimical to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's pan-Arab ambitions. For another, U.S. support for a policy that would have traded Israeli withdrawal from Sinai for Egyptian recognition of Israel would have been inconsistent with the flat U.N. call for Israeli withdrawal. It could have been exploited by the Soviets to improve their position in the area at American expense.


The pendulum of U.S. policy swung back in the early 1960s toward a greater focus on the causes of regional conflict in the Middle East. The new Kennedy Administration made a serious effort to establish a productive relationship with Egypt and, through the mission of Joseph E.Johnson, to devise a solution to one of the most festering and potentially explosive aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict-the Palestinian refugee problem. This effort ultimately suffered the fate of other projects designed to deal with the symptoms of the Arab-Israeli conflict rather than its root causes; these were, and are: the refusal for years of all Arabs (and of some still today) to accept Israel's right to exist as a sovereign member of the family of nations, and the conflicting Arab and Israeli territorial claims in Palestine.

The attempt to build a new relationship with Egypt was greeted with suspicion and alarm by Israel and became an increasingly divisive domestic political issue in the United States. Egyptian intervention in the Yemen civil war, with its perceived threat to Saudi Arabia and American interests there, sealed the doom of Kennedy's new Egypt policy. Arab-Israeli tensions built up through a growing cycle of cross-border incidents, of provocations and retaliations. This was the period of Arab threats to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River, and of an event that was to cast a long shadow over the future-the admission of the Palestine Liberation Organization to membership in the Arab League, symbolizing its emergence as the independent embodiment of Palestinian nationalism.

In the spring of 1967, events in three arenas of conflict converged to trigger the third outbreak of full-scale Arab-Israeli warfare in two decades:

The first arena was the conflict among the Arabs themselves. Egyptian political and (in Yemen) military intervention in the affairs of other Arab countries had raised inter-Arab tensions to a high level.

The second arena was the Arab-Israeli conflict. When both Jordan and Syria were bloodied by Israeli retaliations for cross-border raids from their territory by armed Palestinians, they and other Arabs taunted Egypt for not living up to its Arab defense pact commitments to come to their aid against Israel.

Nasser sought to recoup through a major act of brinksmanship, which turned out to be a major miscalculation. He ordered the United Nations Emergency Force from Egyptian territory along the border with Israel, declared the closure of the Strait of Tiran on the approaches to Israel's southern port of Eilat, and mobilized Egyptian forces in Sinai. Virtually overnight, Nasser had nullified security arrangements which had been a major factor in securing Israeli withdrawal from Sinai a decade earlier. Whether or not Nasser intended actually to invade Israel, and there is reason to believe this was not his intent, he had forced a counter-mobilization in Israel and created a threat which no Israeli government could accept as a permanent state of affairs.

The third arena was that of the East-West conflict. Seeking advantage for itself in these tensions, the Soviet Union engaged in a disinformation campaign designed to persuade the Arabs that Israel, with American collusion, was planning armed aggression against them, and, in particular, against Syria. This had the effect of increasing pressure on Egypt to adopt a militant stance vis-à-vis Israel.

This interaction of national, regional and external forces created a momentum toward hostilities that by the end of May 1967 had probably become irreversible. War broke out in June, and in six swift days of dramatic combat, Israel took control of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights of Syria and, most significantly, the West Bank of the Jordan and the Gaza Strip, lands on which the Palestinian Arabs had retained their foothold in Palestine (albeit under Jordanian rule and Egyptian administration respectively).

Out of the prolonged diplomatic negotiations that followed the Six Day War came U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967. That resolution, the basis for peacemaking efforts down to this day, marked a watershed in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In effect, the Security Council determined that Israel and the neighboring Arab states should not return to the armistice agreements which had governed their relations since 1949, but should conclude peace between them.

Resolution 242 set forth certain principles on which to base the settlement, including an Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in the 1967 war in return for peace. By not specifying withdrawal from "the" or "all" territories occupied, the resolution left an element of ambiguity-essential to secure its acceptance-which was to plague future negotiating efforts.

Later criticism of Resolution 242 has focussed, in addition to this ambiguity, on two points: the absence of any explicit provision for direct negotiations between the parties, and failure to treat the Palestinian issue as other than a refugee problem.

It is inconceivable today that any Arab-Israeli peace agreements could be reached without direct negotiations and without recognizing that the Palestinian issue is a political and territorial matter as well as a refugee problem. But look how attitudes and realities have evolved since 1967: the fact is, neither of these points was a major stumbling block when Resolution 242 was being negotiated and adopted.


I have long believed that the United States should have been more directly involved in putting forth proposals for promoting an Arab-Israeli negotiating process in the period immediately following passage of Resolution 242. We had played a key role in achieving passage of that resolution. Thereafter, however, while we were supportive of U.N. peacemaking efforts by the Secretary General's Special Representative, Swedish Ambassador Gunnar Jarring, our posture was essentially passive. Our only direct foray into the diplomatic arena in that period was the July 1968 Middle East trip of Ambassador George Ball, then the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations. (In retrospect, it seems incomprehensible that the Ball mission, although it overflew Egypt en route to Saudi Arabia, did not visit Cairo, the key Arab capital for any peacemaking effort. We perceived Nasser, at the time, as the villain of the Six Day War and a Soviet client, and we believed that the key to progress on the Arab side lay in Amman and Riyadh.)

By the time we saw the merit in more U.S. initiative in putting forth proposals to the parties, the window of opportunity that existed immediately after passage of Resolution 242 had started closing, not to open again (except briefly in early 1971-see below), until after the October 1973 War.

By 1969, the war of attrition along the Suez Canal was heating up. Furthermore, Israel had begun putting down roots in the territories occupied in the 1967 war, making the task for American diplomacy infinitely more complicated than it would have been a year earlier. Israel, I believe, was much more prepared immediately after Resolution 242 to adopt a flexible interpretation of the "territory for peace" formula than was the case in later years.

It is, of course, very possible that a more active U.S. effort in 1967-1968 would have run aground on Arab, especially Egyptian, refusal to move far enough toward recognition and peace to obtain Israeli withdrawal. Egypt had secured a mandate at the Arab Summit Conference in Khartoum in August 1967 to seek a political settlement, but on condition there be no recognition, no peace and no negotiations with Israel. Taken literally, the "Khartoum formula" would clearly have precluded any settlement acceptable to Israel or the United States. One can argue, however, that Egypt's subsequent grudging acceptance of Resolution 242 superseded these constraints on the Egyptian negotiating position. It would at least have seemed worthwhile to probe more directly than we did in late 1967-68 for possible trade-offs between the Israeli position on peace and the Egyptian position on withdrawal from occupied territories.

After more than a year's futile effort by Ambassador Jarring, the United States began early in the first Nixon Administration to play an active role on the Middle East diplomatic scene. There followed three years of energetic and creative diplomacy, spearheaded by the State Department's Bureau of Near East and South Asia Affairs under Assistant Secretary Joseph J. Sisco. This was the period of U.S.-Soviet Middle East negotiations, Four Power Middle East talks in New York, the Rogers Plan of December 1969 (announced in a speech by Secretary of State William P. Rogers), and Egyptian-Israeli agreement in 1970 to an American formula for a standstill ceasefire along the Suez Canal and the initiation of an indirect process of negotiation between Egypt and Israel.

The ceasefire held, but nothing came of efforts to stimulate Egyptian-Israeli negotiations. Given the gaps between the positions of the two sides, reflected in particular in their respective interpretations of the "territory for peace" formula, the chances for success were at best a long shot.

Egypt, still suffering the trauma of its humiliating defeat in 1967, was not prepared to show any great flexibility in negotiations; Cairo looked to others, in particular the United States, to bring pressures to bear on Israel. The Israelis, for their part, feeling secure behind their Bar Lev defense line along the Suez Canal and the formidable installations they were building in Sinai, saw no need to compromise. They were also busy consolidating their position in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and the Syrian Golan Heights, to say nothing of East Jerusalem which, before the 1967 war, had been under Jordanian control and has the status of occupied territory under Resolution 242.

U.S. efforts to stimulate a negotiating process were further burdened by suspicions over Egyptian violations (with Soviet help) of the standstill provisions of the ceasefire, by a domestic debate in the United States over Israel's rejection of the Rogers Plan, and by efforts to link Israel's desire for new jet fighter aircraft to its responsiveness on the negotiating front.

With Nasser's death and Anwar Sadat's assumption of the Egyptian presidency in late 1970, a new opportunity opened for American diplomacy. Secretary Rogers visited the Middle East in June 1971. Building on signals sent forth by Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, Assistant Secretary Sisco-in a precursor of Kissingerian shuttle diplomacy between Cairo and Jerusalem-put forth an American proposal for an "interim Suez Canal Agreement," an idea originally conceived by Israel's imaginative Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan. The objective was to bring about a limited withdrawal of forces from the Canal, which would then be reopened for international shipping.

The proposal failed, in part because Israel refused to agree to Sadat's condition that Egypt be allowed to station a token number of lightly armed forces on the Canal's Sinai Bank, and in part because Sadat insisted that Israel withdraw further from the Canal than would have been politically feasible for any Israeli government at that time.

Ironically, this proposal, had it worked, would have produced a situation similar to that resulting from the 1974 Egyptian-Israeli Disengagement Agreement, with the differences that the number of Egyptian troops east of the Canal was far larger in 1974 than would have been the case under the 1971 proposal and, of course, that there had meantime been another Arab-Israeli war. The failed "Interim Suez Canal Agreement" may have been the last chance to avoid the October 1973 War.


The State Department's diplomatic efforts in the 1969-71 period took place against the backdrop of détente with the Soviet Union. They represented a prolonged swing of the pendulum within the State Department toward the concept that priority should be given to dealing with the issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict and that these should not be hostage to considerations of U.S. global strategy vis-à-vis the U.S.S.R.

During this same period, however, President Nixon's National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, had a different perception. Viewing American Middle East diplomacy as essentially a series of moves on the global chessboard of U.S.-Soviet relations, Kissinger was reluctant to press Israel, concerned that any concessions to the Egyptians would be seen as concessions to the Soviet Union.

Whether greater Israeli flexibility on withdrawal from the Sinai, the issue of prime importance to Egypt, would have produced Egyptian concessions toward peace with Israel in this pre-1973 war period must remain one of the unanswerable questions of history, since the effort was never seriously made. What is clear, however, is that without the kind of reciprocal concessions which became the essence of post-1973 war diplomacy, no movement would have been possible.

White House support for State Department diplomatic efforts in the 1969-71 period was, at best, limited-how limited was not fully realized at the time by many of us involved. With the pendulum of Middle East diplomacy swinging in one direction in the State Department, while the White House swung in the other direction, the latter effectively neutralized the former.3

President Sadat, more prescient than some of us in Washington, came to understand where the power lay. In 1972, he opened a direct channel to the White House, which bore fruit in two secret meetings in 1973 between his National Security Advisor, Hafiz Ismail, and Henry Kissinger. Through this and other actions (including the expulsion of Soviet military personnel from Egypt in July 1972), Sadat began signaling that he wanted to break with Nasser's policies, establish an American connection, and move toward a settlement with Israel. The hour was late. Washington was preoccupied with the final agonies of Vietnam, and Sadat already had an alternate course of action in play-preparations for the Egyptian-Syrian military offensive of October 1973.

Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal on the eve of the Jewish holy day, Yom Kippur, and managed in the weeks following to establish a bridgehead east of the Canal. An Israeli counterattack placed Israeli forces west of the Canal around the city of Suez. Neither had won a decisive military victory. On the northern front, Israeli troops moved closer to Damascus. The cost of the October War to both sides, the risks each perceived in a continuation of the fragile situation that existed when a ceasefire was achieved, and the danger of U.S.-Soviet confrontation created a situation ripe for renewed diplomatic efforts.


The era of active, sustained and creative American Middle East diplomacy which followed the 1973 war was unprecedented in both its duration and its results. While Washington kept a wary eye on the Soviet Union during this period, and U.S.-Soviet issues from time to time cast their shadow over the area, our attention remained focussed for the ensuing five years almost exclusively on efforts to resolve the underlying causes of Arab-Israeli conflict. This prolonged swing of the pendulum was facilitated by a critical combination of circumstances.

Fundamental was President Sadat's decision to end the cycle of wars with Israel. Other Arab leaders, foremost among them King Hussein of Jordan, had long come to recognize the futility of the pre-1967 Arab goal of destroying Israel and the necessity of finding a basis for coexistence. None before Sadat, however, brought to the task the combination of ingredients that made this objective attainable: strategic vision combined with infinite patience and tactical flexibility; a willingness to enter a process of negotiations with no guarantee of the outcome; a pragmatic recognition of the limits on what was possible at any given stage of the process; a refusal to give other Arabs a veto over Egyptian policy; a stable and supportive domestic base following the restoration of Egyptian dignity and self-confidence in the 1973 war; and a strategy for courting American public opinion. Sadat based his policy unequivocally on a partnership with the United States. By effectively excluding the Soviet Union from the center of the Middle East diplomatic stage, he ensured that American attention would not be diverted from the core issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict to a pursuit of strategic alliances in the Middle East context.

Sadat's strategic vision was matched by that of Henry Kissinger, who perceived in the fluid situation created by the 1973 war the opportunity to alter fundamentally the frozen patterns of the Arab-Israeli conflict which had plagued the Middle East for 25 years and periodically confronted the world with increasingly threatening crises.

One of the first signs of change came during the U.S.-Soviet negotiation, in Moscow on October 21, 1973, of what became Security Council Resolution 338. Calling for an immediate ceasefire and the opening of negotiations for the implementation of Security Council Resolution 242, the draft included, at American initiative, the requirement that those negotiations should be "between the parties concerned," i.e., direct Arab-Israeli negotiations.

Hardly a novel idea in normal diplomatic situations, this was a significant breakthrough in the history of the Middle East conflict. Direct face-to-face negotiations with the Arabs had been an Israeli objective for years. Israel had other incentives to negotiate changes in its relations with its neighbors arising out of the trauma of near disaster in the 1973 war. But recognition of the principle of direct negotiations in Resolution 338 was important psychologically in preparing the climate for a fruitful season of diplomacy.

A process of negotiations was launched that led, through Kissinger's first historic meeting with Sadat in Cairo on November 6, 1973, to the three-day Geneva Middle East Peace Conference in late December 1973. This in turn set the stage for the shuttle diplomacy that culminated in the Egyptian and Syrian Disengagement Agreements of 1974-75.

The inclusion of Syria (although it boycotted the Geneva Conference) in the negotiating process was a significant reflection of the extent to which the United States during this period had come to view the Middle East in terms of regional realities and imperatives rather than in a predominantly East-West context. Both Sadat and the Saudi Arabian leaders urged Kissinger to deal with Syria. Having long (and incorrectly) viewed Syria as a Soviet client beyond the reach of American diplomacy, the United States came to recognize that just as Syria was part of the Arab-Israeli problem, it had to be part of the solution.4

The Egyptian and Syrian Disengagement Agreements required prodigious expenditures of time and effort for limited results, if results are measured only in terms of changes in the control of territory. Something much more fundamental had occurred, however. There had been a sea change in the conceptual approach to a solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The concept of blueprints for peace externally devised and imposed had been replaced by the concept of a process to be carried out in stages over time-a process of step-by-step negotiations in which the parties concerned would be directly engaged at every step. This process has been carried to its ultimate conclusion only in the case of Egypt and Israel, but it provides a model-in my view, the only viable model-for approaching an ultimate settlement of the conflict between Israel and its other neighbors.

The process produced Disengagement Agreements between Israel and Egypt and Syria-but then lost momentum. In retrospect, I believe a historic opportunity was missed. Had there also been a disengagement agreement with Jordan, the third party to the 1967 war, many of the setbacks that followed might have been avoided. While Jordan's claim to de jure sovereignty over the West Bank was never widely recognized internationally, the negotiating history of Resolution 242 makes clear that Jordan was the Arab party to which West Bank territory would be returned as part of a peace settlement with Israel. An Israeli-Jordanian Disengagement Agreement, however limited in territorial scope, would have established this principle and laid the groundwork for more far-reaching Jordanian-Israeli negotiations in the future.

Kissinger discussed the idea of a disengagement agreement with the Jordanian and Israeli governments in 1974, but it was never vigorously pursued. The question of whether or not to relinquish West Bank territory was (and remains) a divisive political issue in Israel, and the new Israeli government of Prime Minister Rabin, still in the process of consolidating itself domestically in 1974, was not prepared to confront the issue at that stage. In Washington, an American administration preoccupied with the Watergate crisis felt in no position to force an issue which inevitably would have had serious domestic fallout.

In the autumn of 1974, the Arab Summit Conference in Rabat, Morocco, recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the only legitimate representative of the Palestinians, and therefore as the only party with an Arab mandate to speak for the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Given Israel's refusal to recognize the PLO as a legitimate party to negotiations, the PLO's assumption of this role after Rabat loomed increasingly as a factor complicating all future efforts to find a formula for negotiating a West Bank/Gaza solution, down to and including President Reagan's September 1, 1982, initiative and its aftermath.

A further factor complicating the U.S. role in the peace process has been a 1975 Memorandum of Understanding with Israel, committing the United States not to recognize or negotiate with the PLO unless it accepted Resolution 242 and recognized Israel's right to exist. This commitment was subsequently interpreted by successive American administrations as barring even exploratory discussions with the PLO. This was not the original intent. As a result, the United States has effectively been prevented from opening a dialogue with Palestinians who, however much one deplores the advocacy of terrorism and the hard-line position toward recognition of Israel by elements of the PLO, are widely recognized as a necessary element in any solution to the conflict.

It has long been my personal view that such a dialogue would have been an opportunity to exploit the latent divisions within the PLO, between those who advocate terrorism and reject the very idea of peace with Israel, and those who are prepared to take a more pragmatic and less extreme approach.


The year 1977 was to become another watershed in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As it opened, the Soviet factor in the Middle East remained a negligible consideration, and the pendulum of U.S. policy under the new Carter Administration continued to focus attention on seeking solutions to the root causes of the conflict.

In two respects, however, there was a significant shift of emphasis. The first was an attempt to move from the step-by-step approach pursued by Kissinger and to devise instead an approach to an overall settlement through a reconvening of the 1973 Geneva Conference. Simultaneously, the Carter Administration placed increased emphasis on the need to resolve the Palestinian issue. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance made a determined effort to obtain PLO agreement to a formula designed to satisfy the requirements of our 1975 agreement with Israel and thus make possible the opening of a direct U.S.-Palestinian dialogue. The PLO leadership, divided over how to respond, failed in the end to seize the Vance opening.

Efforts continued toward a Geneva Conference but bogged down over two basic issues: how to devise a formula for Palestinian representation acceptable to both Arabs and Israelis, and how to overcome differences among the Arabs themselves over whether there should be separate national delegations (favored by Egypt) or a single Arab delegation (favored by Syria). Despite helpful efforts by the government of Jordan to find ways of bridging these differences, they remained unresolved when President Sadat took unilateral action to cut the Gordian knot by his historic decision to visit Jerusalem on November 19, 1977.5

What followed is too well-documented to require great elaboration here, but it will be useful to highlight several lesser-known developments leading up to that dramatic event.

President Carter, from his first meeting with Sadat onward, had impressed the Egyptian president with the argument that the Arabs could not expect Israel to withdraw from occupied territories for less than full peace and normal relations. An end to the state of belligerency, the most any Arab leader had been prepared to offer until then, would not be sufficient, Carter argued. There is no question that this argument, and Sadat's confidence in Carter, had greater impact on Sadat's thinking than many of us realized at the time, and influenced the evolution of his own thinking-to the point when he made his bold decision to go to Jerusalem.

Another critical development in 1977 was the accession of the Israeli Likud government headed by Menachem Begin. Just as Sadat's willingness to negotiate directly with Israel for peace, in the full sense of the word, was essential for successful negotiations, Israeli readiness to withdraw completely from all Egyptian territory as part of a peace settlement was equally essential. If Begin had insisted on the position of previous Israeli governments, that Israel would have to retain possession of security positions in Eastern and Southern Sinai, there would have been no settlement. It was Begin's willingness to make the bold decision for total withdrawal, combined with Sadat's bold decision to make total peace, that brought Egyptian-Israeli peace into the range of the possible.

Even so, the course of Egyptian-Israeli negotiations was difficult. Israel's prime objective was bilateral negotiations leading to an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Sadat wanted the United States to put forth a framework for comprehensive peace which would engage other Arabs in the negotiations and, once sufficient groundwork had been laid, lead to a reconvened Geneva Conference. To that end, Egypt issued invitations to Israel, Syria, Jordan, the PLO, the U.N. Secretary General, the United States and the Soviet Union to a meeting in Cairo billed as a "Preparatory Conference for the Geneva Middle East Peace Conference."

Syria, Jordan, the PLO and the Soviet Union declined the invitation, but Sadat was not to be deterred from pursuing his initiative. In the absence of other Arab participants, Sadat seized upon the idea of negotiating a declaration of principles with Israel which would contain an Israeli commitment to the principle of withdrawal from occupied territories and to Palestinian rights sufficiently firm either to induce other Arab parties to enter negotiations or, if they did not do so, to relieve him of his obligations to them so Egypt could get on with the job of recovering Sinai. These efforts continued through the Ismailia Summit of Sadat and Begin on Christmas Day 1977, the Jerusalem Conference in January 1978, and the Conference at Leeds Castle, England, in July. The United States was a participant on all these occasions and in between in attempting to maintain the momentum of Sadat's Jerusalem trip.

As Ambassador at Large for Middle East negotiations during much of this period, I experienced firsthand the frustrations of trying to bridge the gap between Sadat's pursuit of a formula for comprehensive peace and Israel's pursuit of an Egyptian-Israeli settlement.

Such a settlement was clearly also Sadat's objective, but he wanted it linked to an overall settlement, thus avoiding the charge that Egypt had made a separate peace and sold out the Palestinians and other Arabs. By the summer of 1978 the euphoria of Sadat's Jerusalem visit had worn thin, and attitudes in Egypt and Israel had begun to sour to the point where Sadat decreed there would be no more talks between Egyptians and Israelis until Israel agreed to the declaration he had been seeking on principles to govern comprehensive peace.

This announcement was dramatically stage-managed by Sadat before the assembled news media, following one of Ambassador Hermann Eilts' and my meetings with him at his rest house near Alexandria. Its effect was to throw the ball into President Carter's court, following a pattern which had worked before and was to work again in Sadat's negotiations with Israel.

The result was President Carter's high-risk decision to invite Sadat and Begin to meet with him at Camp David. In that setting, Sadat was able to respond to U.S. proposals for compromise which he could not put forward as Egyptian proposals. While there were extremely thorny bilateral issues to be resolved, the problems that took the most of the Camp David negotiators' time had to do with Egypt's insistence on obtaining Israeli commitments with respect to withdrawal from other Arab territories, the Palestinian question and the status of Jerusalem.


Difficult enough under any circumstances, these issues were rendered particularly intractable by the fact that Mr. Begin's Likud coalition brought an interpretation of Resolution 242 quite different from that of previous Israeli governments. Whereas his predecessors had agreed that the principle of withdrawal from occupied territories applied also to the West Bank and Gaza, Mr. Begin's position was that withdrawal from Sinai would fulfill all of Israel's withdrawal obligations. This was consistent with the position he had held throughout his political life-namely, that the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza are inalienable parts of the Land of Israel.

Given this Israeli position and Sadat's insistence on including in any agreement language that would protect Jordanian, Palestinian and Syrian rights under Resolution 242, the elements of an impasse were obvious. Begin's solution was to defer the question of sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza and to propose that meanwhile the inhabitants of those areas be granted local autonomy.

This concept was eventually incorporated into the Camp David Accords under provisions calling for negotiations looking toward a five-year transitional period of autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza under a self-governing authority elected by the inhabitants of those areas. After three years at the latest, following establishment of that authority, negotiations were to begin with a view to determining their final status.

The Jerusalem issue was also deferred, with each party (the United States, Egypt and Israel) recording its position in separate documents accompanying the Camp David Accords. The Syrian Golan Heights were, at Israeli insistence, not mentioned by name, but the United States and Egypt interpreted reference in the Accords to Resolution 242 as applying the principle of withdrawal to the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza, as well as Sinai. Israel did not. In effect, Camp David added a new dimension of ambiguity to that which had existed since 1967 in the "peace for territory" provision of Resolution 242.

Arab critics of Sadat and Israeli critics of Begin charge that each gave away too much to the other, under pressure from the United States. My own view is that the outcome of the 1977-79 Egyptian-Israeli negotiations represented the absolute outer limits of what was politically achievable at that time. If either side had insisted on substantially more, I doubt there would have been either agreement at Camp David or an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. That treaty stands today as the one new and, I believe, irreversible reality in the 30-year Arab-Israeli conflict. Without it, the prospects for a comprehensive peace in the region-dim as they may seem today-would be infinitely more distant.

Both sides had, however, paid a price that was to haunt them later. For Begin, the most painful decision was to remove the settlements Israel had established in Sinai. Sadat, for his part, had to agree to a dilution of the linkage he had sought between the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty and Israeli commitments to a solution of the Palestinian problem and withdrawal from other Arab territories.

Neither Jordan nor the Palestinians accepted the Camp David invitation to join the negotiating process it established, and Syria (along with other Arab governments) rejected it outright. From mid-1979 until the Israeli military move into Lebanon in June 1982, a series of able and dedicated negotiators for Egypt (representing Jordan and the Palestinians without their mandate), Israel and the United States worked to hammer out the elements of an autonomy agreement for the West Bank and Gaza. Despite considerable movement on a number of sub-issues, their inability to reach agreement on key points revealed how far apart the parties were, conceptually, in their interpretations of the Camp David provisions for autonomy and self-government.

The credibility of the Camp David process was weakened from the outset by what turned out to be a serious difference between Israel and the United States over an understanding President Carter and his negotiators thought had been reached with Prime Minister Begin in the final hours of the negotiations. The issue was Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. The United States believed it had an Israeli commitment to freeze further settlement activity for the duration of the negotiations, including those related to autonomy and self-government for the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, as Middle East negotiator, I was authorized to assure Palestinian and other Arabs with whom I met that Israel had made such a commitment. This assurance more than anything else I said in the immediate post-Camp David period caught Arab attention and interest.

Begin, on the other hand, insisted he had agreed to freeze settlements only during the three-month period allotted for negotiation of the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty. While I was not present during President Carter's negotiation of this "understanding" with Begin, my subsequent attempts to piece the story together lead me to think that this was a case of genuine misunderstanding rather than bad faith. In any event, the damage had been done. The Arabs saw a long-term settlement freeze as the touchstone of American credibility. When Israel resumed its settlement activities, our credibility suffered a serious blow which still haunts us today.


The atmosphere of Egyptian-Israeli relations, already strained during the final Israeli withdrawal from Sinai in April 1982, cooled markedly through the summer of Israel's military operations in Lebanon and remains cool today. When one adds to this the shock waves which the prolonged Lebanese crisis has sent through the area and the turmoil in the Palestinian national movement, it is hard to be optimistic about a resumption of the Camp David autonomy talks as they existed in 1979-81.

The prospects are further clouded by concern that the Iraq-Iran war may spread instability across the Persian Gulf into the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula and further westward. Islamic fundamentalism in its more extreme forms, of which Iran today is the principal manifestation, is the implacable enemy of peace with Israel. It would be ironic if the influence of these new currents in the Muslim world were to gather sufficient strength to inhibit Arab governments just when more of those governments than ever before are prepared to consider new opportunities to rejuvenate the peace process.

At the same time, the United States has been obliged to shift its attention to the Soviet factor in the area. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and growing threats to stability in the Persian Gulf area have led to increased emphasis on the need to strengthen U.S. military capabilities in the Middle East.

In the final months of the Carter Administration, the pendulum of U.S. policy began to swing toward preoccupation with the Middle East as an arena of U.S.-Soviet confrontation. When the Reagan Administration took office, it initially placed emphasis upon the need to forge a "strategic consensus" among the states of the area against the Soviet threat. This emphasis was subsequently modified to describe the search for strategic consensus and for an Arab-Israeli settlement as "mutually reenforcing." But memories in the Middle East are long, and suspicions run deep. Concerns began to emerge in the Arab world that American peacemaking efforts would take second place in U.S. priorities, particularly when we began to speak of "strategic cooperation" with Israel.

This does not mean that Arab governments are unconcerned about the threat from the Russians. They are much more worried about the Soviets today than in the 1950s when our call for allies against international communism fell on deaf ears. We have military arrangements with some Arab governments that would have been unheard of 20, or even ten years ago. By and large, however, the Arabs are reluctant to have an overt military relationship with us. This is in part due to concern that such a relationship will be perceived as bringing them into a de facto alliance which includes the Israelis, before there has been a resolution of the territorial and other aspects of their conflict with Israel. That, in their view, would be putting the cart before the horse.

With President Reagan's announcement of a new peace initiative on September 1, 1982, the pendulum of U.S. policy again swung back toward a renewed focus on the need to resolve the Palestinian and other aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is disappointing that Israel rejected this initiative. It is also disappointing that Jordan and the Palestinians failed to respond to this American invitation to enter negotiations.

Part of the reluctance of moderate Arabs to enter U.S.-sponsored negotiations comes from a deep-seated conviction in the Arab world that the government of Israel is not prepared to negotiate the kind of peace settlement they believe the "territory for peace" formula of Resolution 242 envisages. They, too, have heard the Likud government's interpretation of that resolution. But the reluctance of moderate Arabs to put these issues to the test of negotiations is also a result of their own weakness, of an unwillingness to expose themselves to the attacks of the Arab rejectionists-at least without surer prospects that the negotiations will result in Israeli relinquishment of control in the occupied territories.

Finally, Arab reluctance reflects an erosion of confidence in the United States. They have seen our inability to find a solution in Lebanon, and they have seen that three years of negotiation on West Bank/Gaza issues did not produce the results we said Camp David would bring. In brief, they have seen the pendulum swing in one direction and then another, and they have sensed our ambivalance about defining our priorities and assuming the political costs that pursuit of our interests and objectives might involve.


When all is said and done, I believe the United States remains the best hope for helping the nations of the Middle East find a peaceful future. I believe, further, that most of the leaders in the area know this in their hearts. Despite past disappointments, expectations are high in the Middle East that Washington will once again take the lead in the peacemaking process after this year's national elections in Israel and the United States.

It is not too soon for us to start thinking now about the policies we will pursue in the new year to protect U.S. interests and achieve U.S. objectives in the Middle East-those historical constants outlined at the beginning of this reconsideration. As we do so, it is important to keep in mind what seem to me the principal lessons to be learned from our experience of the past three decades of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

-First, we cannot ignore the threat the Soviets pose to our interests in the region. It is important to have a credible military deterrent capability.

-Second, military credibility without political credibility is of limited value. Today it is American political credibility above all that is at stake in the eyes of moderates in the Arab world, of those states which historically have cast their lot with us and without whose cooperation our ability to project military strength in the region would be severely restricted.

-Third, we cannot therefore permit a preoccupation with the military aspects of our posture, or with East-West issues, to obscure the reality that in the end only a resolution of regional conflicts will ease the tensions and lessen the risks of instability which the Soviets exploit, directly and indirectly, to our detriment.

-Fourth, while recognizing that the Middle East is not a one-issue area, we need to establish our priorities more firmly. Failure to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli and the larger Arab-Israeli conflict remains the potentially most destabilizing factor in the area. Its solution will not solve all the problems of the Middle East, but the history of more than 30 years shows that failure to tackle this issue resolutely will make all the other problems of the region infinitely less manageable.

Not for the first time, pursuit of an Arab-Israeli settlement will require tough decisions by all those with a stake in the outcome of this effort.

For the moderate Arabs, it will require a decision to come to the negotiating table and a determination to avoid past mistakes-above all, the mistake of insisting on all-or-nothing solutions and on having the outcome of negotiations guaranteed before negotiations begin. It will require assuming responsibility for the solution of their own problems and not looking to others to impose solutions for them. Finally, it will require recognizing that 1985 is not 1967 and certainly not 1948, and that the simpler, cleaner solutions which might have been possible earlier are not possible today.

For Israel, the pursuit of peace will require recognizing that the choice is between retaining exclusive control of the occupied West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights-which in my view will render a stable Middle East peace unattainable for the indefinite future-or working toward a solution which accepts the basic concept of "territory for peace" embodied in Resolution 242.

If Israel were again prepared to take that concept as a point of departure, and if the Arabs were prepared to make the hard decisions facing them, it should not be beyond human imagination to devise arrangements that would take into account the changes that have occurred since Resolution 242 was passed. Such arrangements would need to deal inter alia with questions of security for both Israel and its neighbors, with the roots Israel has put down in the occupied territories through the establishment of settlements there, and with the needs of peaceful intercourse.

Some look for a model to the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty, where the "territory for peace" formula of Resolution 242 was in fact implemented in its original, literal sense. In my view, a better model for future negotiations would be that outlined in the Camp David provisions for a Palestinian settlement. Camp David's concept of interim and transitional arrangements, and of a process to be negotiated in stages over time, would seem more suited to present realities than an approach which sought agreement on a final solution of all the issues in dispute at the outset.

For the United States and our allies, the task will be to persuade our Arab and our Israeli friends to face up to the choices confronting them now-not those of 1967 or 1973. The task will be to persuade both sides that the objective is to enter a genuine give-and-take negotiating process, in which neither can achieve all it seeks. This will require changes in the mindsets that presently dominate both Arab and Israeli thinking-the Arab mindset which is still fixed on the 1967 interpretation of Resolution 242, and the mindset in Israel, where a whole generation has grown up since 1967 for whom Resolution 242 belongs to an earlier era.

This is a formidable task. It may even prove to be an impossible task, but it seems to me the alternatives are so threatening that we have no choice but to take it on.

Fortunately, we can start with certain things going for us. First, there is peace between Egypt and Israel which provides a window of time without the threat of another major Arab-Israeli war. Egypt can play a positive role in encouraging the other Arabs to negotiate, and success in those negotiations could only work to consolidate the peace between Egypt and Israel. Without progress, that peace-solid as it remains today in the fundamental commitments of both parties-will inevitably be subject to continuing stresses. Second, there remains in the area a broad belief, however much confidence in the United States may be shaken at the present time, that only the United States can help the region find its way to a better future. In a situation of many uncertainties, one thing is unmistakably clear. Without an active, determined and objective American role, no matter how extended and politically difficult that role may be, there will be no solution to the Middle East's most intractable regional conflict. And without a solution, the costs of protecting U.S. interests in the Middle East can only become increasingly burdensome and may some day become prohibitive.

1 For example, our commitment to Israel has often been interpreted as requiring support for, or acquiescence in, policies of the government of Israel which complicate the pursuit of our objective of having stable Arab governments in the area on friendly terms with the United States. Conversely, steps to support friendly Arab governments (e.g., the supply of arms) have often been interpreted as inconsistent with our commitment to Israel.

2 One example of these efforts was the 1953 U.S.-sponsored Eric Johnston Plan for sharing the waters of the Jordan River.

4 This remains equally valid today, as we learned again in our tortuous and frustrating efforts in 1982-83 to negotiate a solution to the complex of conflicts in Lebanon.

5 A further factor which, while not decisive in Sadat's decision, may have figured in his calculations, was the conclusion on October 1 of a U.S.-Soviet agreement on principles to govern an Arab-Israeli settlement. This was done largely for reasons of U.S.-Soviet relations and did not seem illogical in those terms, since our objective then was to reconvene the Geneva Conference of which the U.S.S.R. and the United States were co-chairmen. It unleashed a storm of protest from Israel and its supporters in the United States, however, further clouding the prospects for engaging Israel in a reconvened Geneva Conference. Sadat, unlike the Israelis, welcomed the U.S.-Soviet Declaration, seeing it as supportive of efforts to reconvene Geneva and calling it a "brilliant stroke."



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  • Alfred L. Atherton, Jr. was formerly Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East and South Asia, Ambassador at Large for Middle East negotiations, and Ambassador to Egypt. Now Director General of the Foreign Service, he no longer has direct responsibility for Middle East policy. This article reflects entirely his personal views.
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