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Where Was Nixon When Sadat Gave the Russians the Boot?

Washington

I

Nixon’s trade and credit negotiations with Moscow have bought him a free hand in the Middle East. This is the real meaning of President Sadat’s action in expelling most of the Soviet military from Egypt. The carrot-and-stick tactics which led both Moscow and Peking to continue their rapprochement with Nixon despite the escalated bombing and mining of North Vietnam’s harbors have proven fruitful, too, in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Sadat’s shift reflects his recognition that Moscow will not assume the risk of backing Egypt in a new military effort to regain its lost territories, and that the key to their recovery now lies with Washington, and with Tel Aviv. The tactics that made it possible to escalate the bloodshed with impunity in the Far East have also set the stage for peaceful negotiations in the Middle East.

At least as far back as June, 1970, the Nixon Administration was saying, at least in backgrounders, that its purpose was to expel the Soviet military from Egypt. Even earlier it was “linking” a Middle East settlement with arms control and other matters under negotiation with the Kremlin. One would expect Sadat’s action, especially in an election year, to be hailed as a triumph by an Administration with a weakness for hyperbole rather than discretion. The caution in commenting, even in “deep” backgrounders, to use the Washington phrase, is strange. When the President was asked at his press conference of July 28 what impact the Soviet “withdrawal” would have on American policy in the Middle East, his answer had a cat-who-swallowed-the-canary flavor. It is worth examining in full. Mr. Nixon said coyly:

This question I noticed has been reflected on by some lower-level officials in the government, but not because Secretary Rogers and I have talked about this matter, and Dr. Kissinger and I, not by us. For this reason, our goal, as you know, is a just settlement in the Middle East. The situation there is still one that is not clear, and any comment upon it, first, might possibly be erroneous, and second, could very well be harmful to our goal of a just settlement.

So I am not trying to dodge your question, but I don’t think it would be helpful to our goal of a just settlement in the Middle East. It might exacerbate the problem to try and evaluate what happened between Sadat and the Soviet leaders.

No doubt one reason for discretion is that if the two superpowers are to coexist and even cooperate, neither must gloat over the painful backdowns of the other. Kennedy set the pattern for this after Khrushchev’s withdrawal of his missiles from Cuba. But another reason is the factor of inertia in Israeli and US domestic politics. The “no war, no peace” line is the line of least resistance in both. Negotiations require compromise, and compromise is always a political risk, even under the best of circumstances.

But in the Israeli case, the longer the status quo of the occupation continues, the more the occupation line hardens into a permanent border. Sadat was not exaggerating when he said in his speech of July 24, explaining the Soviet expulsion, that “our enemy has built his plans—exactly as stated by Dayan and others—around the question, ‘What is the rush? Why do you not let the problem alone for ten or fifteen years?’ Ten or fifteen years means a fait accompli…. Sinai will become his territory, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza will become his territory.”

The mere prospect of new peace talks is already giving the Nixon Administration election-year headaches. Unnamed “Nixon officials” told George Sherman, the diplomatic correspondent of the Washington Star-News, on July 23 that “the diminished Soviet presence in Egypt, with a correspondingly more flexible line by Cairo, will produce some strain on the solid Israeli-American axis in the Middle East.” These Nixon officials are anxious about two aspects of the shift:

For one thing, the Soviet threat is no longer an obvious reason for escalating US military aid to Israel. For another, if Sadat can show he is moving away from Moscow, Washington comes under great pressure to stimulate the greatest Egyptian-Soviet breach possible. A natural way to do that is to push Israel to react to the Egyptian “peace initiative” with compromise on its own hard line position.

Events behind the scenes may be moving faster than one would think from Nixon’s press conference remarks. Already the newspaper Haaretz reported July 30 (the Times of London, July 31) that the Israeli cabinet was discussing a revival in Washington of the earlier US plan to reopen the Suez Canal as an “interim” solution. The Hebrew paper said, “The plan was brought up in talks in Washington last week” between Israeli Ambassador Rabin and Assistant Secretary of State Sisco. Haaretz reported that Sisco told Rabin the US would initiate new diplomatic action “but not in the immediate future—not before the presidential election.”

A major purpose of Israeli policy has been to polarize the situation in the Middle East along classic cold war lines. The expulsion of the Soviet military seems to be designed by Cairo to undercut this. Andrew Borowiec reported from Cairo in the Washington Star-News July 23 that “the Egyptian government feels that a strong Soviet presence in this country has tended to polarize the situation, converting Israel into a bulwark against communism in the Middle East.” By drastically cutting Soviet influence and presence, “Sadat and his advisers want to renew the peace-seeking operation with the possible aid of the United Nations and other Western countries.”

To unfreeze the situation, Sadat has made a payment in advance to Washington. A “well-placed Egyptian source with a knowledge of recent American-Egyptian diplomatic contacts” recalled to Jim Hoagland in Cairo (the Washington Post, July 28) that “Sadat had pledged to Rogers in 1971 that within three months after Israel began a phased withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula, Sadat would remove Soviet advisers from Egypt.” Hoagland was told that one of the stumbling blocks to a settlement along these lines was strong doubt that Sadat could deliver. “Now Sadat has shown that he can deliver,” Hoagland’s source said. “He has in fact already delivered. Now it is time to look at what America can do.”

The first reactions in Israel were of alarm, not in fear of the Egyptian army but of Washington. This was evident in the weekend Sabbath Hebrew papers of July 21. General Ezer Weizmann, who was head of the Israeli air force, a right-winger and a hawk, reminded readers of Yediot Aharanot that the US position is still based on the Rogers plan, which would require Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories with some border adjustments. Now Sadat would ask its implementation in return for the expulsion of the Soviet advisers. General Weizmann wrote that Sadat’s timing was bad because of the election campaign. “Both Nixon and McGovern need the Jewish vote,” he said. “I believe the US will advise Egypt to wait until January, 1973.” Then after the election the US will put Israel on the spot by telling the Israelis that Sadat made a constructive move and now it’s Israel’s turn to reciprocate.

General Weizmann’s advice is that “we have to stand fast and not give up anything. Experience has proven that patience and obstinacy worked for us in the past and there is no reason they should not continue to work in our favor.”

A similar view was expressed by Ariel Ginai in that same day’s newspaper. He concluded by saying that before the expulsion of the Russian military advisers Israel had “succeeded in freezing the situation in its favor but now the situation has reversed itself, and the position of Israel as the Western outpost in the Middle East is threatened.” Such views, which seem to reflect dominant opinion in Israel, do not offer a promising outlook for new peace negotiations.

Egyptian politics are as murky and turbulent as the Nile at flood tide. Many factors, military unrest, popular war weariness, dislike of the Russians (as of the British and other occupying or “Allied” powers before them), no doubt played their part in the Russian “expulsion.” But the basic line of Egyptian strategy since Nasser’s day was made quite plain again in Sadat’s speech of July 24 to the national congress of the Arab Socialist Union. It is to win back the occupied territories either by a new war with Soviet backing, or without war through US pressure on Israel. To go it alone into another war would be suicidal.

In his speech Sadat said the UAR did not want Soviet soldiers to fight for it (as Israel so often says it does not want US soldiers to fight for it), but a more candid insight was afforded by Egypt’s most prestigious journalistic spokesman Muhammad Haykal in his weekly column in Al Ahram, July 28.

Haykal said Nasser’s plan as outlined in a secret trip to Moscow in January, 1970, a trip on which Haykal accompanied him, had two objectives. The first was to obtain a Soviet military presence to fill a gap in Egypt’s air defenses against increasing Israeli raids on the interior of the country. The second was that the Soviet military presence “would lead to a calculated world tension raising the crisis from its local level, between Egypt and Israel, to touch the international balance between the US and the USSR. This was a psychological and practical element capable of activating the situation by making it hot” [italics mine]. In other words Nasser wanted Moscow to gamble on a Soviet-American confrontation and the threat of World War III to force a settlement.

To defuse the situation, to avoid such a confrontation, became a major objective of US diplomacy. The Soviet policy also seems to have been to avoid a confrontation and to use the Middle East as a bargaining counter for other objectives. Haykal hinted at this when he said a continuation of the state of no peace, no war “might have been a strategic advantage in the international balance,” i.e., another pressure point like Berlin in international bargaining, “but in the balance of the local conflict it could only produce the desired effect with the resumption of shooting [italics mine]. Perhaps this element was one of the reasons which made the USSR cautious in meeting all Egypt’s requests.”

This caution was one of Sadat’s main complaints and gave rise to an unusual passage in Prime Minister Golda Meir’s address to the Knesset July 26—a carefully phrased but unmistakable compliment to the Soviet Union. Mrs. Meir said:

It is impossible not to be impressed by the fact that the President of Egypt accused the Soviet Union of “excessive and exaggerated caution.” The complaint that the Middle East question is not a matter of first priority for the Soviets is surprising. It is possible that the Egyptian rulers demanded offensive weapons systems and military-operational commitments which the rulers of the Soviet Union were not prepared to grant. It is not to be excluded that they did not agree to take upon themselves the role which the Egyptians earmarked for them in their plans for a renewal of war. If the Egyptians are right in claiming that the Soviets did not respond to demands which, if met, would have caused and made possible renewal of the war—if that really was so, it should not be charged to the discredit of the Soviet Union.

Even in this highly qualified and negative form, this is so rare an Israeli olive branch to Moscow as to make one wonder whether it may not prove a start toward renewal of diplomatic relations.

It is not at all certain that the Russians went out of Egypt unwillingly. In Le Monde of August 1, its Middle Eastern expert, Eric Rouleau, himself an Egyptian-born Jew, repeatedly snubbed in Israel as pro-Arab for his efforts to be objective, called attention to varying accounts of what happened. Sadat at a private meeting with Egyptian journalists gave an off-the-record briefing which Newsweek (August 7) reconstructed from talks with the participants. The Newsweek version, well-suited for the US audience, pictured Sadat as a determined and intractable adversary of the Soviet presence in Egypt. But a different version of events was presented, M. Rouleau pointed out, by An Nahar, the “Haaretz” of Lebanon, an independent middle-of-the-road daily. Its correspondent in Egypt is described as well-connected in Cairo political circles. He wrote that Soviet officials, fearing an untimely military initiative by the Egyptians, welcomed Sadat’s decision with relief.

According to the account in An Nahar, Brezhnev is even reported to have told the Egyptian prime minister, Mr. Aziz Sidky, on July 13 when told in advance of Sadat’s decision, “We have proposed the withdrawal of our experts and our military advisers on four occasions. We have no objection, then, to Mr. Sadat’s decision.” M. Rouleau comments that this version is corroborated by the interview Sadat gave Cyrus Sulzberger of the New York Times last December 13. The Egyptian president told Mr. Sulzberger that Moscow had indicated more than once its desire to pull its servicemen out of Egypt although, he declared, “I am paying their salaries in hard currency. Every time I try to prolong their stay, I must use all my efforts to convince.”

This interview, when reread today, seems to foreshadow the policy now being applied by Egypt. Sadat indicated then that he would have no trouble in getting rid of his Russian advisers when he felt the time was ripe. He said he would resume relations with the US if an interim agreement were reached to reopen the Suez Canal and if this involved the “first phase” of an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. Sadat also said that the Soviets would retain the use of Egyptian naval bases even after an accord with Israel. So what we see developing is a compromise in which the US achieves its aim of getting the Soviet military out of Egypt while Moscow retains the use of Egyptian port facilities and the way is opened for a peaceful settlement between Egypt and Israel. If these accounts are true, the dramatic “expulsion” merely added some dramaturgy to the diplomacy.

II

The question of “linkage” in Soviet-American negotiations has taken a new form with the beginnings of trade and credit soundings last year. Until then “linkage” was conceived as a means of extracting political concessions for agreements to slow down the arms race. Ever since the cold war began, the arms race has been regarded in Washington as a form of economic warfare which held down living standards in the USSR while maintaining arms profits and employment here. The idea of “linking” any agreement on arms with Soviet concessions on such tension points as Berlin and even on reunification of Germany goes back to the days of John Foster Dulles.

But in retrospect these efforts look like rough stuff, even blackmail, beside the more recent and subtler seductions of Nixon-Kissinger policy. Kissinger touched on it in his press conference in Moscow, May 29, when he said the purpose was to move forward “on a very broad front on many issues” with Moscow, some related, some not, partly because of their intrinsic importance “but also partly because we thought this would create on both sides so many vested interests in a continuation of a more formal relationship that apart from any of the policy considerations there would henceforth be a different attitude in the conduct of the foreign policy of both sides.”* This moves from simple bipolar tension between the two superpowers toward something like a world condominium, or partnership. This recalls the way that Al Capone and rival beer barons in the prohibition era divided up territory and sought to avoid internecine warfare by preventing lesser fry from embroiling them unnecessarily in minor disputes.

The long-range trade and credit talks now underway between Washington and Moscow introduce a new factor into Middle Eastern politics which neither Sadat nor Haykal mentioned in their otherwise shrewd analyses. As a US News & World Report correspondent recently in Moscow put the matter in its issue of July 31, “Soviet determination to escape a collision with the US has been reinforced by new Moscow-Washington relations evolving from President Nixon’s visit to the Soviet capital. The Soviets have too much at stake in this relationship to allow it to be jeopardized by what Soviet leaders believe to be Egypt’s reckless and futile strategy against Israel.”

One cloud on the horizon for Middle Eastern peace is Nixon’s desperation about the Vietnam war. Last spring he was willing to gamble that Moscow would not call off the summit even if it were cast in the role a “pitiful helpless giant” by the mining of the North’s harbors and the sharp escalation in the bombing. Now he seems to be gambling that Moscow might put increased pressure on Hanoi to make peace rather than jeopardize Soviet trade and credit prospects. The “linkage” between them and a Vietnam settlement satisfactory to Nixon seems to have become less subtle and more overt in the last few weeks. In the post-summit press conference, Kissinger denied that the US negotiators had ever said to the Soviet leaders, “If you do this for us in Vietnam, we will do that for you in trade,” and added, “These are serious people and…we didn’t come here to buy them.”

But Secretary of Commerce Peterson was less tactful and more urgent in the Moscow press conference he called August 1 to announce that the trade and credit talks were stalled on a variety of issues. He said their resolution might require a new summit (“top-level decisions”) and above all a “more favorable political environment” between the two countries.

That much was said on the record, more was said off. “Authoritative sources,” according to Robert G. Kaiser in Moscow (Washington Post, August 2), “indicated…that progress on trade is intimately entwined with many diplomatic and political issues” and “the war in Vietnam seems to be the major one.” There was an additional chill in Peterson’s statement on the record that the US still has to decide what it wants to sell to the Soviets, i.e., how far it will modify the embargo on “strategic” items and how much it wants to depend on Soviet supplies of any product. The latter was a reference to plans for large-scale development of Siberian natural gas and its sale in the US, a project requiring years of close cooperation hardly compatible with proxy war in Southeast Asia. The New York Times in an editorial August 2 added a new and important detail when it noted that Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a key member of Kissinger’s staff who has taken part in some of his secret negotiations on Vietnam, accompanied the Peterson mission. He would hardly be needed in a commercial negotiation unless it was indeed linked with political questions like the Vietnam war.

The mining and bombing, like the Cambodian and Laotian invasions, have failed to provide Nixon with the “quick fix” for which he had hoped. The terrible intensity of the air war North and South has only thrown into sharper relief for all the world to see the political and military weaknesses of the Thieu regime and the barbarous lengths to which Nixon, like Johnson before him, is going in imposing it on South Vietnam. Nixon’s last press conference shows that maintaining the Thieu regime is still the “one hang-up” (as he put it) in the way of a settlement. A major reason for the Moscow summit, and the trade talks, was to help buy the settlement he wants. But delivering it, unlike the easy withdrawal from Egypt, may be beyond Moscow’s power even if it were prepared to humiliate itself by shutting off aid to North Vietnam. If the trade talks break down on the Vietnam war issue, the situation in the Middle East may also deteriorate.

There are substantial elements in Israel which would welcome a breakdown in détente rather than face negotiations in which Israel would ultimately be forced to give up much of the occupied territories. They prefer the drift of “no peace, no war” even at the expense of an open-ended, ever more costly arms race with Egypt and the danger of another “local” conflict which could easily get out of hand. It is tragic that these issues are not being discussed in the campaign, that both parties have in effect signed a blank check for a hawkish Israeli policy, that the key moral and political issue of the Palestinian Arabs has become a taboo topic in US politics.

Though the status quo has obvious advantages for Israel, at least on short range, there is far more discussion of the issue there than here, and far more public dissatisfaction with the immobilisme of official policy. One indication was the appearance in Davar, July 28, of an article by Moshe Carmel, a former minister and a leading member of the Achdut Ha’avoda wing of the ruling coalition, praising the conciliatory language of Golda Meir’s speech to the Knesset but criticizing her for not going further and offering to negotiate through any channels, direct or indirect, public or secret.

Since Davar is the organ of the Histraduth and the labor establishment, even mild criticism of this kind in its pages was unusual. Another indication of misgivings with the policy of “no war, no peace” was the appearance of the long awaited book, Eretz Hatzvi (Land of the Desert) by Arie L. Eliav, former secretary general of Mrs. Meir’s own Mapai party. In his credo for policy changes foreign and domestic, Mr. Eliav calls on Israel to recognize the rights of the Palestinian Arabs. “We could make peace with Egypt, Mr. Eliav writes, “but that would not solve things—for it is the Palestinians who are the core of our problem.”

Any American writer who dares say as much exposes himself to the charge of anti-Semitism! The crucial weakness of the Rogers plan was its failure to recognize that any peaceful settlement, if it is to last, must provide for Palestinian Arab aspirations too. Since America and American Jewry will be asked to underwrite whatever settlement is made, and since the success of negotiations will depend on some workable compromise, all these issues ought to be ventilated here now that there seems to be a chance, with the Russian withdrawal, for a negotiated peace.

  1. *

    For a fuller discussion, see my piece, “The New Shape of Nixon’s World,” The New York Review, June 29.

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