Decade of Decisions: American Policy Toward the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1967-1976
No other issue in American foreign policy raises more passions than the relation of the United States to Israel. The “reassessment” decreed by Henry Kissinger after the failure, in March 1975, of his first attempt at reaching a new disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt provoked a storm. So did the Carter administration’s recent decision to put planes for Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia into a single package. The books by William Quandt and Nadav Safran help to put such events and arguments in perspective. Their very excellence contributes to the reader’s sense of foreboding.
Quandt, a political scientist from the University of Pennsylvania and a specialist on the Arab world, is now in charge of Middle Eastern Affairs on the staff of the National Security Council. His book examines American policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1967. He distinguishes four ways of interpreting American policy: from the perspectives of strategic or national interests, of domestic politics, of bureaucratic politics, and of presidential leadership; and he analyzes the policies, plans, improvisations, and miscalculations made in Washington during the past ten years. He offers no over-all interpretation of his own, and little consideration of American domestic politics.
Nadav Safran’s enormous book has a much wider scope. Safran, a Harvard political scientist who was born in Egypt and at one time lived in Israel, has written extensively about Egypt, Israel, and American policy toward Israel. In Israel: The Embattled Ally, he has in effect produced two studies and put them under the same cover. One is a superb and comprehensive account of Israel itself—its origins in Zionism and its struggles for existence, the characteristics of its people, economy, constitution, and its party politics, and, finally, the problem of national defense since 1949, which allows Safran to describe in some detail the wars of 1967 and 1973.
Roughly the last three hundred pages of his book are a separate history of US-Israeli relations since 1949 which covers much the same ground as Quandt’s study. Here Safran is concerned with the “long-standing special relationship” between the two countries which, in the past ten years, has turned into the “present tacit alliance” and may well result, should there be a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute, in a formal mutual security pact. I am not convinced, however, that the events Safran and Quandt deal with are best understood by concentrating on the theme of a special relationship.
The tone of the two books is different. Quandt is immersed in the details of his subject, and carefully documents his interpretations of events. Safran covers immense ground with a sort of Olympian equanimity. He tries to show all sides of all issues, putting each phase of US-Israeli relations into the wider context of American, Arab, and Soviet foreign policies, and thus provides the reader with a prodigious synthesis. While his interpretations seem invariably fair and balanced, I regret his decision to include no footnotes, only a vast bibliography; it would often have been helpful to know on what documents, interviews, or works a particular judgment was based. And just as there is a discrepancy between Safran’s main thesis and his evidence, there is a dissonance between the smooth and temperate tone of the book and the strident and tormented moods of the Israelis themselves, the fierceness of their leaders’ struggles—against external enemies or against one another—and the searing choices they have to make.
Whatever these differences in tone, Quandt and Safran come to similar conclusions about American policy, which they find has oscillated from the shortsighted to the clumsy, when it has not been both. American policymakers, they find, have been so obsessed with the US-Soviet relationship that they have paid too little attention to regional realities unrelated to the cold war. As Quandt points out, when Nasser provoked the crisis which led to the Six-Day War, American officials, who were already mired in Vietnam, and afraid of getting into a second Vietnam, failed to do what might have stopped Israel from attacking: they would neither reaffirm nor enforce America’s own commitment to freedom of navigation in the Strait of Tiran—a commitment at least as clear as that which the US had in Vietnam. They also failed to think through the consequences of Israel’s likely victory, should it resort to war, as was also likely under these circumstances.
Both Quandt and Safran tell the sad story of the Rogers Plan, when Nixon’s secretary of state tried for a comprehensive settlement, without sufficient skill or support. They show how the Jordanian crisis of September 1970 destroyed Rogers’s efforts, and led Nixon and Kissinger to rely fully on Israel as its ally against the USSR, sharing Golda Meir’s complacency.
The years 1971 and 1972 look crucial in retrospect: Nasser’s successor Sadat, having consolidated his power, announced that Egypt was now ready to enter into a peace agreement with Israel. On three occasions he turned to the United States, and was rebuffed—in June 1971, in February 1972 when he sent his national security assistant to Washington, and in July 1972, when he expelled his Soviet advisers. As Safran shows, Kissinger saw Sadat’s expulsion of the Russians not as an opening toward a settlement but as a vindication of America’s policy of support for Israel, and of his hope that détente would lead Moscow to defuse regional conflicts. But Kissinger failed to exploit Sadat’s frustration with the Soviet Union by pushing for a settlement, which he deemed both unobtainable at a price Israel could accept and unnecessary in view of Israel’s military superiority.
This huge miscalculation led to the 1973 war, which, as Quandt and Safran point out, destroyed all previous American assumptions—about Israel’s strength, about the effects of détente, and about the behavior of the Arab countries, especially the oil producers. It was only after this disaster that Kissinger decided to play the Egyptian card. Quandt is more critical than Safran of the “step-by-step” approach taken by Kissinger after the 1973 war: “Kissinger knew what he wanted to avoid better than he knew what positive goals he might be able to achieve”; his diplomacy “rates high as tactic but fails to convey any sense of long-term purpose.” On the other hand, Safran is critical of the Rabin government’s refusal to undertake a disengagement agreement with Jordan in the summer of 1974, despite Kissinger’s pressure. This refusal made it easier for the Arab summit meeting at Rabat in October to endorse the PLO, not Jordan, as the representative of the Palestinian people. Thus even the spectacular period of Kissinger’s diplomacy in the two years that followed the Yom Kippur War was a time of missed opportunities.
Both Quandt and Safran signed the 1975 Brookings Report, which proposed a comprehensive settlement and seemed to inspire the Carter administration’s Middle Eastern policy before Sadat’s initiative last November. Both end their books with warnings about the dangers of a new war, Safran eloquently demolishing the case for an Israeli nuclear deterrent. Both urge that the US pursue a general settlement. Quandt stresses the principle that a settlement be implemented by stages; he warns against overestimating Moscow’s capacities either as a peacemaker or as a spoiler, and suggests that Americans stop dividing Arabs into “moderates” and “radicals.” Safran insists that a settlement can be reached only if the United States provides, as it did in order to obtain the second Israeli-Egyptian disengagement, the “additional external input” without which the parties’ positions cannot be reconciled: heavy assistance to the Arabs, a security pact for Israel. Quandt appears less optimistic about such a pact—“other forms of expressed commitment might be equally unacceptable”—but he pleads for consistency in American policy, after years of vacillation.
Safran does not speak of vacillation; he prefers to divide the history of American-Israeli relations into two periods and four stages. Before 1967, Israel was not America’s main concern in the Middle East. After 1967, it “came to play a central role.” His own painstaking analysis shows that the American-Israeli “alliance” is not only recent—post-1967—but also that it has never been unequivocal. He points to the inconsistency between America’s vast contributions to the Israeli economy—private and, since 1967, public—and Washington’s considerable ambivalence toward Israel in matters of diplomacy and strategy.
Here, as Safran and Quandt both show, the primary concern of the US has been the Soviet Union. At first, in the heyday of containment, under Truman and Eisenhower, the US sought to align Arab states on its side, and it did so with increasing vigor as Britain’s power declined. This was a policy which contradicted America’s commitment to preserve the status quo in the Arab-Israeli dispute; the tripartite declaration of 1950 in which the US, Britain, and France committed themselves to opposing any attempt at changing the 1948 armistice boundaries by force hardly helped the effort to convert Arabs into allies. Enraged by Dulles’s efforts to base US policy on the countries of the “northern tier,” Nasser turned to the Soviet Union, thus proving that in this part of the world, preventive containment actually led to Soviet penetration. But even then, the US still tried to limit Soviet influence by avoiding too close an association with Israel: hence America’s refusal to arm Israel in 1955 and 1956, and Eisenhower’s success in forcing Israel out of the Sinai after the Suez expedition.
Even during the years that preceded the Six-Day War, when American policy in the Middle East was mainly concerned with the containment of Nasser—Moscow’s ally, engaged in a war in Yemen against Saudi Arabia—and even when America began arming Israel, Washington remained reluctant to move from a policy maintaining the balance of power to a de facto alliance with the Israelis. Lyndon Johnson was inching toward détente, and his cautious behavior during the crisis of May 1967 can best be understood not as encouraging Israel to attack—Abba Eban’s memoirs make that clear—but as an attempt to dissuade Israel from war and to solve the dispute by diplomatic means.
The war itself, and Israel’s smashing victory, began a period of quasi alliance with the US, which lasted until October 1973. The US became virtually the only source of economic and military assistance to Israel, which was now seen as the “bastion” not only of democracy in the Middle East but of strength against Soviet influence and the Soviet-armed Arab states. This quasi alliance became especially visible in the way American and Israeli strategies were coordinated during the Jordanian crisis of 1970.
But even in those years, American policy was ambiguous, as we can see from Rogers’s various plans for either a comprehensive settlement or an interim settlement to end the “war of attrition” between Egypt and Israel. Rogers counted on the Soviets to “deliver” their clients’ consent to a settlement while he was putting pressure on Israel. His terms for an over-all settlement were rejected by Israel and he was too trustful of Nasser, who soon violated the 1970 agreement for a “standstill” of forces at the Suez Canal. Nor was Rogers successful in using arms sales to Israel as a means of forcing the Meir government to negotiate, for instance, with UN Ambassador Gunnar Jarring.