"We’ve got to squeeze the Israelis when this is over and the Russians have got to know it. We’ve got to squeeze them goddamn hard." - President Nixon to Henry Kissinger, 1973
ANATOMY OF A CRISIS - 1973
Newsweek --11 July 2003
Early on Saturday morning, Oct. 6, 1973, as Israelis celebrate their holiest day of Yom Kippur, Kissinger is awakened in a New York hotel room. He is informed that Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir had just privately warned the Americans that Egypt and Syria are about to wage a surprise attack on Israel.
COULDN'T THE UNITED STATES forestall the attack by reassuring the Arabs about Israeli intentions? Kissinger is worried that the Americans, siding with Israel, will be thrown into confrontation with the Soviets, who will back their Arab allies. He calls the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin:
KISSINGER: The Israelis are telling us that Egypt and Syria are planning an attack very shortly and that your people are evacuating from Damascus and Cairo.... If the reason for your evacuation... is the fear of an Israeli attack, then the Israelis are asking us to tell you, as well as asking us to tell the Arabs... they have no plans whatever to attack.... But if the Egyptians and Syrians do attack, the Israeli response will be extremely strong.... But the Israelis will be prepared to cooperate in an easing of military tension.... The President [Nixon] believes that you and we have a special responsibility to restrain our respective friends.... If this keeps up... there is going to be a war....
Later that morning, Nixon's chief of staff, Gen. Alexander Haig, reports that the president will abruptly return from his Key Biscayne, Fla., retreat to Washington. Already plagued by Watergate, Nixon is secretly pressing his vice president, Spiro Agnew, charged with serious financial improprieties, to resign. Kissinger fears that such a sudden return will send the Soviets the wrong message about the Middle East.
HAIG: It is conceivable we will have an announcement about the Vice President.... He cannot be sitting down here in the sun with what is going on in the V.P. thing....
KISSINGER: I would keep his return for later. Supposing the Soviets get tough.... [Then] that would be a good move. [But] if he returns early it looks like an hysterical move.... I would hold him until the first thing in the morning.... [For now, better not to play] this as a crisis. [Instead we should] say nothing, act tough, without stirring up the atmosphere.
During a telephone consultation, Kissinger finds Mordechai Shalev, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, observing the ritual Yom Kippur fast.
KISSINGER: How are you?
KISSINGER: Can't you get dispensation to eat in a crisis?... What about the [Israeli] pilots? I hope they are eating.
SHALEV: Don't you worry. Special rations for things of this sort.
During the course of the day, Kissinger tries to get Dobrynin and the Soviets to join the Americans in a demand for an Arab-Israeli ceasefire coupled with a return to prewar lines. He dangles the promise that afterward they would together press both sides to negotiate their differences--and the threat that if they don't cooperate, the American-Soviet detente might be jeopardized.
KISSINGER: We can let this war continue until the exact calibrated moment when the Israelis have pushed [the Arabs] out of every territory but before they start heading for Damascus. If we are lucky and hit that moment exactly right we can hit the ceasefire then.... Can you not say that it was your understanding that an effort was going to be made for negotiations? [The Arabs] have proved their point, [showing] the urgency in which they see this.... This is a good psychological moment for them to make a generous gesture, rather than wait until the outcome of these hostilities. By Monday evening they will be thrown out of there anyway.
DOBRYNIN: [But the Arabs will say to us,] "You are in collusion with the U.S. and Israel."
KISSINGER: If you and we could find a way of settling this now, then it would be an overwhelming argument [in favor of detente].... If it goes the other way, Monday you and we are going to be up at the [U. N.] rostrum calling each other names. It will be a disaster.... [We will have] to be extremely tough.... I will be very brutal.... We want to get it settled before then--at least with an understanding.
On Sunday morning, Oct. 7, fearful Israeli officials are asking for U.S. military supplies.
HAIG: Are the Israelis panicking?
KISSINGER: They are almost. They are anxious to get some equipment which has been approved [by the president]... I think, myself, we should release some of it.... If the Arabs win, they will be impossible and there will be no negotiations.... If we play this the --hard way [with the Israelis], it's the last time they are going to listen [to us]. If we kick them in the teeth, they have nothing to lose.
Kissinger reports to Nixon that the Israelis will not consent to a ceasefire before the Arabs withdraw to the prewar lines.
KISSINGER: We're going to be in a hell of a position in vetoing or voting against a [U.N. demand for a] simple cease-fire. We had a message saying they will have their equipment by Wednesday or Thursday, but they will not accept a cease-fire before they have thrown [the Arabs]. My view is that if we cannot break ranks [with Israel] during this crisis, we can really do it afterwards because then they will have something to lose.
NIXON: We don't want to be so pro-Israel that the oil states--the Arabs that are not involved in the fighting--will break ranks.... PR is terribly important.... Let [U.N. Ambassador John] Scali go out--he can do a lot and prattle and cause no problem....
That afternoon, Kissinger is irritated that Moscow has still sent no response to his proposal for a joint U.S.-Soviet demand for a ceasefire and withdrawal to prewar lines.
KISSINGER: I am beginning to think those sons of bitches in Moscow are schnookering us.... We are getting frantic appeals for Sidewinders [missiles] from the Israelis and the Defense Department is giving them the run-around.
HAIG: You can tell them the President said to do it.
KISSINGER: The idea was to have the stuff delivered to an air base and have them come out in El Al [the Israeli national civilian airline] and pick them up [to avoid attracting attention to the deliveries]....
That evening, when Kissinger reports that the Israelis are resisting strongly, Nixon observes that if he and Kissinger can win a ceasefire, it would give the president badly needed foreign- policy prestige at a moment when critics are arguing that he has been crippled by Watergate.
KISSINGER: [The Israelis are] doing damned well....
NIXON: The thing to do now is to get the war stopped. That would be [a] great achievement. One of the greatest achievements of all. People in this country would think [the president is] really tough....
KISSINGER: It's a little premature. One usually smells a point when one can say they see it come together--Wednesday or Thursday perhaps....
NIXON: Why don't you come over [to the White House] and we'll have a talk. Publicize it.
On Saturday afternoon, Oct. 13, a week after the war began, Kissinger's efforts to keep the war from growing into a superpower confrontation are coming unstuck.
KISSINGER: Anatoly, I just talked to the President and he asked me to tell you that under these circumstances he can no longer observe any restrictions that I gave you yesterday on flying American planes.... We are prepared to stop our aerial supplies when you are willing to stop.
DOBRYNIN: I will send that [message to Moscow] right now.
On Oct.14, Kissinger reports to Nixon.
KISSINGER: The Egyptians are demanding a return to '67 borders. Now that's absolutely out of the question, short of a huge [Israeli] defeat as a result of the war. That has to come as a result of the subsequent negotiations that follow the war....
NIXON: As far as the Russians are concerned, they have a pretty good beef [that the U.S. has been insufficiently eager to pressure Israel for a final settlement.]... [We have been] stringing them along and they know it.... We've got to squeeze the Israelis when this is over and the Russians have got to know it. We've got to squeeze them goddamn hard.
On Oct. 16, as the fighting continues, Nixon-- who, but for Watergate, might have won the Nobel Peace Prize himself--learns that it has been awarded to Kissinger and Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho. The president tries to conceal his disappointment.
NIXON: I wanted to congratulate you.
KISSINGER: I know who deserves it.... I have told everyone that I wanted to say that I would like to thank you for giving me the opportunity and, above all, for the leadership that created the conditions.
NIXON: Fine, fine. I was going to suggest that it might be well for you to drop over here [the Oval Office] and have a picture taken with me congratulating you.
That same day, Nixon and Kissinger share their resentment about a public appeal by Senate Democratic leader Mike Mansfield to end the Middle East fighting.
NIXON: You see Mansfield's brilliant suggestion--urging [a] summit conference with the British, French, Japanese, U.S., and Russians? What in the name of heaven would be decided?
KISSINGER: Mr. President, it would kill us. It would be the Israelis and us against six other nations. Insane.
NIXON: It's just as it was in Vietnam. Our friends on the Democratic side are petrified [that the war] will end, and they want to be out there suggesting and urging [us to end it].
On Oct. 19, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev has invited Kissinger to Moscow to resolve their deadlock over the terms of a ceasefire. Kissinger reports to Dobrynin that Nixon has agreed.
KISSINGER: You understand this will present us with enormous domestic difficulties [from pro-Israeli Americans as well as conservatives suspicious of detente].... I think it's important that we say publicly it was done at the invitation of the Soviet government.... We are assuming that no unilateral actions will be taken while I am in transit.... No military threats. And I am assuming both of us will keep the situation calm. I don't believe while I am there I will be able to negotiate a final settlement. I will be able to negotiate a cease-fire....
Nixon wants to exploit Kissinger's trip to divert the public from one of the worst moments of Watergate. At this moment, with help from Mississippi Democratic Sen. John Stennis, the president is trying to fashion a compromise that will keep him from having to surrender his secret Watergate tapes. He is on the verge of firing Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox for demanding the recordings, which will launch congressional demands for his impeachment.
HAIG: The President wants to go out tonight and announce your trip.
KISSINGER: Impossible.... We have now told the Soviets we would do it at 2:00 in the morning [quietly].... When does he want to do it?
HAIG: Whenever we put this other mess [the Stennis compromise] together, which could be anywhere from 6:00 to 8:00. He would assemble the press in the [White House] press room... with cameras [and] say [that he is sending you after] consultation with Chairman Brezhnev....
KISSINGER: Why should he do it?
HAIG: One is he feels it for the reason of what he is going to announce after that [the Stennis compromise].
KISSINGER: He is going to make them both at the same time?
KISSINGER: A disaster.... My honest opinion is that it is a cheap stunt. It looks as if he is using foreign policy to cover a domestic thing.
HAIG: The domestic thing is not controversial [the Stennis compromise].... [It's a] very good settlement. It would also look very weird for him to make a major announcement on Watergate and ignore the fact you are going to Moscow when everyone wants to know what is going on in the Middle East. I don't see it as a contrived phony....
KISSINGER: I would not link foreign policy with Watergate. You will regret it for the rest of your life.... I really would plead with you.... This will be a situation where the President has put his prestige on the line. Right now the Soviets have asked us to come. We [the White House] should do it as a reasonable, low-key thing--simultaneous announcement. We call some newsmen in the middle of the night. It is still a big thing, but not the President's going before TV announcing it.... If he is insisting, we will do it, but I think he will regret it.
HAIG: Okay. I will see what I can do.
During a talk with Dobrynin about his trip to Moscow, Kissinger engages in battlefield humor.
DOBRYNIN: Could I tell them it will be a commercial flight?
KISSINGER: Tell them I am coming on a B-52.
On Oct. 23, Ambassador Scali complains that Yakov Malik, the Soviet envoy to the United Nations, is making trouble.
SCALI: Malik is acting like a goddamn idiot.
KISSINGER: You tell Malik to calm down.... You tell Malik to hold his water or I will send him to Siberia. I know Brezhnev better than he does.
On Oct. 24, Brezhnev sends a letter to Nixon threatening Soviet military action to relieve the trapped Egyptian Third Army.
KISSINGER: We are assembling our people to consider your letter. I just wanted you to know if any unilateral action is taken before we have had a chance to reply that will be very serious.
DOBRYNIN: Yes, all right.
KISSINGER: This is a matter of great concern. Don't you pressure us. I want to repeat again, don't pressure us!
DOBRYNIN: All right.
A few hours later, Kissinger instructs his deputy, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, to convey a message to Dobrynin:
[T]ell him to desist from all actions until we have a reply. Tell him you are not empowered to give any reply. I am in a meeting and can't be pulled out. There should be no unilateral actions and if they are taken it would have the most serious consequences. If he says anything, you can say you have instructions not to comment. They may as well know we mean business.
The next day, after a U.S. military alert, the Soviets withdraw their threat. Nixon and Kissinger are in a self-congratulatory mood.
KISSINGER: A lot of newsmen have sent notes and called in on the Middle East and realize what a role you have played. I think that is an asset.
NIXON: Compare this with the Cuban confrontation [the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962]. The Russians would never have called Kennedy [asking to end the crisis, even though the U.S. had] a twelve-to-one advantage [in nuclear weapons].... It took some nerve to do this.
KISSINGER: No question. It was a tremendous victory.
NIXON: The thing you negotiated was fantastic.... Well, anyway you need a good night's sleep. Tomorrow you knock them dead.
By Oct. 27, as he relates to Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, Kissinger is arranging the first direct negotiations between Egyptians and Israeli representatives, in return for food and medical supplies for the trapped Egyptian Third Army.
KISSINGER: All the Israelis insisted on was that Egyptians not drive the trucks themselves but that U.N. drivers were all right. That is all right with Egypt.
SCHLESINGER: That is wonderful.
KISSINGER: Now, I don't know what can screw up.
SCHLESINGER: Give credit for this to the President. He needs it.
The next day, as Kissinger writes, "Israeli and Egyptian military representatives met for direct talks for the first time in twenty-five years, under the auspices of U.N. observers.... Egypt agreed to further meetings with Israel for more permanent arrangements. While these remained inconclusive, the turn toward negotiations had begun. It soon became irreversible, culminating in a disengagement agreement between Egypt and Israel in January 1974, a political agreement in September 1975, and a peace treaty in 1978 that is in force at this writing."
© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.
MSNBC Terms, Conditions and Privacy ©2003