About Jeremy Pressman

professor, Arab-Israeli stuff, Middle East, Red Sox fan. Twitter: @djpressman

Three Thoughts on the release of FRUS: Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1969-1972

A new Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volume is out on US policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, 1969-1972.[1] While I was not able to read the whole volume yet, I set aside some time to read through the documents from the year 1970. I wanted to share three impressions. Without going back and looking at the existing secondary histories, I cannot tell you that these are new revelations. But either way, I found the documents of interest.

1. First, on October 23, 1970, CIA Director Richard Helms reported that a Fatah official had contacted the United States and wanted to talk with the United States, including about the idea of a two-state resolution.[2] As I read the texts, the clear implication was that Fatah was open to discussing a two-state solution in 1970. The US government kept the backchannel conversation going but declined to set an agenda and send a representative to hold official secret talks with Fatah.[3]

A month later, on November 24, Helms told Kissinger, then the National Security Advisor, that the Fatah contact told the CIA that Fatah had completed plans for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and the idea had the support of all the Arab states except Jordan. In terms of territory, the state would include the “West Bank of Jordan, the Gaza Strip – with unimpeded access between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – certain (unstated) portions of the East Bank of Jordan, and internationalization of the Old City of Jerusalem.” So not only was the United States aware that Fatah was interested in two states but also aware that the idea had wider Arab support.[4] The CIA continued contact at least into early 1971; the Fatah official was pressing the United States to set an agenda for an official (secret) dialogue but the USG did not. Though it is now 45 years later, the name of the Fatah contact was kept classified in the FRUS volume.

2. Second, as this was happening, a much larger discussion was taking place at the highest levels of the US government to consider changes in US policy toward the Palestinians.[5] The first shift was straightforward. Was the Palestinian question now more than just a refugee question? (For example, remember that the only reference to Palestinians in UNSC Resolution 242 of 1967 was as refugees and without even using the word Palestinian.) The US answer was yes; the Palestinians had become an independent, if fragmented, political force. “The Palestine question can only be settled with the Palestinians.”[6]

But that left two other challenging and inter-related questions. What endpoint did the United States favor, an independent Palestine or an autonomous Palestine in association with Jordan? Also, what role would King Hussein play? Should the United States bypass the King, consult the King, or should the King be able to veto changes in US policy toward the Palestinians?

At a December 17, 1970 meeting of the Senior Review Group, US policymakers agreed they favored a Palestinian entity, maybe a state, in the West Bank and Gaza in association with Hashemite Jordan.[7] They did not want to specify what would be the borders of the state in the West Bank and instead used the phrase with “whatever frontiers might be agreed.” Kissinger was against the idea of committing to the 1967 lines. They did not favor an independent Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza and feared Palestinian irredentism toward Jordan in such a scenario. Consequently, they also did not favor an independent Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza, and parts or all of the East Bank of Jordan.

In theory, US officials knew they could dump Hussein and work directly with the fedayeen – Arafat, PLO – but they were unwilling to do so. In the internal US minutes and memos, one senses US loyalty to King Hussein. Kissinger had mixed feelings about consulting Jordan: “Would we ask [King] Hussein if he minds if we deal with the [Palestinian] fedayeen? This is like a wife asking her husband if he minds if she commits adultery.”[8] But in the end, the United States wanted to get a feel for the King’s view of how to handle the Palestine issue and the possibility of US contacts directly with Palestinians. Washington instructed the US Ambassador to Jordan to discuss the “Palestinian factor” with King Hussein. The King had a measured response.[9]

Hal Saunders, a key US official on Arab-Israeli matters, correctly noted a central “con” to Palestinians getting a separate voice and, ultimately, a separate entity: “The Israelis would choke.”[10]

As an aside, two other comments struck me as spot on. After a discussion of possible Palestinian-Jordan endpoints, David Packard, Deputy Secretary of Defense, noted something true to this day: “The problems arise in trying to move from here to there.”[11]

Helms, the CIA director, also predicted what would happen if Palestinian nationalism was not addressed in political fashion: “In effect, resistance has finally restored the essential degree of national pride to the younger Palestinian generation, and if this pride is not permitted to channel itself into constructive effort (for example, within the context of a Palestine entity), it will vent itself violently and destructively against all foes, real or imagined.”[12]

3. Third, and just briefly, reading documents around the Egyptian-Israeli fighting in 1970, the War of Attrition, it kind of suggests another part of the story of the growth of tighter US-Israel ties: the United States felt pushed toward Israel in reacting against Soviet support for Egypt. Much of this discussion turned on Israeli arms requests. I am familiar with the argument that Israeli support for Jordan during Black September demonstrated to Washington that Israel could be a useful strategic asset for the United States. But I had not thought about the way in which Israel served as the US proxy in competition with the Soviet Union and its Egyptian proxy and that that might have cemented US-Israeli ties as well.


[1] Steven G. Galpern, ed, Foreign Relations of the United States: Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1969-1972, vol. 23 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2015).

[2] Document 174. Alexis Johnson, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, made a similar point in Document 172. For an op-ed on CIA-PLO contacts that fingers Ali Hassan Salameh, see Kai Bird, “Robert Ames and the CIA’s history of back-channel talks with ‘the bad guys’,” Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2014.

[3] Helms to Kissinger, Document 180, November 5, 1970. See also document 185, November 20, 1970, p. 647.

[4] Document 186, p. 649. Another report suggested the Palestinians meant the portion of the East Bank of Jordan west of the Ramtha-Amman-Ma’an line.

[5] This larger discussion preceded the Fatah contact. See Document 112 (May 7, 1970), Section D on p. 371 (also Sisco in document 114). Also Kissinger comment, briefly, p. 599. Also documents 181, and especially document 182 (November 13, 1970). Document 176 (October 24, 1970) – NSC summary of a longer State paper on US Policy Toward Palestinians.

[6] Document 170, p. 576.

[7] Document 192, December 17, 1970, pp. 673-680. Among others, the meeting included Kissinger, Deputy Secretary of Defense Packard, CIA Director Helms, Harold Saunders, Joseph Sisco, and the Chairman of the JCS.

[8] Document 183, p. 635  (Senior review group meeting, November 13, 1970. Good discussion here of the possible roles of the King and of the fedayeen in future US policy.)

[9] Document 185, p. 647.

[10] Document 182, p. 632.

[11] Document 192, p. 674.

[12] Document 180, p. 617.

Israeli Intelligence in favor of Iran Agreement

For several weeks, we’ve been hearing that former Israeli security leaders and generals are more supportive of the Iran agreement than Israel’s current political leaders. (I wrote about it here) Now, Shimon Shiffer has written in Yediot Aharonot (Eng), a major Israeli newspaper, that current Israeli intelligence told Israel’s political leaders the deal was okay:

But alongside the outrage at Obama’s style – his speech was intended primarily to show who wears the pants in the world of international relations – there is also a need to listen better to the Israeli intelligence community. The research division of Aman [Military Intelligence] and the Mossad provided senior decision makers an assessment based on an analysis of the nuclear agreement between the five powers & the EU and Iran, according to which it is a reasonable and even good agreement that includes the means of preventing Iran [from attaining] nuclear weapons in the coming decade. 

The Mossad, the Israeli Secret Intelligence Service*, and Military (IDF) Intelligence, known as Aman, are two of the three major pillars of the Israeli state’s intelligence community, with the third being the Shin Bet or Israeli Security Agency (which focuses on internal and Palestinian issues, not Iran). So while Israel’s government and much of the Israeli Jewish public oppose the agreement, Israel’s intelligence community sees it as a reasonable, if not good, agreement. 

Meanwhile in the US debate, you would hardly know that anyone in Israel, let alone the official intelligence community, is okay with the agreement. Go figure.

(Unfortunately, I have not seen the article posted on-line. A picture is below.)


*This is the wording the Mossad uses on its English website. One could translate its longer Hebrew name as the agency for intelligence and special operations.

Don’t count out the influence of Education on Policymakers

I was surprised by a claim in Byman and Kroenig (Security Studies, 2016) that we should be wary of assuming education has much impact on policymakers later on: “Policymakers may not fully recognize how their educations shape their worldviews, but with an absence of supporting evidence academics should also not overstate how classroom teachings might affect real-world results.” (pp. 26-27) Yet the evidence in Avey and Desch (2014), the article cited by Byman and Kroenig, is more revealing than that. There is supporting evidence.

Avey and Desch surveyed high-level national security policymakers in the Bush, Clinton, and Bush administrations; they received 234 completed responses. How one interprets two pieces of evidence bears directly on whether education affects policymakers.

In their survey, Avey and Desch asked how scholars should contribute to policymaking. 54% of former officials agreed that one role was as “trainers of policy-makers.” That 54% was lower than both “informal advisors” and “creators of new information/knowledge.” For Avey and Desch, the 54% is a glass half-empty moment: “we were surprised that support for this role was so limited.”

But stepping back from Avey and Desch’s expectations going into the survey, how should we assess that 54%? Does it square with the idea that scholars have little influence on policymakers? Or, does it suggest that more often than not, policymakers view scholars as trainers? I think the latter; if in reality professors played that training role just over half the time, that would be a significant impact, through education, on policymaking.

The second relevant question Avey and Desch asked policymakers was where they acquired their most relevant skills. The answers:

  • field or work experience (49.5%)
  • formal education (27.1%)
  • professional education / job training (11.4%)
  • independent research / reading (5.7%)
  • mentoring (3.3%)
  • other (2.9%)

Again here, to Avey and Desch, the 27.1% is a low number, a glass half empty. While I see their point, I think that 27.1% is more significant. It means formal education programs led to the most relevant skills for just over one-quarter of US policymakers. That is significant and does not fit with the claim that academia, here translated through teaching and coursework, is irrelevant to policymaking.

I was especially intrigued by their survey evidence that one sub-group, policymakers who had PhDs, chose formal education as the most relevant by a wide margin.

One could also imagine more revealing ways to ask this question in a survey more deeply focused on assessing the impact of education on policymaking. It might be, for example, that many of the policymakers who listed field or work experience as #1, would have listed formal education as the the second most important place where they acquired relevant skills. The way the question was asked does not reveal how 72.9% of the respondents view formal education beyond that it was not number one in relevance.

Based on Avey and Desch’s evidence I have noted here, Avey and Desch conclude, “these findings raise important questions about the curriculum and content of much graduate professional education in international affairs.” It is a big leap from that finding to Byman and Kroenig asserting that there is an absence of supporting evidence. We have two pieces of evidence from Avey and Desch that education has a significant impact on some policymakers. Secretaries Albright, Clinton, and Rice, all supportive of that notion from their personal experience and cited by Byman and Kroenig, appear to be onto something.

Oren’s Op-ed Lacks Historical Context

This is a guest post from Prof. Boaz Atzili of American University:

Let me offer a few observations on Michael B. Oren’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “How Obama Abandoned Israel”:

  1. Oren’s article is full of historical misrepresentations. For example, Oren’s statement that Israel has offered the Palestinians statehood in “Gaza, almost the entire West Bank, and half of Jerusalem” is a gross exaggeration. And Obama’s insistence on the total freeze was a result of Israel taking advantage of loopholes in similar previous arrangement that were less explicit.
  2. Oren’s argument that Barack Obama is the first US President to abandon the principle that there should be “no daylight” (no public disagreement) between Israel and the US is simply wrong. The United States, for example, has always publicly opposed Israeli settlements (though less so under President George W. Bush), and never accepted Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.
  3. Moreover, Oren seems to think that this principle runs only one-way: When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly and vehemently calls US policy on a nuclear agreement with Iran dangerous, that’s okay. When Obama disagrees with Israel’s expansion of settlements that’s breaching the trust. How so?
Israel makes sure never to deliberately surprise the United States, Oren claims. Really? I cannot believe that the Suez War, the bombing of Osirak, and announcing settlement expansion whenever a high ranking US official is visiting, were all unintended mishaps. Even in the Israeli land of improvisation that is unlikely.
  5. After trying for too long to pressure Israel privately to change its policy (which is basically talk the talk but make sure nobody can walk the walk), the Obama administration did decide to go public with the disagreements. But so long as this is not accompanied by a willingness to actually press Israel by threatening financial or military aid (as, for example, President George H. W. Bush did) or by refusing to veto UNSC resolutions that Israel is opposed to (basically anything that has the words “Palestine” and “Peace” in it), Netanyahu can easily keep on his obstructionist policy. And keep on complaining about Obama through his ambassador-turned-Knesset Member.

The Student is not a Consumer: Further Thoughts

Dan Drezner’s smart post had me speculating thinking about two other related points. Drezner noted that 1) a university is not a corporation and students are not consumers and 2) the real university crisis is in the growing number of college instructors without tenure who are thus vulnerable to poor student evaluations and general student whinging.

First, this might also help us understand grade inflation. If the students-as-consumers expect high grades, and will threaten job security when they don’t get those grades, why not give out high grades like candy? (Though to be transparent, more like the cheap, corn-syrup based candies than good chocolate.) People who have actually researched this possibility seem to agree.

Second, evaluations are so appealing because they boil everything down to a number. A number can be discussed and weighed quickly as well as easily compared to other instructors at the university, as in, “Oh, look, this professor’s average is above the mean for the university as a whole.” This ease and speed could be appealing to administrators or committees that have to supervise and evaluate many instructors. Moreover, in a field like political science where many faculty are pushing quantitative research, the primacy of numbers in evaluation should come as no surprise. It avoids some squishy, qualitative judgment based on, say, actual classroom observation by a professional.

Now please grade this blog post on a scale of 1 to 10. Anonymously.

Reaction to Reactions to Reflections on the Arab Uprisings

In Jay Ulfelder’s reactions to Marc Lynch’s reflections on the Arab Uprisings, I was struck by Ulfelder’s discussion of motivated reasoning. Ulfelder’s notes a problem: “When we try to forecast politics in real time, we tend to conflate our feelings about specific events or trends with their likelihood.” I want Egypt to become democratic after Mubarak’s fall so, gasp, my deeply-informed analysis says Egypt is likely to become democratic. [Or insert your own favorite example.]

Ulfelder proposes a solution, or at least a coherent mitigation plan:

Whenever we’re formulating an analysis or prediction, we can start by ask ourselves what result we hope to see and why, and we can think about how that desire might relate to the conclusions we’re reaching. We can try to imagine how someone with different motivations might view the same situation, or just seek out examples of those alternative views. Finally, we can weight or adjust our own analysis accordingly. Basically, we can try to replicate in our own analysis what “wisdom of crowds” systems do to great effect on a larger scale. This exercise can’t fully escape the cognitive traps to which it responds, but I think it can at least mitigate their influence.

Sounds reasonable.

But what if the extrinsic motivation is the main guide to how we select or interpret the factors that point us toward our conclusion? In any given political situation, scholars can point to a myriad of factors or draw on a wide range of historical precedents. How do we know which tradition is most relevant and which variables to consult? If we want the process to conclude with democracy, that suggests a certain way of looking at the problem.

In other words, maybe the scientific (analytical) process is hopelessly tainted by our own preferences and hopes. Perhaps “feelings” and analytic outcomes co-vary more than we like to admit.

Open Hillel and the potential for change to US Jewish life

I was able to spend half a day at the Open Hillel conference, including speaking on a panel on “Potential Solutions.” One thought: I’d be worried if I were part of the “pro-Israel” American Jewish establishment. These leaders of tomorrow are not going to quietly accept stale dogma.

The students I met and heard talk at the conference are smart, attend elite universities, and are thinking hard about these issues. They are exposed to a range of organizations that not only includes AIPAC/JCRC/Federation/CAMERA etc but also groups with alternate views such as J Street U and Jewish Voice for Peace.

The Jewish tradition was long one of deep intellectual curiosity. In addition, college is one time when many students get to explore ideas. This combination of being party to the Jewish tradition and in college makes for a double dose of curiosity. That’s crucial if one is asking these students to blindly accept narratives or avoid peeking outside the existing opinion tent; they’ll push back, as they did by even establishing Open Hillel and organizing this first conference.

I’m not an expert on American Jewish institutional life. Moreover, there was a selection effect – the kind of student who would be at an Open Hillel conference lends herself/himself to my claims. Students who are outsiders and questioners now certainly might be co-opted later. Fair points.

So rather than an airtight argument, take this as impressionistic…but plausible. Let’s revisit in 20 years and see where things stand.

(I’ll write more about the conference tomorrow @BeaconReader).