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.


Agents and Structures in the Middle East

Michael Doran argues that Chuck Hagel’s admiration for Dwight Eisenhower’s handling of the 1956 Suez Crisis is misplaced. This is, Doran continues, because Eisenhower’s smack-down of Britain, France, and Israel had worse consequences for the Middle East and American interests than a more forceful policy against Egyptian President Nasser might have.

He then extends the logic of this lesson to imply that today Hagel stands for harsher treatment of Israel, particularly for imposing on it to resolve the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. This connects to Jeffrey Goldberg’s own argument that “linkage” (that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the root of all problems in the region, and that solving it will end the threats to American interests there) seems to be an Obama Administration misconception.

I agree that linkage is the wrong assumption on which to approach the Middle East. It should be obvious by now that plenty of other problems—internal fights between communities within the Arab countries, inter-Arab and inter-Muslim rivalry and contests for regional leadership—that don’t rely on Israel to continue.

But this doesn’t mean there aren’t connections between some problems in the region, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In their arguments, Doran and Goldberg represent one side of a perennial debate in Political Science—the agent-structure problem. They assume that the Arab states and Palestinians are independent agents, who choose to drag Israel into their problems, but who also have the choice to leave it out. By virtue of doing the former, then, the United States must—it follows—adopt the position that Israel doesn’t matter because it’s being utilized as a matter of choice for strategic or tactical reasons.

That Israel is used as such is certainly true: During the heyday of Arab authoritarianism, the conflict was used by the regimes to justify shifting the focus from domestic reform to fend off the Zionist threat, to clamp down on domestic dissent, to rationalize a bloated bureaucracy, including domestic security agencies, and as a stick with which to beat other Arab states.

But at the same time, larger structural forces have long been at play in the region that bring Israel into the equation even apart from conscious Arab decisions. One such structure is the network of inter-actor relationships in the region, including outside powers like the US, which conditions how actors act, sometimes pushing them into decisions.

The Middle East as a regional system means that Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab states, Turkey, and Iran are all inter-connected through their regional politics. What happens in one area has ripple effects in the other. The lines that connect one actor to another criss-cross each other until it looks like a spider web of links.

This applies to American policy in the region, as well. Doran suggests that Eisenhower’s implicit protection of Nasser had dire consequences: it led to a deeper Soviet penetration of the region, and it enhanced Nasser’s regional and international standing.

But there’s no evidence that this wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Nasser’s own regional ambitions would have led to a direct clash with Washington anyway, given the American preoccupation with the Cold War and the desire to see locals as allies or enemies. Egypt’s rivalry with Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan would likely have pushed some states into the Soviet camp and some into the American camp for their own purposes anyway.

Moreover, when Ike pressed the British, French, and Israelis at Suez, he wasn’t just concerned with Egypt: he was driven by larger processes as well. He had other—which is not to say more important, but just competing—interests at the time of the Suez crisis. This included the expansion of the Cold War, and the Hungarian uprising and crisis that overlapped with the Suez war. Eisenhower was angry at his allies because he wasn’t consulted, but primarily because he was trying to manage American interests at the global level. His concern was that the attack on Egypt undermined his effort to castigate and push back against the Soviets for their invasion of Hungary at the same time.

And what was the alternative? To let the British, French, and Israelis undermine Nasser so that he was eventually replaced? Who would have replaced him? The evidence of foreign countries intervening to shape the politics of a state has, over the years, demonstrated time and again that it hardly works. Rather, it leads to breakdowns of traditional networks upon which the polity is built, suffering for the citizens, and regional instability, threatening other countries. If the Israeli experience in Lebanon isn’t the clearest example of this, I don’t know what else is.

Doran’s argument contains other misperceptions that can be attributed to emphasizing agents over structures. He contends that Eisenhower’s action put the final nail in the coffin of the British Empire. Maybe, but the end of empire was already there—at best, the empire would have dragged on a little longer. The structural conditions for its demise were already playing out. Opinion in Britain and in its possessions was turning against it, while resistance and national liberation movements were already mobilizing against British authority. The financial crisis London faced after World War Two and the loss of India had made the end inevitable. Nothing Ike would have done would have saved it, and it’s even arguable that prolonging the empire would have led to more suffering as Britain fought longer to keep its possessions.

Doran’s take on Ike provides an early representation of the American conundrum in how to deal with the Arab Awakening today. I buy the argument that Washington can contribute to the stabilization of Egypt without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But at the same time, it is clear that removing this festering conflict would undermine many of the arguments anti-Israel groups use to support their militant positions; would free up American attention and resources to help stabilize other countries; and more. It won’t end all the other conflicts—Saudi Arabia and Iran will still remain rivals, for example—but that’s not a reason not to push for a settlement.

(For the record, I’m not trying to resolve the agent-structure debate here. Just noting the difficulty in separating them under certain conditions.)

Israeli and Palestinian One/Two State Arguments

A friend recently asked if there existed a one-page summary of the major positions on a one versus two state-solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So I penned this:

Israeli Jewish arguments for a one-state solution: Israel from the sea to the river

This land is ours, God gave this land to me and/or this is the only way to ensure Israeli security and survival. Jerusalem is our eternal, united capital. At most, the Palestinians, whose leadership has always rejected our presence as well as any compromise, can stay. They can have autonomy but not a foreign policy, sovereignty, independence, or armed forces. Maybe West Bank Palestinians can be citizens of Jordan (after all, Jordan is Palestine); they will not vote in Israeli national elections. The settlement project is irreversible; you will never get the Israeli settlements out of the West Bank.

Israeli Jewish arguments for a two-state solution: Israel and Palestine

We need to separate from the Palestinians. The occupation leads to human rights violations, corrupts Israel morally, gives fuel to our foes across the region and world, and leads to international pariah status. The IDF should be focused on protecting the state, not guarding the settlements. The settlements suck up too much in Israeli resources. Given the faster Palestinian demographic growth, we will have to either sacrifice Israeli democracy or Israel’s Jewish identity; only a two-state solution lets us avoid this problem. The United States and the international community are fully behind a two-state solution.

Palestinian arguments for a two-state solution: Israel and Palestine

Palestine is our historic homeland. We deserve justice for the wrongs done to us in 1948 and thereafter. We will never get everything and are ready for compromise. Israel is stronger than us; it is here to stay. The United States and the international community are fully behind a two-state solution. With a sovereign, contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, we can take control of our destiny and economy, establish our capital in (East) Jerusalem, ensure access to our holy places, and provide some sort of solution to Palestinian refugees. We can live normal, secure lives.

Palestinian arguments for a one-state solution: A Bi-national State

All of Palestine is our historic homeland. We deserve full justice for the wrongs done to us in 1948 and thereafter. The settlement project is irreversible; you will never get the Israeli settlements out of the West Bank. Our best hope now is to pursue full equality inside a single state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the holy land. In the past, we have lived side-by-side with Jews and can do as again when we gain our full democratic rights. The Israeli state as presently constituted is unacceptable because it is premised on the supremacy of a single ethno-religious group, the Jews. We need a shared state where every citizen is equal regardless of ethnicity or religion. In this state, we will have full access to Jerusalem and our refugees may finally return home.

Or…stick with the status quo…

What arguments would you add (or subtract)?

Morris, Koplow, and Israel’s Security Today: Ideology vs. Capabilities

Michael Koplow and Benny Morris come to opposite conclusions about how the Arab “Spring” affects Israel’s national security. Why? Because Koplow rightly privileges economic and military capabilities while Morris turns to ideology as the master variable.

Koplow concludes that, “the states on Israel’s borders [are] content to let the status quo remain despite the upheaval in their internal politics.” Yet Morris explains, change in the Arab world “represents a dramatic, abrupt tightening of the noose.” Moreover, “The lynchpin of the siege, offering the most palpable and immediate threat to Israel, is of course Iran…”

A central argument for Koplow is that neighboring Arab states lack resources to launch a war. Serious economic difficulties make war with Israel less likely. Egypt, Jordan, and Syria lack the resources to fund a war. Egypt and Jordan would further worsen their economic situation with the resultant loss of U.S. aid.

Not only do these states lack their own resources but they also lack an external patron. There is no Soviet Union to counter-balance Israel’s superpower ally in Washington.

Contrast that with Morris’s piece. The coming to power of Islamists in Egypt, their growth in Jordan, and their likely victory in Syria spells trouble for Israel. They reject Israel and will act militarily consistent with their anti-Israel beliefs.

For Morris, then, ideology is paramount. Islamism’s general hostility toward Israel is determinative. Islamism is so powerful that Morris would say Islamists would willfully ignore the huge imbalance in forces and economic risks and try to take on Israel anyway on the battlefield. His enemy is monolithic and irrational.

In terms of how the world works, I am much more sympathetic to Koplow in this case. I tend to be skeptical of putting too much emphasis on culture, ideology, and religion.

Historically, perhaps Morris would point to Israel-Hamas or Israel-Hizbollah battles to prove his point. Yet both are more like non-state actors than governments. The fact that they have often been deterred from attacking Israel even in smaller doses (e.g. rockets) and have never launched a conventional offensive says a lot about the importance of capabilities and balance of forces even with a hostile ideology.

Meanwhile, no neighboring Arab state has moved air and ground forces against Israel since 1973. That is curiously absent from Morris’s stylized Arab-Israeli history. For the most recent 60% of Israel’s history (1973-2012), it has faced serious violence but not a conventional military attack.

If Islamist politicians take full control in Egypt (roadblock: the armed forces), Jordan (roadblock: the monarchy), or Syria (roadblock: Asad regime), we may get a better test of the Morris-Koplow disagreement. Until then, I’m with Koplow.