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.

Still Going Strong

At Foreign Affairs, I argue that many American commentators who write on Israel fail to account for processes of change within its domestic politics, leading to incomplete analyses on how Israel reacts to the Iran deal. A close examination of shifts within Israel’s security establishment yields a more complete picture:

Most depictions of how Israel sees the recent nuclear accord with Iran are consistently shallow. When explaining what the deal means for Israel, Western analysts and journalists tend to focus on the differences between close political allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who denounced it as a “historic mistake,” and the Israeli security establishment (that is, serving and retired officials from the military and intelligence agencies), which is generally more tolerant of the deal. But it is misleading to think of Israeli policymaking just as a tug of war between those two camps, because disagreements between civilian and security leaders are normal, and because the public rhetoric on which such assumptions rest doesn’t allow for a consideration of wider trends and changes. Such a view leads to needlessly alarmist predictions about a coming split between Israel and the United States.

Follow the link for the full piece.


Yes, Israelis Are Open to a Palestinian State

Writing in Mondoweiss, Alex Kane argues that, based on the most recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, Israelis don’t actually want a two-state solution—contrary to a slew of previous surveys—because their version of a Palestinian state is so truncated and unviable that it’s not acceptable to Palestinians. He concludes that “Israeli society is too wedded to the continuing colonization of Palestine for a Palestinian state to come into being.”

Kane raises a fair point—that Israelis aren’t clamoring to leave the entire West Bank in return for a Palestinian state on the entire territory—but his argument rests on several presumptions that I don’t think can be taken as indicative of Israelis’ or Israel’s final position on a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

First, Kane assumes that public opinion polls determine outcomes. The general findings are that, in democracies, public opinion sets parameters rather than makes specific government policies, particularly in foreign affairs. This isn’t to say that governments can’t ever make policy with which the public disagrees; or that public opinion can’t constrain governments. But this general historical pattern, and indeed the specific historical pattern in Israel, indicates that if the Israeli public broadly and consistently supports peace with the Palestinians, which I think even Kane agrees is demonstrated in polling, then the government has the space to move forward on the peace process.

Kane draws a straight line from public opinion surveys to the specifics of a deal. But that’s not what public opinion is used for, nor how it’s properly understood. In some areas, for example, surveys on how people will likely vote, public opinion polls can be fairly accurate. But this is less so on critical foreign policy issues. It’s not the Israeli public that will determine the specifics of a deal. No-one has ever said getting to a final agreement would be simple, but we have plenty of previous official negotiations and track two efforts that show what Kane is concerned about may not be unbreachable obstacles when Israeli and Palestinian negotiators get close to the endgame. There’s nothing to support the conclusion that the Israelis will get everything they want, as expressed in the recent Israel Democracy Institute poll that Kane builds his case on; the negotiators themselves have said that “all issues” are on the table.

Second, Kane specifically mentions Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim as stumbling blocks, because most polls indicate Israelis want to keep them. They will probably prove to be two of the settlements over which negotiators will fight most. But that doesn’t translate into an inevitable inability to resolve the issue. If Israel keeps them, it might well be that Palestinians will be compensated for them through land swaps and a complex arrangement of corridors and alternate routes to Jerusalem and around the West Bank.

Third, Kane mentions the demilitarized nature of a Palestinian state as something likely to block an agreement. I’m not sure why this should be considered more of sticking point than Jerusalem or the right of return, but there isn’t anything to suggest that “demilitarized” can’t be finessed in talks. It might be a temporary Israeli or international military presence in the Jordan Valley; it might mean a defense treaty between Israel and Palestine giving the former the right to send soldiers through the latter’s territory to fend off a threat from the east; it might be a well-armed Palestinian police force but no military. It could mean many things—especially because there is a growing understanding in Israel that the Jordan Valley isn’t as necessary for Israel’s security as it once was. But being demilitarized isn’t something that will make or break a final agreement, nor is it the sin qua non for Palestinian statehood.

Fourth, the details of each poll that Kane references are important. At +972 Dahlia Scheindlin has a sharp and careful analysis of Israeli polls on peace talks. She points out there are real differences in the types of questions asked, and therefore the specific conclusions that commentators can draw from a single poll or question. Given these differences, it’s clear that there is considerable room to maneuver in negotiations, which gets back to my first point above. I highly recommend reading her piece in full.

Finally, Kane switches arguments to contend that Benjamin Netanyahu is not the leader to bring Israel into a final agreement. That’s probably where I agree most closely with him. I’ve argued that I’m skeptical Bibi will be the one to sign a final agreement. Maybe he will, but even if he doesn’t, a genuine process under Bibi will help maintain a positive atmosphere for continued negotiations under his successor. (I’m not suggesting the process continue for its own sake; I’m speaking of a serious set of talks.)

Even more importantly, the historical pattern favors Bibi. All of Israel’s prime ministers who engaged in talks with the Palestinians were hawks, all hardline in their own way. In his first term as prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin refused to consider the PLO a serious negotiating partner; as late as January 1993 he rejected direct talks with the organization. Yet he signed the Declaration of Principles and accepted in private the likelihood of a Palestinian state run by the PLO. Ehud Barak as Chief of Staff expressed considerable reservations about the Oslo Accords and as a politician abstained from the Knesset vote on Oslo II; yet at Camp David and Taba he broke longstanding Israeli taboos on final status issues. Ariel Sharon once said that “the fate of Netzarim [in Gaza] will be the fate of Tel Aviv”; in summer 2005 he withdrew all Israeli civilians and soldiers from the Strip. And Ehud Olmert was once considered a hardline rightist opposed to a Palestinian state; he now regularly talks about the coming division of Jerusalem.

What I’m saying is that the public declaration of leaders are important and need to be accounted for, but they aren’t necessarily the final determinant of their actual policies. The four prime ministers before Netanyahu are proof of this, while Bibi himself has been softening his own position on a Palestinian state. This is not to say that these Israeli leaders suddenly began to read from Mahmoud Abbas’s script; and clearly there were still gaps between their opening positions in negotiations and a fair, just solution for both peoples. But the difference between their previous statements and their later positions also cannot be ignored; it’s for sustained negotiation to bridge that gap.

If we want to look at Israeli public opinion and historical patterns, as Kane does, then they are at worst ambivalent about outcomes and dependent on conditions, and at best give concrete reasons why we can remain optimistic and hopeful for real change.