Serving as Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs from April 1976 to June 1977, Professor Shlomo Avineri informs us of Egyptian President Sadat’s interest, through multiple channels in pursuing additional agreements with Israel at least a year prior to his visit to Jerusalem. Austrian President Kreisky told Avineri “What a pity that you (the Labor Party) have lost the (May 1977) elections because I knew that Sadat after the elections would have come to Israel, would have initiated something anyway.” Avineri confirms Kreisky’s remark by repeating what Sadat told Avineri personally when they me after the November 1977 Jerusalem visit, “ We have to do something very dramatic. I’m going was going to do it when we have a new government in Israel.” Avineri reminds us that Rabin was prepared for a third agreement with Egypt in 1976.
Avineri reveals the late 1976 Rumanian overtures to Rabin to visit Bucharest, a prelude to Menachem Begin’s visit there in late August 1977. The minutes of those late August 1977 Israel-Rumanian meetings confirm that Sadat used Rumania as one secret channel to Israel, the other through Morocco in mid-September 1977, and apparently other private channels in 1976 and 1977.
With great criticism he categorizes Carter as naïve, “an inexperienced president who has a world view which is not tested by anything.” Before Rabin left from his first visit with Carter in March 1977, Carter said in a press conference, that “Israel might have to return to something close to the 1967 borders.” Upon hearing of Carter’s public presentation of American views on borders, Rabin said to an Israeli diplomat, “You’re fantasizing, aren’t you? This can’t be true. I do not know what kind of administration that this is?”
Avineri had great praise for Rabin as a strategic thinker and similar praise for Begin too; he outlines the Allon-Rabin relationship, and reminds us that in 1976-77, Shimon Peres was a ‘hawk.’
Avineri was born as Jerzy Wiener in August 1933, immigrated to Israel in 1939, was educated in the late 1940s in Tel Aviv, where one of his classmates was Israel Epstein. He studied at the London School of Economics and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Avineri died in November 2023. Before and after government service he worked for six decades as an eminent professor of political science at the Hebrew University, published important works on political philosophy, including masterpieces on Hegel, Marx Moses Hess, and a biography of Theodor Herzl. In the latter work, he persuasively argued that the choreographer/leader of modern Zionism was motivated more by the failure of Jews to gain equal civic rights with non-Jews, (failed emancipation) than motivated by witnessing a key antisemitic event in 1894, the Dreyfus Affair in France, that had accused a Jewish officer of selling secrets to the Germans.
Ken Stein Interview with Professor Shlomo Avineri,
Hebrew University Campus, Givat Ram, Jerusalem Israel
(6 July 1993)
KWS: When did you join the Foreign Ministry as Director General, what dates?
SA: The appointment was from April 1976. I should have started on April 1, 1976; because of the visit of the South African president, Forster at that time, with which I didn’t want to be involved, I asked Allon to allow me to start my job, I think it was the 4th or 5th of April.
KWS: 4th of April?
SA: A few days after he left, I didn’t want to be involved in that.
KWS: So it was April ’76…
SA: Through June 1977. One day after the formation of the Likud government. Together with Allon, I handed the ministry over to Moshe Dayan and asked him for me to be relieved because I certainly wouldn’t serve under him. I guess he wouldn’t keep me anyway. So, we parted in good spirit and then he appointed Epi [Evron], who was my deputy.
KWS: As interim?
SA: Not interim, he appointed him as Director General. It was really a short-term appointment until Yossi was able to take it, but he was acting.
KWS: In ’76, the peace process was pretty much put on hold. The negotiation process pretty much put on hold. Were there any kind of initiatives that came from the Egyptians that you recall similar to the initiatives that Sadat had brought February of ’71, about “let’s have another interim agreement?” Was there anything at all in 1976? The literature makes no mention of any kind of discussions between Egyptians and Israelis, privately, publicly, and I just want to be sure I’m not missing something in ’76.
SA: No, I don’t think you’re missing. To my knowledge there was nothing. Again, there might have been something at the Prime Minister’s level of which I wasn’t aware, I don’t think so. There are, however, two indications that there might have been something which I think we, the Israelis, missed. And one has to do with the Romanian connection.
KWS: Romanian connection?
SA: Yes. In December of 1976, the Romanian ambassador, Kovatch, who was one of the only eastern European ambassadors in Israel, was very much courted by most Israelis. And on a very sudden note, he asked to see the Foreign Minister, [Yigal] Allon. It was very dramatic. He asked to see him on a Saturday in [Kibbutz] Ginosar. So, it was very out of protocol, and he said to him that there has been for several years an Israeli-Romanian understanding that every year there should be a sub-ministerial visit to each other’s country. And they found out, this was the end of ’76, that this year there wasn’t an Israeli visit and they asked that I, as Director General, visit Romania. Allon found it very unusual that this very routine business had to be relayed to him personally on a Shabbat in Ginosar. So, he asked me to accept the invitation, which came within a few days. And we were aware that this may not be just a routine visit, that there might be something behind it. I went. I went with my wife who was born in Romania and had had doubts whether she wanted to go or not, but eventually we went. And we were hosted very graciously by the Romanians. I met with my opposite number who was the Deputy Foreign Minister of Romania, Acosta, who I think is in jail or awaiting a trial or something like that.
SA: I met with the Foreign Minister, with the head of the foreign relations department of the party who was really the Foreign Ministry person, met with the Chief Rabbi, saw the sights and museums at Bucharest, and some of the Transylvanian mountains and plantations for a week and nothing happened, until the way to the airport.
KWS: On the way home.
SA: On the way home, where I was in the car. This is again protocol, with the Deputy Foreign Minister and his aide, who was the translator. This was already the beginning of January 1977, and he said to me that they think it would be very important that Rabin would visit Romania soon. I realized that this is it, I mean that this is the message, so I was very careful to explain again we are before an election. Before the elections the prime minister has to get the nomination of his party, there is going to be a new president in the United States in a few days, it was early January. Certainly, his first foreign visit would be to the United States, and after he comes back, we’re getting already in the elections campaign so this might not be a very good time, and perhaps a better time would be in the summer after the elections. He insisted that this would be soon. So, I checked with him again, “Are you telling me on the highest authority that it is very important for our Prime Minister to visit you soon? Probably before the elections?” He said “Yes.” He didn’t specify much and he didn’t volunteer information. When I tried to ask why, I mean, I just couldn’t repeat. It was very a clear indication. On coming back, I reported this immediately to Allon. We realized that there is some initiative here. We mainly thought this may be a Soviet initiative. [President of Romania] Ceausescu somehow trying to get… being a mediator between us and Russia. Perhaps there is a Soviet signal. This is the way we understood it, but we thought that it was right. Both Allon and I suggested to Rabin to respond and take a day off or two days. Rabin hesitated and explained that — both to me and then also to Allon, I wasn’t present — that his timetable would not be able to accommodate that. This was, you know, just before Carter became President, took office. There was a fight within the Labor party with the challenge by Shimon Peres. He also…given Rabin’s purpose, he never thought that he needed it, that the Soviet initiative is very important. This is not in his mind in his line of thinking. And he certainly didn’t care for Ceaușescu lecturing again on contacts with the PLO, which is what he probably thought he would get. So this died, nothing came out of it. A day after Labor lost the elections [May 18, 1977], the Romanian ambassador called me, said that he understood, commiserated with me, that I’m leaving this office because that’s what I told the press, and he asked me for a favor: that when handing over to the new ministry I would try to get him an audience with the new minister whoever it was going to be. I said I have no input, no influence, but I would certainly bring it up. Then there was a change of government, the end of June, and on the 4th of July of 1977 there was a reception at the American embassy, which is the first reception I attended after Labor lost office, and this was sort of the wake, if you wish. I mean, here were the Likud people, including Begin, as the winners and all of us were standing shamefacedly on the side. Not trying to do anything with the new government. The Romanian ambassador comes to me and says to me, “I was trying to get to the new minister. I’m wanting to talk to him. Would you like to introduce me to your Prime Minister?” And he insisted on it. So, I went to Begin through the throng of people and said to him, “Mr. Prime Minister, the Romanian ambassador asked me to introduce him to you.” On the spot, in the presence of some other people, he said to him… the ambassador said to Begin, “I’d like to invite you to visit Romania. I have an invitation for you from the President.” Begin was completely surprised. He said “This is a very interesting invitation. I’m greatly welcoming it.” I don’t remember if he said I accept it or not. [Later in 1977, he went to Romania.] You know, politically this was very important for Begin to get some sort of legitimacy. Given the cloud on which Begin was to get the first foreign visit to a communist country was of some importance.
KWS: Was Begin’s visit to Romania his second visit abroad?
SA: His first visit.
KWS: No, his first visit was to the States in July. Then he went in August, in the end of August, to Romania. Did he do anything in between?
SA: Not that I know of.
KWS: So, it really was his only other visit abroad, except to the United States.
SA: Except to the United States. Now, the second indication is a talk I had with Kreisky [President/Chancellor of Austria].
SA: Again, somebody who didn’t stand very well in Yitzhak Rabin’s book, and this was after the 1977 elections.
KWS: After the elections.
KWS: After the elections but before the Likud takes office.
SA: No, no. This was after Likud took office and the peace process was already underway, after Sadat’s visit.
KWS: Oh, after Sadat’s visit.
SA: After Sadat’s visit. And this was Kreisky asking again in a very sort of mood of reminiscing about a lot of things. And he said, “What a pity that you have lost the elections because I knew that Sadat after the elections would have come to Israel, would have initiated something anyway. I’m not sure it would be the same way…”
KWS: Regardless of who was… [prime minister in Israel]
SA: Regardless, I’m not sure it would be in such a dramatic a way, but Sadat said to me, this is by Sadat actually that, “We have to do something very dramatic. I’m going to do it when we have a new government in Israel.” Now, the Romanian visit of Begin was of significance to the development of what happened later. In retrospect I realize now what the Romanians were trying to do by inviting Rabin. It had nothing to do with the Soviet Union. I mean, we misread the queue. It fits into a theory which can be proven, that it might have had to do with something with Sadat. And my imagination runs wild, what would have happened if Rabin would have come (to Romania before the May 1977 elections).
KWS: Was there any follow up with your ambassador in Romania after your visit there in early January of ’77 to probe further as to what the Romanian intentions were?
SA: No. No, the answer of… Rabin’s answer was very clear. This is not the right time. We’ll have to discuss it after the elections, and certainly, Rabin was not enthusiastic about it.
KWS: He was not enthusiastic.
KWS: Okay. When Vance was appointed, what were your general feelings in the foreign ministry about Vance, let’s say as compared to Brzezinski, in the transition period? Habib had been appointed Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs. The Rabin government had made it quite clear to Kissinger and to Ford that we’re interested in a comprehensive settlement. This was the line that was coming out of Jerusalem. What kind of talk was going on about this new team as compared to the Kissinger [team] and everything that people knew about Henry and liked and disliked about him?
SA: Well, I think there were two levels. First was the level of the devil you know, and the devil you know was Henry Kissinger and that’s a devil with whom certainly Rabin felt comfortable. There was basically a feeling that moving from step-by-step to comprehensibility is wrong, won’t work. And the response was that this is based on some lack of experience that eventually…but, obviously people like Vance, Carter will come with ideas about comprehensive settlements. It will take some time. They will realize this is not the way. We’ll educate them, they’re educatable.
KWS: So, in other words, Allon and Rabin really weren’t committed to a comprehensive settlement.
SA: No, I think they were committed to comprehensive settlement but not to a comprehensive procedure, where everything is dated to occur at the same time. I mean Rabin said this a few days ago speaking, that he is not happy about Madrid and….
KWS: Yes, yes.
SA: I mean, this is very much his life, and this was conventional wisdom. I think it’s basically correct, basically correct — basically true. That given the nature of the conflict, it is much easier to try A) to solve problems one by one, in discrete, compartmentalized negotiations with different parties. Secondly, an international conference which is aiming at a comprehensive peace, it raises expectations, it gets so much press attention. It is so much focused on the public mind that it’s very difficult to negotiate under those circumstances.
KWS: And this was the attitude of Allon and Rabin…
SA: This was the attitude of Allon and Rabin.
KWS: In the end of ’76.
SA: Yes. And the idea was that of course everybody tries, every new guy around the block would try to find a final, a comprehensive settlement. Once the people will realize what the difficulties are, they will realize the best way is to do it step-by-step, piecemeal. There are enough people — it’s enough institutional memory in the State Department including people like Habib, who was very smart in negotiations and I think never shared the idea of a comprehensive peace. But eventually, people will come back to realize this. What came as a surprise in the way in which it was articulated was Carter’s town meeting statement about a homeland for the Palestinians.
KWS: The style or the content?
SA: The very blunt way in which it was put, including some of the civil rights undertones, which came from the southern experience, I guess.
KWS: Allon went to Washington with Rabin on that visit?
SA: No, I don’t think they went together. I don’t recall. I’ll have to look back. I don’t recall if they went together. I don’t remember. [KWS noted: Allon did not go with Rabin to the U.S. to visit with JC in March 1977.]
KWS: But you don’t remember him going?
SA: No, no. This was not the style. I mean, one of the reasons was that Allon was Deputy Prime Minister, so whenever Rabin was out of the country, he was acting prime minister. So, the whole idea was that number one and number two are not out of the country at the same time.
KWS: How much influence did Allon have on Rabin on the peace process?
SA: Well, let’s say that the relationship between them was a very complex one. It was a very close relationship given all Palmach days. It was also a very complex relationship.
KWS: Allon was Rabin’s commander.
SA: Because Allon was the commander of the Palmach and Rabin was brigade commander of Palmach…so, there was a very ambivalent relationship.
SA: Ambivalent relationship. A very close and ambivalent relationship. Allon always valued Rabin very much, but he was his former commander, and Rabin was always very careful to show Allon respect and love. But again, he’s not number one.
KWS: But he didn’t defer to him. He respected him but he didn’t defer to him.
SA: He did not defer to him. Um, I’m not sure I want to say this on record but never mind. Rabin is a single wolf. He has the best analytical mind in Israeli politics. He’s usually right 95% of the time. He doesn’t need advice and he shows it. When he’s wrong, and I think on the Romanian issue he was wrong, it was one of the 5% when he’s wrong, and Rabin, not in his first Prime Ministerial position and not in his present one, surrounds himself with advisors. So, this is in the general context. There is also another part. And this is the troika of Rabin, Allon, Peres in the government of 1974-1977. In this troika, Peres was a hawk.
KWS: Peres was a hawk. Peres supported the settlers.
SA: Hawk. This was a Peres who at that time still supported some of the settlers, on the Elon Moreh business. So, in this troika, there was a political alliance between Rabin and Allon, first of all to stop Peres from becoming Prime Minister, and there was, as you remember, a contest in the party conference in the spring of 1977. And secondly, there was a dovish alliance vis-a-vis Peres. So Allon…for example, Rabin did support in general terms the Allon Plan. He might not have been as religiously — meaning fervently — committed to it as Allon naturally was. Peres, at that time, was basically thinking in terms of what they called “functional compromise,” which really meant continuation of Israeli military control over the West Bank. So, when I said to you that the relationship was ambivalent, it was on the one hand ambivalent because of the love and mutual respect, but also [because of] the reverse withdrawals between Allon and Rabin, but it was also a political alliance against Rafi-Peres. Against also Dayan, who was out and who was — in many cases, Peres was seen as Dayan’s proxy in the government. And Dayan was considered to be still a political threat within the political leadership. And there were a number of cases where Peres was trying to push Dayan into the political arena, even during Entebbe, so there were weeds within weeds, it wasn’t an easy relationship.
KWS: What was your first impression of Carter?
SA: [great pause] Naivete
KWS: Your impression wasn’t naive, you…
SA: As naive, well not naive, but a certain naivete.
SA: Perhaps it’s prejudice. I always had a feeling that within a political system one has to grow to be number one. It’s the American political system which makes it possible for a governor of a small, not necessarily failed state to become number one.
KWS: Not a major state.
SA: Not a major state.
KWS: I’ll buy that.
SA: Okay, and therefore, while I had a feeling that, looking at the appointments that Carter made, that he made some very impressive appointments in defense, foreign affairs. And again, reading the statements and I think “homeland” to the Palestinians was one, I found this is a great naivete. It is stating the desiderata [what is wanted] and not asking how do you get from here to there. Now, personally, I am very much, have been since 1967, for a Palestinian homeland. I did not have problems when I was appointed to the Foreign Ministry by hawks who were against it. This was discussed in the cabinet, and it’s not a problem. I have no problems with the Palestinians, but I thought that this was giving the wrong signal. For example, to the Palestinians, out of context to speak of a Palestinian homeland without speaking about the conflicts. I also thought that believing that the Israeli-Arab conflict can be solved through a comprehensive method was naive because (A) it overlooked the complexity of the written issues, and (B) overlooked what it does to the American-Soviet relationship, but I have to admit I never had any direct contact with Carter when he was president.
KWS: The Palestinian homeland address was something that he cooked up himself. He didn’t talk to anyone before.
SA: I’m not surprised.
KWS: He didn’t talk to Mondale, Brzezinski, Vance, in fact, after he said it, he sent a telegram to all of them saying “Under no circumstances are you to answer any questions with the press about explaining what I meant. What I meant is what I said, and it stands.”
SA: Presidents can do that.
KWS: The bureaucrats — Atherton, Quandt, Saunders — were overwhelmed with delight. Here was a guy who took something that wasn’t even their briefing book. They didn’t put it in his briefing book. He did it himself, and they were energized to a point that was totally unexpected. [We learned from other sources – especially Ambassador Veliotes that Brzezinski suggested the homeland remark to Carter.]
SA: It helped among the 17 reasons why Labor lost the elections in 1977.
KWS: Yeah, and I think everyone is agreed, but it was truly a small segment. The fraying of the U.S.-Israeli relationship was not a major reason for Likud victory.
SA: No, no, I’m saying among the 17 reasons. But if you look at the Israeli campaign of ’77, and again I’ve seen from memory what has to substantiate that. An Israeli prime minister who runs for election has to make sure that the American front or the American wing of the battle is comfortable. You have to show that there is a basic understanding with the United States. There may be all kinds of minor issues but a basic understanding. For example, it certainly didn’t help Shamir in the last election when he lost, it was clear that he and Bush are on a collision course, opposition forces. Now it might have been a much more major case, but Rabin was a beleaguered prime minister. He was beleaguered because of internal dissension within his own party, he was beleaguered because the party was still identified with the Yom Kippur mahdal, he was beleaguered because he did not project a strong leadership capability in internal affairs. So, if you add all those things, and there were other things as well, the fact that Likud was saying “It is not true what the Labor says that if we come to power, there’s going to be a major crisis in the relationship with America. The crisis is already here.” It didn’t help. After all, what did Labor in was not the Likud, but was the Rabin party. So, I’m not trying to give it too much of the weight, but it put Labor on the defensive in an area where no Israeli prime minister who runs for reelection wants to trouble with.
KWS: Do you remember Vance’s visit here in February…
SA: Yes, I remember it well.
KWS: Tell me what you remember about it.
SA: I think the visit — again, I was at some of the meetings, I was not at all the meetings…there was one meeting at the foreign office and another at the Prime Minister’s office. I was sitting in on both meetings. There was also a private meeting that Vance had with Rabin, on this meeting I was not. My recollection now, and also my impression then was, that Vance went out of his way to make the Israelis feel comfortable. That basically the idea was that this was the preparatory, that no great issues are going to be discussed in detail, that basically the country is in an election mood, that whatever is going to happen is going to happen after the elections. Vance, I saw also, and I remember this very clearly, was very much aware of the Rabin-Peres tension, which didn’t register in those meetings because the meetings ran very smooth. I gave a briefing to the press after that and I said, “You’re not going to believe me, but Rabin and Peres spoke in the same tone. I know you’re not going to believe me but please do.” So, I was very much impressed that it was basically an exploration meeting. We had much more interesting talks with people like Habib and others who…
KWS: What about Vance’s statement to Rabin about the cluster bombs, and the United States was going to suspend their delivery, or that the Kfirs couldn’t be sold to Ecuador.
SA: The Kfirs, okay… The cluster bombs I don’t recall being mentioned in the meeting at which I was present. Again, I don’t recall, they might have been mentioned in the private meeting. The Kfirs to Ecuador was nothing new. We knew that this is not going to be okay and some of us thought that we made a mistake in the first place.
KWS: Epi — Both Epi Evron and Meir Rosenne told me about this meeting, about Vance’s trip, but it was not a very good one. Even Hanan Bar-On said, “We saw signals here that we didn’t particularly like. These were things…we thought Vance was a man that we’d understood from the Pentagon, and we were beginning to see a different man.” And all three of them have sort of colored this visit in hues and tones and colors that are closer to dark gray than they are to light gray.
SA: Okay, okay. Let me try to deconstruct it if I may. First of all, I was responding to the visit as such: the visit, in the end, if you look at the press, again, this is my own recollection here, that there was nothing very dramatic reported about that meeting. There may be one difference between the three people you mentioned and myself is that all three of them remained in office after the change of government and had had much more experience with Vance. Later on, and I’m not saying that they are trying to read retrospectively, but they maybe have a much wider horizon from which to judge Vance. I was going just to respond to that. Again, the context — that this is a new administration about which the government and particularly Rabin was a little nervous. So, the nervousness came out in Rabin’s visit. So, the nervousness and the unease and to feel that you are here with an unknown quantity and from Rabin’s point of view, the allies he sees in the United States are usually not on the Democratic side. There are certain groups within the Republican side he felt always more comfortable with them. He had none of the problems some Israeli Labor party people had with the Republican party, never had those internal ideological problems. So, if you put this visit in the frame of the wider Vance-Israeli experience, I think the assessment of Meir Rosenne and Epi Evron was correct. I was just trying to respond…
KWS: Was there any notion yet in Rabin’s mind about the need to go ahead with another agreement? With Egypt?
SA: Yes. Rabin during all that time was thinking about a second or third, if you would, disengagement agreement with Egypt. This was also the understanding I had when in the summer of 1976. I went to the United States; it was for my first visit in meeting with Kissinger as Secretary of State. We knew each other not very well before that, only as university people, that the next step will be Egypt. It will take time, and Rabin’s concept, which will not really answer the question, Rabin had a two-tiered concept of Israeli-Arab peacemaking after the Yom Kippur War. His first tier was consolidate. Israel was weakened in the Yom Kippur War. It was weakened strategically, it was weakened in public perception abroad, it was weakened in the internal resolve in the country. So, consolidate, rebuild the army, rebuild the relationship with the United States, make sure that American strategic and military aid to Israel stays at the level at which it developed immediately after the Yom Kippur War, and consolidate. Don’t negotiate from what Rabin thought immediately in ’74-’75 as positions of weakness. Give it two or three years, and also get a mandate. Rabin was always aware of the fact that he just doesn’t have a mandate as Prime Minister, that he is very much an accidental Prime Minister. And the next step will have to be with Egypt, which will have to be after the elections and after a certain time passes, between the completion of the second disengagement agreement with Egypt and the elections. So, the time factor in Rabin’s consideration about what he wants to achieve is very important. But again, this is Rabin’s basic thinking, where the strategic is more important than political.
KWS: The notion I get is that Rabin is a beleaguered prime minister. Or at least one who’s got a large agenda when he goes off to Washington in early March.
SA: Mm-hmm, very much.
KWS: This is Carter’s entry from Keeping Faith: “I was looking forward to meeting with Rabin, kind of a peg in which you could hang the Mid-East peace. He was absolutely and totally uninterested. Very timid, very stubborn and somewhat ill-at-ease. The fact was he had no interest at all in talking about negotiations. It was just like talking to a dead fish.”
SA: Okay, that I think is Carter’s misunderstanding of Rabin’s position. I mean, it’s a thing in basic. The one thing that Rabin did not want to talk three months before an Israeli election is peace with an American president who thinks about comprehensive peace and who talks about a homeland for the Palestinians.
KWS: Well, he would ultimately talk about the homeland a month later.
SA: Well, yeah. You need a hold on the operation until the election. I think this is what Vance understood.
KWS: You don’t think Carter understood.
SA: Maybe Carter did not because Vance was an old hand, and therefore was — it’s very low-key. And therefore, the very bad vibrations from the Rabin visit came to me as a surprise. Now I knew that Rabin isn’t good at chit-chat, and Rabin isn’t good at small talk, and he’s not going to kiss Amy good night. I mean all those things we all knew, but I thought that Vance was, given the way Vance, I thought, understood the dynamics of the Israeli politics, that this is not the right time to put this government, which has a problem. By that time there were already… I don’t remember whether the Da’ash party was already established when Rabin was in the States or not, but there were talks about it. I think, given this quotation, Carter thought this man was not interested in talking about peace. Now, this was not a man who was ready to talk about peace before the next election. Different story. Also, Rabin thought it always step-by-step, and Carter thought the comprehensive process.
KWS: Did Allon and Rabin ever talk to you about the Brookings Report?
SA: Yes. Like everybody else. They were not very happy at that time about the kind of discourse that initiated.
KWS: But no one went so far to say, “But really it’s just the Rogers Plan given some more flesh,” isn’t it?
SA: No, it wasn’t just the Rogers Plan. The Palestinian aspect of it was the most touchy issue in Israeli politics.
KWS: That was the Brookings Plan.
SA: And this is the way it was perceived in Israel today. Talk today to an Israeli about it. If he remembers the Brookings Plan… ah — Palestinians. Because this, the Palestinian issue, much more than the territorial issue, was a symbolic, emotional important issue in the public discourse. Not in the strategic discourse, you talk to the army people and you talk to the politicians… Look, of course, when the Palestinian homeland issue/speech came up, the Israeli newspaper reaction was “Well, of course, this is Brzezinski. Brzezinski was involved with the Brookings Report.” So, this is, of course, the implication of the Brookings Report, and it didn’t really matter whether Brzezinski said or didn’t, that’s not the point.
KWS: Did Rabin and Allon ever talk about the possibility in ’76 and ’77 of another Syrian agreement?
SA: I don’t recall trying to reconstruct it, and given the leeway, I think the whole strategy was Egypt-oriented, and if the next step will be available with Egypt, perhaps the Syrians will follow. But certainly, the next step is not going to be with Syria. You remember, this was also the time that the Syrians were trying slowly to — I mean this was the civil war in Lebanon, this was at the time when Syria was already consolidating its position in the Lebanese civil war. The idea was to contain Syria and Lebanon, despite the fact that — and the idea of containing Syria was very important to Rabin. I mean Rabin was sometimes under pressure when even he said that when I have to make — that containing Syria in Lebanon is much more important than containing the Palestinians, because the Palestinians are not a strategic threat to Israel, Syria is. I mean, this is, again, Rabin thinking very strategically, not necessarily politically. The Palestinians, you say Palestinians, that’s not part of Israel crises. While Syria, that’s more strategic.
KWS: Was Rabin really concerned about Dayan’s reemergence?
SA: Not reemergence, but the nuisance value, yes.
SA: Nuisance value, and that there may be situations that he — it was no secret that Dayan and Begin had periodic meetings. So, the idea [was]that certain constellations and maybe some realignment, which eventually, of course, happened. But Dayan in his way of course, only bet it on a sure horse, he would never take the risk.
KWS: Would Allon have made a good prime minister?
SA: It’s a tough question because one of Allon’s… let me put it this way: the day Rabin was out, the evening Rabin was out, I was with Allon, with some other people. And we said, “Now is your time to challenge Peres.” And we found a great reluctance.
KWS: What was the source of the reluctance?
SA: Until this very day I don’t know. I think part of the reluctance has to do with the fact that Allon, at his core, was perhaps too decent to be in politics. I mean, hard-board politics.
KWS: Well Dayan certainly wasn’t a politician.
SA: But Dayan was scrupulous in terms of his attitude to friends. He had no friends. Allon had a long tradition of…
KWS: He wasn’t a politician.
SA: No, no. I’m not saying whether there were — look, if you are, if you make it to the top of the Israeli chief-of-staff, you are a politician. Otherwise, you’re going to end up as brigade commander, release the desks to politics is not just about hard politics. Above the soft core, a very humanistic soft core, the heart of Allon, which is also one of the reasons why when he discussed the Palestinian issue, for example, he did discuss in terms of rights and wrongs of domination. Something which neither Rabin, nor Peres at that time, would ever articulate.
KWS: But Dayan would.
SA: Dayan would in his very complex way. And therefore…
KWS: We can do whatever we want to these people, but they’ll always view us as rulers.
SA: That’s right, okay. Dayan could always get down from either side of the fence. And he did.
KWS: Yeah, he did. And did a good job.
SA: Okay, fine. So, I am not sure that Allon would be able to muster that kind of support, political support, and do the kind of political wheeling-dealing within his own party which would make it possible for him to be prime minister. I mean, what I’m saying is that he may not have become prime minister. If he would have been able to become prime minister, he would be a good one, but it’s a circular argument.
KWS: Did you have any idea what was developing between Sadat and Carter?
KWS: Did you read the protocols of Rabin’s visit with Carter?
SA: Yes, but not immediately after the visit. This is because they were not available for some time.
KWS: It’s one of the first things Begin did when he took office.
SA: For sure, but they were not available to members of the government immediately after the Rabin visit. We got a report. There was a Rabin report to the cabinet on which I sat, and it was very clear that this wasn’t a very happy visit.
KWS: Did you have anything to do with Sam Lewis’ meeting with Begin that took place…
SA: No, I was surprised like everybody else. I had — before that I just met Sam Lewis once and this was some time before the elections, before the, well on the day he was confirmed by the Senate. It was an AIPAC dinner in Washington. Allon should have come to the dinner. He couldn’t, so he asked me to go to Washington, and I was the keynote speaker, and I asked to be seated next to Sam, which was out of protocol. But I wanted to sit next to him and was very much impressed by his knowledge of Israeli politics. I think he knew an overwhelming amount, so I was not surprised. I was surprised when I heard about the meeting. I had nothing to do with it. There was a consequence to that. I don’t know whether you came across it, when Sam presented his credentials between the elections and formation of the new government. So, when the old government was still an acting government caretaker government, Allon did not come to the presentation of the credentials because he was mad at Sam, because Sam went to see Begin before he made a courtesy visit to the outgoing foreign minister. And I said to him…I had an argument… I mean, “I can see why you’re piqued, but you know we’re the losers, he is the new ambassador. He has to be on good terms with…”
KWS: But Allon still…
SA: As a consequence of that, I was the highest Israeli ranking official at the presentation of the American ambassador’s credential at President Katzir’s which was very funny.
KWS: Hanan Bar-On tells a story that after the Rabin visit with Carter, Rabin went over to the American University to be given an honorary degree, and Carter went out on the White House lawn to give a press conference; he said, “I think Israel should withdraw to ’67 borders with minor border rectifications and they have to negotiate with the PLO.”
SA: I remember that.
KWS: And Hanan tells me…
SA: …Carter had said “And Rabin looked at me and said ‘You’re fantasizing, aren’t you? This can’t be true.’” An American president doesn’t stand up at a press conference and discuss disagreements between the state of Israel and the United States, in public. And Bar-On said “Yes he did. Prime Minister, I didn’t make this up.” On the way to the airport, Vance meets Rabin and said the same thing at the airport, says the same thing. Rabin got on the plane and was incredulous over what Carter said, “I do not know what kind of administration that this is?”
SA: Okay, he knew one kind of administration.
KWS: He knew the devil.
SA: And he knew a certain modus operandi which was very much the modus operandi that developed between during in the last Johnson years. That there is a certain relationship between Israel and the United States; there are certain rules of the game. Even if there is a disagreement, it is worked out within those rules of the game.
KWS: You don’t wash your laundry in public.
SA: That’s not what the relationship between Israel and the United States is about.
KWS: Israel had gotten very comfortable with dealing with Henry and quietly solving the problems.
SA: Well, it’s not Henry. Start with ’67. It starts really with Johnson. It starts with the way Johnson made it easy for Israel after the Six Day War to hold on before Nixon came, so there was a continuity there between the Johnson and the Nixon administration. I think if I would articulate it that even in the worst cases of disagreement with Henry over disengagement, [that] there would appear among friends, the American administration is on our side. What, again the statement about homeland for the Palestinians, and for the first time an American administration that works in a different way, has an inexperienced president who has a world view which is not tested by anything, and he may be on the other side.
KWS: When you look back on it, now I’m asking Shlomo Avineri the political scientist not Shlomo Avineri the Director General of the Foreign Ministry… did American foreign policy, both in terms of its content and style, drive Sadat to go to Jerusalem?
SA: Yes. In this dramatic way, yes. Now this may contradict what I said earlier about the Romanian initiative or at what Kreisky said, but Sadat had something going on in his mind. My reading of Sadat’s decision to go to Jerusalem or to say to his parliament “I am ready even to go and say to the Knesset,” which is really the way, has to do with the joint communique [U.S.-Soviet Declaration], which was the start of the Carter administration.
KWS: It wasn’t just the joint communique…
SA: No, no.
KWS: Hermann Eilts says one of the major reasons Sadat went to Jerusalem was that he was afraid the Syrians were going to have a veto over his negotiating options.
SA: Negotiating options?
KWS: Sadat was afraid that Carter was so involved with the complexities of this conference. and the procedures, and the methods, and representation issues of the Palestinian… he had it up to here.
SA: In this respect, Sadat and Rabin saw eye-to-eye about the procedure of an international conference. [Both believed a conference would deny each country would be denied prerogative at a conference, KWS.] Look what’s happened now with three years after Madrid, which is in a way vindicated.
KWS: If you look back on it a year, a little bit more than a year, as Director General, are there things that you wish you could have done, you should have done. Other than the Romanians and as part of the peace process perhaps?
SA: Perhaps a little bit more initiative with regard to the Soviet Union, not that it would have helped much. But I found the situation in which we need the United States for all our consultations with the Soviet Union a little bit unbalanced. I would have liked to have had a certain level at which we could see eye-to-eye with the Soviet Union — not on the sanctions, we couldn’t — and neutralize a little bit the American monopoly on some of our decisions, but in this respect, I don’t think much would have come out of it. And the period in which I was in the Foreign Ministry was really a period of a government that had an accidental prime minister. We still needed to be directly elected. There were other prime ministers in Israel which were not elected in the first place. so was Eshkol in the first, so was Golda, but they had great things going for them; that happened to them. Eshkol proved his way because he stood up to Ben Gurion. He became his own prime minister, not just Ben Gurion’s stand-in. Golda, in her style, was able to show that she’s a tough lady, and Rabin has a problem that the first thing he did was to sign a disengagement, well it was first signed by Golda, but he signed the disengagement separation of powers on the Golan Heights.
KWS: It occurs to me that the ideology and philosophy of the Likud was never really understood by the Carter administration until well into October/November.
KWS: Maybe earlier, maybe the summer. But the philosophy and ideas of the Labor party is what made it convenient to put down their thoughts and call it the Brookings paper. In other words, the Brookings paper was written in a certain sense to be understood and accepted by the party that these guys — Quandt, Brzezinski, Atherton, Saunders — thought would be reasonably accepted.
KWS: And after they did that, and then the shock of not Rabin but Begin — the Americans couldn’t get off of their comprehensive, Brookings, Geneva conference wagon. They didn’t have — as Roy Atherton said, “We developed a mindset and we didn’t know how to get out of our mindset.”
SA: Mm-hmm, but you see, Begin, in retrospect — this has nothing to do with my opinion — in retrospect, Begin had one great achievement. He was able to get a separate peace with Egypt that didn’t look exactly like a separate peace, that had some framework regarding the Palestinians, and he hoped that he would buy three to five years. He bought 15. So, this very, the idea of giving to Sadat whatever he wants, really, which made some people in the Labor Party a little bit uneasy. Giving them Rafia, giving them Sharm-el-Sheikh but having this sort of fuzzy issue of autonomy, which I think at some level Begin knew would never work, but it’s a good negotiating ploy. It will take you two years, three years. That’s why he appointed Burg and not Dayan, and that’s what Dayan understood, that when Burg was appointed, that Begin doesn’t really want to have an agreement of autonomy, he wants negotiations of autonomy, and this ploy worked.
KWS: Dayan understood that.
SA: Dayan understood. At that time, not that this was, you know, a priori Begin’s view, but once the decision was to appoint Burg, it means that you don’t expect real negotiations to succeed.
KWS: I think I’ve done it. I can ask a question about the conference. One last…did Rabin trust Sadat?
SA: It was staged…
KWS: After September ’75 but before the announcement of elections, I mean, I’ve always wondered why wasn’t there a third agreement… There’s nothing to prevent the third agreement, other than the 1976 presidential elections.
SA: And the 1977 Israeli elections.
KWS: Right. But even if something could have been done earlier in ’76.
SA: Too early from eh…, again I go back to what I think was Rabin’s concept, which he never articulated: consolidation process, don’t rush. Rabin was ready to end up with a very minimalist Israeli territorial gain, but it should never appear that Israel’s been pushed to plus-minus pre-’67 borders in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. This is out of weakness, and two years after the Yom Kippur War, three years after the Yom Kippur War, it still appears as an outcome of Yom Kippur war. Decouple Israeli concessions, ultimate concessions from the outcome at the end of the war, and decouple it in strategic thinking and also in terms of the Israeli population. Rabin always knew that it would be very difficult to sell further withdrawals to the Israeli public. They cannot be sold if they appear to be as if they are out of a position of weakness, and for this you need the extra one or two years.
KWS: You never got a message from Sadat from January through June  saying “I want to deal with you guys directly.”
SA: Not that I know of, no.
KWS: Now, Carter told me in one of the four interviews, that after his April visit to Sadat, or at his April visit with Sadat. Sadat told him, “Look, we can have peace in five years and normalization of relations.” And Carter said, “That’s not good enough. You have to do it now.” And Sadat said, “Okay Mr. President, if we do it now, I won’t guarantee the assurances from you and I’ll tell you what, if we do it now, I’ll tell you, but I won’t tell anyone else, but I’ll sign a peace treaty.” He used the term, “I’ll sign a peace treaty.” And Carter never told Brzezinski and Vance, never told Quandt, never told Saunders…
SA: Did he tell Rabin?
KWS: No. Never communicated it with anyone. He kept it to himself. This fits with the Romanian initiative. It fits with Kreisky.
SA: It also fits with Sadat’s understanding that you can’t do it before the election. If Sadat understood one thing…in all of the Israeli politics, procedure, his visit here, how goes through the text, what he spoke in the Knesset and how he spoke to the Labor party.
KWS: And now my task… when did this really begin? This notion that he’ll sign a separate peace treaty.
SA: Let me try an idea.
KWS: Fine, I’m game.
SA: Okay. Sadat’s — and this is now really the counterpoint to what I think was Rabin’s view of consolidation — Sadat, the way I read of course, Yom Kippur War, is a war to destabilize the status quo, gain a military…
KWS: Limited military victory…
SA: Yes, but that’s not the point. Not to destroy Israel, not to destroy Tel Aviv. He was realistic enough to understand what can be done but upset the apple cart and get things rolling, and get things rolling fast. And the two disengagement agreements suggest to Rabin that he’s on his way.
KWS: Harness the Americans and throw out the Soviets.
SA: Yeah. What happened? What happened to him sometime at the end of ’75, beginning of ’76, he realized that this doesn’t go on? That there is hiatus, that there is stoppage to that. This is really the Rabin strategy: time. That the momentum gained by the Yom Kippur War doesn’t bring him back to the ’67 boundaries. It was stopped somewhere, and that Israel in a smart way was able to — and probably so long as Kissinger would be there, it would be like that. Once it became clear to him that the salami tactics doesn’t work, he would have do something more.
KWS: I believe that Sadat realizesd that he still had to be the engine, to start the engine again; he did it after 1972-73 failed to engage the US; You think I’m wrong? He came with his February ’71 idea. As Gideon Raphael told me, he said, “Golda would not sacrifice the old cows to listen.” Six hundred policemen on the other side of the canal was something that Golda couldn’t accept. He threw the Soviets out, never told anyone about it, never asked for anything in return. Went to war, he didn’t tell anyone, didn’t even tell King Hussein. And when Israel had to, when you were negotiating your number of tanks for Sinai I, he told Gamasy, “Well, who cares about 300 tanks. We’re not making peace with Israel; we’re making peace with the Americans.”
SA: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm hm. I didn’t know that, but it figures. Yeah.
KWS: He had to have a Syrian-Israeli agreement in order to have a protective umbrella for a temporary period of time. He was disappointed at reassessment, but he asked Kissinger one of the questions that I have to have asked in the March reassessment in this country, in April, Allon is on the plane back to…I mean, how much reassessment was there? He gets Sinai II, and how much really is different between Sinai II and what was not received in March? The difference between the memorandum of understanding and the letters of assurance in essence.
SA: Which were important symbolically for Israel and in the internal political events for in Israel.
KWS: Very important, particularly for a man who’s interested in consolidation. The memorandum of understanding, emblematic of a man who is interested in consolidating and distancing himself from pressure, particularly since his party is still tarnished from the ’73 war.
SA: Yeah, and that’s what Carter I think did not understand. Now my question is: did Carter get, at any point, and from the Rabin visit, a good read on the Israeli political scene? Or was it all the peace negotiations… that there is no politics in Israel?
KWS: It didn’t matter to him. Jimmy Carter does not anticipate the consequences of his action. He doesn’t take into account that there are political idioms and unique historical situations…
SA: And political culture…
KWS: …And political cultures, be they domestic or foreign, be they bureaucratic or political. He never tended to Congress. He wouldn’t shake Tip O’Neill’s hand. He didn’t understand how to do it. Brookings was a plan, it was an outline, it was easy for an engineer to accept a plan and an outline. He didn’t understand that the PLO was something anathema to Israel. He just knew that Quandt and Brzezinski said that the PLO had to be there, so they had to be there. If that was the way… If Soviets had to be there because Vance said they had to be there, they had to be there. It was part of a building block of a larger edifice that he was trying to structure. He didn’t understand that the edifice had a character and had a personality and couldn’t just be tinkered with on the basis of “You take A part and put it in B hole in order to get C conclusion.” I worked with him for 10 years, Shlomo, and I know more than most people about how his mind operates, and it’s very evident for me to see that he never took into account internal Israeli politics, and what’s even more astonishing is that Saunders and Quandt and Atherton did not either.
SA: Saunders didn’t. Quandt… now in his books and in his writing now he understands Israel, he takes it into account… very much All right, that’s all, but he learned something. You know his [Quandt’s article about the blinking right [on the pre-1967 war in Middle East Journal] is a very sophisticated piece of writing.
KWS: And the only voice that one heard, it was just a bit of rumbling now and then, was Atherton’s, and that’s because Roy was schooled by Joe [Sisco], and Joe had a sense about what Israel was and its political idioms. But Jimmy Carter, when he became president… and that’s why one of the main foci of my chapter on Carter is it’s this historical axiom of the theory of unintended consequences — he deeply wanted an Arab-Israeli settlement, but certainly not the one he got. I mean, and not the way he wanted to get it. The delay in which the U.S. administration responded (to Sadat) was a perfect example.
SA: I remember Brzezinski’s response…
KWS: But what I’ve learned is that Anwar Sadat had a plan that goes back to ’71. Now it’s very easy to say it was logical, it was step-by-step. He had a goal: he wanted Sinai under Egyptian sovereignty.
SA: And the rest was nothing. The Palestinians were not important. He needed an umbrella for the Palestinians, he needed to neutralize the Syrians.
KWS: Yariv told me when Gamasy met him for the first time, in the second hour of the discussion, Gamasy turns to Yariv and says “Halachna Filistin,” “We are finished with Palestine.” Hermann Eilts said Sadat hated Assad. He was not a lover of the Arabs, and especially not a lover of the Palestinians. Hafez Ismail said the same thing. Now why wasn’t someone on this side of the canal reading Anwar Sadat right? Because Anwar Sadat wasn’t sending out the right signals? Maybe Sadat didn’t want to send out signals, but there is no one who worked for Golda…
SA: Under Golda it was impossible to do.
KWS: With the exception of Dayan.
SA: Yeah, but then Dayan never fought for his convictions.
KWS: Or he was beaten by the party hacks whenever there was a question, as in 1970. Dayan wanted to unilaterally withdraw, and Bar-Lev said forget it!
SA: You know we’re talking about politics. The Labor party was under two traumas. One, of course, it was Yom Kippur. There was an earlier trauma which was then subsumed under the victory of the war. When Nasser closed the straits, kicked out the UN, Labor was caught with their pants down. Eshkol was fired, as Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. There were two weeks of lack of clarity, the army was…
KWS: Boy, is that a polite way to put it.
SA: Huh? No, that’s exactly what…
KWS: How about paralysis, Shlomo?
SA: No, no, no, no, no. The army was pushing with — including Ezer Weizman — to go ahead. Eshkol was totally unprepared for that situation. Rabin (in late May 1967), who thought that he might have exacerbated the situation because of the talks about Damascus, you remember his statement, [Rabin]went to Ben Gurion, and Ben Gurion told him with all the out anything, “You have now pushed them into a major war. There are going to be thousands of people who are going to be killed.” And the nicotine intoxication of Rabin happened after the talk with Ben Gurion. This was a when Rabin lost his nerve. Ben Gurion tells him that, “You have now destroyed the Jewish state.” And then you have street demonstrations calling Dayan back. And Dayan is brought back with Begin in his wake. Labor wins the war, well, Israel wins the war with a Labor Prime Minister, with Dayan, stealing the victory out from everybody else. And Labor is under the feeling we should never have talks again. It was touch and go. They lost power between the 15th of May and the 15th of June 1967. Look, the intelligence assessment was wrong. On the 13th of May 1967, there was an assessment that there would never be a war so long as Nasser was in Yemen. It is an intelligence assessment which was as wrong in ’67 as it was in ’73. There was one difference. Again, there was a war which saw victory, but it happened with Dayan, and the fear that Labor was saved by Dayan rankled the people like Golda. Why did Golda not kick Dayan out or do something? Why did she keep Begin in the government in 1970 until the Rogers initiative? Why did she need him after the elections? She didn’t need him. She didn’t want a challenge from the right. The trauma of Dayan was one of the worst things of hers, which paralyzed to a very large extent Labor. They should do counter-factual scenarios. Imagine Israel would go to the war on the fifth of June, but with a Labor government. The old Labor government, without Dayan and Begin. The whole thing happened. It would look differently. Making an offer on the West Bank. It would be Dayan who would always threaten to join Begin. And sitting on the fence of Dayan was so crucial and Labor knew that it needs Dayan. And this is why between ’67 and ’69 elections there was also the unification of the Labor party and Rafi… because Labor was, before ’67, on their way down. This was a great rejuvenation, not only of Golda Meir but of the Labor party.
KWS: So the ’67 war saved the Labor party?
SA: Saved the Labor party.
KWS: Maybe gave it another 10 years.
SA: Maybe gave it another 10 years… messed up Israeli politics for two generations, messed up the balance of power in the Middle East. You know, when you talk about the Six Day War… let’s put this off for the moment, when you talk about the Six Day War, one possibly scenario [referring to the tape recorder]. End of tape.