The Rogers Plan, October–December 1969
The Rogers Plan, October–December 1969
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the “Rogers Plan,” which was considered a sincere effort to find a proposition the Arabs and Israelis could both accept. Although the proposal left the final status of Jerusalem unresolved, it took into account Israel's security concerns by insisting that its withdrawal from the occupied territories would only come after its Arab neighbors accepted Israel's “territorial integrity,” while at the same time addressing the needs of the Egyptians and Palestinians by calling on the Israelis to grant partial control of Jerusalem to the Arabs and work toward a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. Richard B. Parker, a former Foreign Service officer with extensive service in northern Africa and the Middle East, stated that the Rogers Plan was “watered down in the name of realism” and, in retrospect, looked considerably more favorable to the Arabs than to Israel.
On December 9, 1969, Secretary of State William P. Rogers publicly unveiled his blueprint of a plan for an Arab-Israeli peace settlement that had been in the works with the Soviet Union for the better part of eight months. Speaking before the Galaxy Conference on Adult Education at the Sheraton Park Hotel in Washington, DC, Rogers declared that the United States had adopted a “balanced and fair” policy in the Middle East consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 242. He argued that the Arabs must accept a “permanent peace” with Israel based on a “binding agreement” and maintained that any settlement between Israel and the Arabs must contain a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee question. Most important, though, Rogers put the United States on record as supporting Israel's withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War. “We believe that while recognized political boundaries must be established and agreed upon by the parties, any change in the pre-existing lines should not reflect the weight of conquest and should be confined to insubstantial alterations required for mutual security,” said Rogers. “We do not support expansionism. We believe troops must be withdrawn.”1
To many observers, the “Rogers Plan,” as it was quickly dubbed, was a “sincere effort to find a proposition the Arabs and Israelis could both accept.” Although the proposal left the final status of Jerusalem unresolved, it took into account Israel's security concerns by insisting that its withdrawal from the occupied territories would only come after its Arab neighbors accepted (p.49) Israel's “territorial integrity,” while at the same time addressing the needs of the Egyptians and Palestinians by calling on the Israelis to grant partial control of Jerusalem to the Arabs and work toward a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. According to Richard B. Parker, a former Foreign Service officer with extensive service in northern Africa and the Middle East, the Rogers Plan was “watered down in the name of realism” and, in retrospect, looked considerably more favorable to the Arabs than to Israel. The New York Times also acknowledged that the secretary of state's speech was the most “definitive” and “comprehensive” statement yet offered of what the United States was trying to achieve between Arabs and Israelis. And moderate Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and Morocco, “drew warm expressions of appreciation” to Secretary Rogers's plan.2
To the parties directly affected by the new proposals, however, the Rogers Plan landed with a thud. Israeli prime minister Golda Meir insisted that it would be “suicidal” for Israel to accept the plan and argued that any Israeli leader who approved the initiative would be guilty of treason. Her foreign minister, Abba Eban, called it “one of the major errors of international diplomacy in the postwar era,” and the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Yitzhak Rabin, told Henry Kissinger that the plan was a “great mistake” and “undermined” Israel's position in future negotiations with its neighbors. The Egyptians, moreover, while far more receptive to the ideas than the Israelis, believed that the Rogers Plan was simply an “American maneuver” to split the Arab world by inducing President Gamal Abdel Nasser into a separate peace agreement with Israel. And the Soviet Union, though a partner in the talks that produced the American proposal, scoffed at the idea, calling it “one-sided” and “pro-Israeli” and maintaining that it could not “facilitate finding ways of settlement in the Middle East.”3
Of course, most of the accusations coming out of Israel and Egypt were exaggerated, and the Soviets were obviously reluctant to support an American-led, rather than a Soviet or even a joint, proposal. But if their accusations were true, why would Rogers put forward such a proposal knowing in advance that the reaction to it would be universally negative? And why did President Nixon allow Rogers to go public with the plan when even he believed that “it could never be implemented” and had “absolutely no chance of being accepted by Israel”?4 Was it simply because it was (p.50) important for the Arab world to know that the United States did not automatically dismiss its case regarding the occupied territories, as Nixon argued in his memoirs, or could it have been that the president was unwilling to overrule his secretary of state on a critical foreign policy initiative so early in his administration?
At the time, many commentators believed that the root of the Middle East peace plan could be found in Rogers's desire to make a name for himself as secretary of state, especially in light of the increasing role Henry Kissinger continued to play in shaping foreign policy in the Nixon administration. In fact, if there was one complaint about the secretary after his first year at the State Department, it was that he had not asserted himself more forcefully as the architect of American foreign policy. “Rogers's voice was so muffled that it seemed, at times, unheard,” Marilyn Berger wrote in the Washingtonian toward the end of his first years at State. One Foreign Service officer, moreover, remarked that for the first half-year Rogers “was all but invisible, as far has his impact on the building goes,” emphasizing that Undersecretary Elliot Richardson made a much deeper impact on morale and management. And the longtime New York Times reporter, Max Frankel, wrote in late 1969 that even though Rogers had the longest personal relationship with Nixon, it was Attorney General John Mitchell who had emerged as the “strong man” in the cabinet.5
Although Rogers had hardly made a name for himself as secretary of state in the way that George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson, or John Foster Dulles had during their first years in the department, the Rogers Plan was not motivated by personal aggrandizement. Nor was it driven purely by Arab-Israeli tensions. Rather, the Rogers Plan should be seen primarily as a closing chapter of the “test” of Soviet intentions in the Middle East, which Nixon had ordered at the beginning of his administration. Indeed, after eight months of tedious negotiations with the Soviet Union that had produced no tangible results, the Rogers Plan offered the United States the surest way out of the Two Power talks while at the same time maintaining its credibility with both the Soviets and the Arabs. If the plan was accepted by the parties, which even the State Department knew was highly unlikely, the Nixon administration would be praised for taking the initiative of finding a settlement between Egypt and Israel and reducing the likelihood (p.51) of a superpower confrontation in the Middle East. If the plan was rejected, the administration could stand firmly on the proposal, and it would provide the parties with a solid foundation for negotiations if and when they began. Either way, the Rogers Plan put an end to the Two Power talks with the Soviet Union and proved to be the move that paved the way for the United States to take a unilateral role in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the years ahead.
Golda Meir and the “Trauma of 1957”
Few foreign leaders presented more difficulties for Secretary of State Rogers than Israeli prime minister Golda Meir. Meir had a difficult personality and possessed a domineering streak. Although she spent a decade as Israel's foreign minister, she had little patience for diplomatic protocol and disdained foreign leaders she found “too polished.” She would dominate conversations with American leaders, had little concern for larger US strategic interests, and often showed contempt for American officials. “Mrs. Meir treated Secretary Rogers as if the reports of his views could not possibly be true,” Kissinger wrote in his memoirs. “She was certain that once he had the chance to explain himself the misunderstandings caused by the inevitable inadequacy of reporting telegrams would vanish; she then promised forgiveness.” Kissinger's relationship with Meir was more personal, given their European Jewish background and shared experience of escaping anti-Semitism, but Meir often tried to exploit that connection to her advantage. “To me,” said Kissinger, “she acted as a benevolent aunt toward an especially favored nephew, so that even to admit the possibility of disagreement was a challenge to family hierarchy producing emotional outrage.”6
Part of Meir's toughness and rigid personality stemmed from the hardships of poverty, hunger, and fear she felt as a child in Eastern Europe and a long political and diplomatic career struggling to sustain the Zionist vision of a Jewish state. Born Golda Mabovich in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1898, Meir witnessed firsthand the wave of anti-Semitic pogroms that swept Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.7 In 1921, she emigrated to Palestine, fulfilling her dream of becoming an active participant in the Zionist movement, and she soon became involved in the newly formed (p.52)
In 1946, after more than two decades as part of Histadrut's inner circle, Meir was selected by David Ben-Gurion to replace Moshe Sharett as acting head of the political department of the Jewish Agency when Sharett and many of the Jewish community's senior leaders were interned by the British authorities. From then on she played an integral part both in internal Labor Zionist politics and in diplomatic efforts, including serving as Israel's first ambassador to the Soviet Union, minister of labor and national insurance, foreign minister, and secretary-general of Mapai and then of the newly formed “Alignment.” Meir retired from active politics in 1966, but when Prime Minister Levi Eshkol suffered a fatal heart attack in February 1969, the Labor party selected Meir as the “consensus candidate” to succeed Eshkol rather than endure a fierce tug-of-war between Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon for control of the party. “I honestly didn't want the responsibility, the awful stress of being Prime Minister,” she admitted in her autobiography. But “I had no choice…. It was enough that we had a war with the Arabs on our hand; we could wait for that to end before we embarked on a war of the Jews.”8
Meir's selection to succeed Eshkol was hardly greeted enthusiastically inside Israel. For more than twenty years Israel had been ruled by its founding fathers—the generation that emigrated from Eastern Europe in the decade before World War I—and many felt it was time for the younger generation of Israelis, who were seen as more adept with dealing with Israel's Arab neighbors, to take control. Dayan later wrote that he did not consider Meir “the kind of personality that would open new vistas in the leadership of the state and the party” and abstained from the party vote that elected her. Others, like Foreign Minister Abba Eban, believed that Allon's “expansive, cheerful, and optimistic” personality inspired leadership, in stark contrast to Meir, and felt Allon would do a better job of managing the party and reaching out to the Arab states, given his understanding and respect of Arab culture. After Allon successfully and skillfully managed the cabinet debates in the wake of Eshkol's death, Ma'ariv, the leading Israeli daily newspaper, ran a political cartoon of Allon sitting in the prime minister's chair with a caption that read: “Why not leave him there?”9
(p.54) The problem for the United States in dealing with Meir was that her vision of foreign policy and relations with the Arab states was shaped largely by what Secretary Rogers later called the “trauma of 1957,” when as foreign minister in David Ben-Gurion's government, she painfully watched Israeli forces withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip under pressure from Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the United Nations, without any promise that Egypt, in return, would enter negotiations with Israel or guarantee the lifting of the blockade of the Straits of Tiran. Unlike many on the Israeli right who wanted to annex the land or expand settlements in “Judea and Samaria,” Meir had little interest in maintaining possession of the occupied territories, but she resisted calls for Israeli withdrawal from Arab land without firm guarantees that Israel's neighbors would accept its right to live within secure and recognized boundaries, less she repeat the mistakes made after the Suez Crisis. “I … couldn't get through to the Americans … that our very life depended on adequate guarantees, real guarantees with teeth in them,” Meir recalled of her discussions with the “cold, gray” John Foster Dulles in early 1957. “I … tried to swallow my sense of bitterness and sense of betrayal,” she added, but “the U.S. State Department had won its battle against us, and the Egyptian military government, with its garrison was going to return to Gaza. There was nothing I could do or say. I just sat there, biting my lip…. It was not one of the finest moments of my life.”10
Meir's sense of bitterness and betrayal of the events of 1957 left her strongly opposed to UN Security Council Resolution 242, which she believed had been “thoroughly distorted” by the Arabs and the Russians. For Meir, Resolution 242 did not say that Israel must withdraw from “all” territories, nor did it say that Israel must withdraw from “the” territories. “But it does say that every state in the area has a right to live within ‘secure and recognized boundaries,’ and it does specify a termination of belligerency,” she insisted.11 Technically, this was true; 242 called for Israeli withdrawal only “from territories” occupied during the Six-Day War. Yet only the Israelis interpreted the resolution to mean that it required insubstantial alternations from their current positions. But that made no difference to Meir. “We were perfectly agreeable to the 1967 borders in 1967,” she would later tell Secretary of State Rogers. “The fact that they demand to be given back what they have destroyed in war is absurd.”12
(p.55) In the six months since she had assumed the premiership, Meir gave little indication that she had overcome the events of 1957. She strongly opposed US participation in the Two Power talks, fearing that once again Israel would be forced to swallow an agreement that benefited superpower interests but largely ignored Israeli security concerns, and she resisted calls by Nixon and Rogers to enter negotiations with the Arab states. In June 1969, during a series of meetings with British prime minister Harold Wilson in London, Meir stressed that Israel would not agree to withdraw from any Arab territory until she was satisfied that she could agree to all the elements of a “package solution.” But she did not know what would be in the package.13
Despite Meir's reluctance to withdraw Israeli forces from the occupied territories, when she arrived in the United States for her first official visit as prime minister in September 1969, Secretary of State Rogers believed that the escalating military violence on Israel's borders left Meir with little choice but to seek accommodation with the Arabs based on the formulations he and Sisco had discussed with the Soviets during the preceding months. Since March, when Egyptian president Nasser rescinded the cease-fire ending the 1967 war and launched the War of Attrition against Israeli forces in the Sinai, the Israelis had suffered almost two hundred casualties along the Suez Canal. For many countries such losses would seem insignificant, but for Israel, with a small population, these were major losses. Egyptian artillery, moreover, continued to shell the recently constructed Bar Lev Line—the hundred-mile string of underground forts and minefields along the Canal named after Israel's chief of staff Chaim Bar-Lev—while incidents on the Jordanian front continued at a high level, forcing King Hussein to temper his pro-Western posture. Even Lebanon, which once stood aside from Arab-Israeli fighting, had become more engaged in the raid-and-retaliation cycle that embodied the situation on the Egyptian front.14
The Israelis did little to temper the violence, increasing the likelihood that the Soviets would intervene to protect their Arab clients. In late June and early July, Israeli Mirages downed nine Egyptian MiG-21s, demonstrating its vast superiority in airpower and making it clear to Nasser that he had little chance to recover the land lost to Israel during the Six-Day War (p.56) through the force of arms. Two weeks later, in separate operations on July 20 and July 22, the Israeli Air Force struck again, this time against Soviet-installed SA-2 surface-to-air missiles sites along the Canal, paving the way for the air force to begin deep-penetration raids of the Egyptian hinterland.15
Israel's continued success on the battlefield emboldened Meir to take a firm stance in her conversations with Rogers when the two met at the State Department on September 25. She insisted that there could be no substitute for forcing the Arabs to face up to the choice of war or peace and that the “test” of Arab desire for peace was whether they would negotiate with Israel with no “preconditions” on either side. Referring to the events of 1957, Meir made it clear that Israel did what was “demanded” of it after the Suez Crisis, but it was now time for the Arab leaders to face their responsibilities. “Either they make war and pay the consequences,” the prime minister stated, “or they face up to making peace.”16
Rogers acknowledged that he, too, shared Israeli doubts about the Egyptian and Soviet commitment to peace, but he also felt there was an opening to get negotiations started based on the “Rhodes formula” of 1949. On the Greek island of Rhodes following the first Arab-Israeli war, both indirect and direct negotiations took place under the mediation of special UN envoy Ralph Bunche. The parties met together with Bunche during the first session but thereafter broke into their own delegations, with Bunche shuttling from one delegation to another, listening to what they had to say and then reporting on what the others had said. This procedure, Rogers believed, would satisfy the Arabs, who favored physical separation between them and the Israelis with a mediator shuttling back and forth, while also giving the Israelis the chance to sit down with the Arabs and thrash matters out.17
Rogers had discussed the idea with Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riad, a member of the Egyptian delegation at Rhodes, and Riad found the idea acceptable.18 The Israelis also appeared amendable to Rhodes-style negotiations, so long as there was agreement as to what actually occurred at Rhodes and that the talks would not take place before withdrawal. Yitzhak Rabin, who was also present at the Rhodes talks in 1949, explained to Rogers that there were at least two meetings of direct negotiations, not including the signing ceremonies of the armistice agreements, and that Israel would (p.57) expect as much from the Egyptians in any future negotiation. Meir agreed. In her view, what was needed was a “psychological breakthrough.” How can people really want peace and yet refuse to meet together? she asked Rogers. “Nasser has indoctrinated his people with the idea that Israel must be destroyed,” said Meir. “He must now sit down with Israel to demonstrate that this is no longer the case.”19
When the two met again five days later, this time in New York during the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Rogers and Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco tried to shift the focus away from the procedural issues and wanted instead to focus on finding acceptable language for Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories. Sisco, who had been intimately involved of the drafting of Resolution 242 after the Six-Day War, could not understand why, only two years later, the prime minister now refused the language calling on Israeli withdrawal to “agreed boundaries” when Israel had accepted the same language as part of Resolution 242. “I am asking this as an American who still doesn't have an answer to this question,” Sisco stated, pleading for a reasonable explanation.
“Because there was a withdrawal in 1957 based on ‘aspirations, expectations, etc.,’ but look where it led us to,” Meir shot back. “I understand this sounds illogical … [but] we are sensitive to the word ‘withdrawal.’ Say it in Israel and everybody in Israel stiffens up…. We must never be responsible for something like 1957.”20
Meir's two conversations with Rogers were rather unproductive, but she had better luck when she met with Nixon at the White House the same week. Although she had never met the president before, Meir found him to be “warm” and “welcoming” and hailed him as an “old friend” of the Jewish people. Such comments came as “startling news to those of us more familiar with Nixon's ambivalences on that score,” Kissinger later admitted, “but it gave him a reputation to uphold.” Whereas Rogers and Sisco had pressured Meir on withdrawal, Nixon repeated his pledge to the prime minister that he would never ask the Israelis to withdraw from the Golan Heights. He also left the prime minister the impression that the United States would respond favorably to her request for twenty-five Phantoms and eighty Skyhawk jets, as well as two hundred million dollars in low-interest loans during the next five years.21 (p.58)
What was also clear from the meeting was that the prime minister had obviously convinced the president that her government would not endorse any proposal that emerged from the Two Power talks, and therefore it was time that the discussions with the Soviets on a Middle East settlement come to an end. Two days after her meeting with the president, Nixon told Kissinger over the telephone that he was now convinced “we can't deliver” the Israelis, and he was loathe to leave the Soviets holding the cards. “The Summit and trade they can have but I'll be damned if they get the Middle East,” he said. He believed that the State Department had “talked themselves out of the ballgame” and promised to “cool off” Rogers on the Middle East.22
The Joint US-USSR Working Paper
Nixon's message to “cool off” Rogers apparently did not reach the State Department. Less than two weeks after Meir left Washington, Rogers informed Nixon that he intended to move forward with presenting the (p.59) Soviets a formal Arab-Israeli peace proposal that was based on the positions their two governments had refined over eight months of negotiations. The proposal he had in mind was designed to take advantage both of the atmosphere created by the recent round of talks with the Soviets, Egyptians, and Israelis and of the “more favorable climate” now existing for getting “Rhodes-type” negotiations started, to see whether real movement toward a settlement was possible. “Even if, as seems more likely, the present impasse continues for the foreseeable future,” Rogers explained, “I believe this course of action is the right one, because it will enable us to avoid total isolation with Israel and will put us on record as supporting a position which, however much the Arabs and Israelis do not like it, will be defensible and generally viewed as equitable in world public opinion.”23
The proposal that Rogers intended to bring to the Soviets contained a separate Egyptian and Jordanian package. The Egyptian package called for negotiations to begin under the auspices of Gunnar Jarring, the Swedish ambassador assigned by the UN secretary-general to oversee the Arab-Israeli talks, using both the indirect and direct means followed at Rhodes in 1949 in an effort to reach “acceptance of the principle of withdrawal of Israeli forces from Egyptian territory to the pre-June 5 line conditioned on Egypt's willingness to negotiate with Israel.” Rogers also sought a commitment to “practical security arrangements” in the Sharm el-Sheikh area of the Sinai and Gaza, agreement on where demilitarized zones would be established and how demilitarization would be enforced, freedom of passage through the Straits of Tiran and Suez for all vessels, including Israel, and Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist and live in peace in the area.24
As for the Jordanian part of the proposal, the State Department intended to concentrate on this part of the settlement in two ways. First, Charles Yost, the US ambassador to the United Nations, would engage in general discussions at the United Nations, concentrating initially on refugees and Jerusalem. Second, in early November, either Rogers or Sisco would raise with Israel and Jordan whether they would agree to the United States playing a “singular, middle-man role” between them to see whether an agreement can be hammered out. “We do not want to engage the Soviets in a bilateral context on the Jordanian aspect as we have on the UAR part of the settlement,” as this would provide the Soviets “too good an opportunity to (p.60) become the lawyer for our friend, Jordan.” Hussein, in fact, personally requested Sisco, in whom he apparently had confidence, to negotiate directly with Zaid Rifai, his personal secretary, and Yacob Herzog, Golda Meir's secretary, together in his presence “at some secret place” to see what could be done.25
In forwarding the two papers to the president, Rogers acknowledged that “only an unabashed optimist can predict agreement between ourselves and the USSR on the above proposition, let alone agreement of the parties.” But he also believed that moving forward with the joint paper was “clearly in our interest” whether or not the Soviets decided to cooperate. “It is a position that both sides will criticize, but neither can really assail effectively,” he argued. “It is a position we can stand on both in Israel as well as in the Arab world as reasonable. Israel does not want us to be specific on the UAR-Israeli border question, but we would now only be coming to a position on the border question which the previous Administration conveyed to the Egyptians in November 1968.”26
Rogers had a strong case to stand on. After seven months of negotiations, this would be the first time the United States took an official position on the Egyptian-Israeli border question since Nixon came into office. The Soviets had regarded the absence of an American stand on future borders as a missing link in the Two Power talks, leading to a stalemate in the ongoing negotiations. This would also be an important sign to the Arab world that the United States was not acting as Israel's lawyer but rather sought to adopt positions more consistent with larger American interests in the Middle East. Finally, if the Soviets accepted the proposal, there was a strong chance of getting Arab-Israeli negotiations started, and it would be a strong signal from both superpowers of their continued interest in détente.
Still, the “Rogers Plan” touched off an intense debate inside the Nixon administration over whether this was the proper course of action. Not surprisingly, Kissinger strongly opposed the move. In his estimate, it was a tactical mistake to offer Moscow the American “fallback position” without receiving concessions from the Kremlin on Vietnam in return. Sisco tried to reason with Kissinger, telling him that the proposal would advance the Two Power talks, give the United States a more “balanced position” between the Arabs and Israelis, and benefit “our overall interests in the areas.” But (p.61) Kissinger was not convinced. “I had my doubts about this ‘progress,’” he later admitted. “I thought the Soviets were using the Middle East … to make the President rethink his threatened November 1 ‘deadline’ over Vietnam.”27
Harold Saunders, Kissinger's Middle East expert on the NSC staff, disagreed. Based on Nixon's recent commitment to Meir of more economic and military aid, Saunders believed that the US Middle East policy was dangerously on the verge of shifting too heavily in support of Israel. On October 22, Saunders expressed his concerns to Kissinger in what he called the “most important” memo he had written since Nixon took office. In addition to helping Israel build up its defense industry, Saunders pointed out that there were several plans on the table to cover Israel's foreign exchange gap amounting to over a billion dollars, becoming Israel's sole supplier of military equipment, acquiescing in Israel's possession of a nuclear deterrent, and allowing the Israeli government to redraw its map. The problem was also exacerbated by the delivery to Israel of the first American F-4 Phantom aircraft in September, which sent the Arab world into a “ferocious protest.”28 “If I assume correctly that we do not want to go this route, then the main issue is to find a way to establish a position independent of Israel with minimum damage to the President's policies across the board.”29
For Saunders, the Rogers formula, as expressed in the joint working paper, offered a way to provide needed distance between Washington and Jerusalem. The proposal would put Washington on record as saying that the United States did not believe Israel should keep any part of the Sinai provided that Egypt would negotiate satisfactory security arrangements for Sharm el-Sheikh and the Sinai along with a final Arab government for Gaza. “This may weaken Israel's negotiating position,” he acknowledged, “but the US interest is in Israel's security, not its expansion.” He also argued that the Rogers Plan was “a necessary step” if the United States was going to move toward a position consistent with US interests—and not move to a position tied exclusively to Israel. “I believe, too, that it is a defensible stand to take in this country to say that we will support Israel's security wholeheartedly but not Israel's expansion.”30
Saunders sent an additional memo to Kissinger on October 27, the day before Sisco planned to deliver the proposal to Dobrynin, this time trying to (p.62) be less of an “advocate” for the Rogers Plan. The drawback of presenting the Soviets with the joint working paper, he argued, was that the plan was so “heavily conditioned” that it asked of the Soviets at least as much as it gave. “Moscow would have every reason to judge that the US is simply trying to shore up its position with the Arabs with words while continuing to back Israel's position with hardware.” He also conceded that the Soviets, sensitive to their inability to get Nasser's territory back, would hardly consider the move enough of a concession to justify their paying a price in Vietnam. Even with those reservations, however, Saunders still sided in favor of moving forward with the Rogers Plan. “The tide is running against the US in the Mid-East perhaps irreversibly,” he said. “But with a settlement, the US would still have a competitive chance to turn the tide … The US cannot afford not to make any reasonable effort to achieve a settlement. Until the US at least takes a stand on the terms of a settlement consistent with its own interests, the US cannot claim to have made a reasonable effort.”31
Even former secretary of state Dean Acheson weighed in on the Middle East situation. Acheson was no stranger to Arab-Israeli problems. While serving as deputy secretary of state under George Marshall in 1947–1948, Acheson had been actively involved in the debates inside the Truman administration regarding whether the United States should extend recognition to the Jewish state following the termination of the British Mandate in Palestine. As secretary of state, moreover, Acheson observed the armistice talks taking place under Ralph Bunche and watched Nasser's Free Officers Movement come to power during the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. Although the former secretary of state wanted to see a Middle East settlement, he was reluctant to encourage further US involvement in the region and found the Rogers Plan “abortive,” recommending that it “should be abandoned at once.” During a meeting with Nixon at the White House on October 27, he argued that while events were building up to a renewal of the fighting on a scale larger than that of border raids, the United States should not intervene either directly or by supplying military items to such a conflict. He was sure that the United States could find ways of letting the Soviets know that its purpose would be greatly facilitated by their adopting a similar course.32
(p.63) Nixon's position was more ambivalent. On the one hand, he agreed with Rogers that it was time for the United States to present its position on borders and security arrangements and see the Two Power talks come to an end. He was angry with the Soviet government for adopting a “very hard-line position” in the talks by demanding that Israel give up everything it had obtained at a heavy cost in the 1967 military conflict, and even accused the Soviet ambassador of being “uncompromising” in his numerous discussions with Sisco.33 At the same time, however, the president was reluctant to place the needed pressure on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, as the Rogers Plan would certainly require. “After all,” Nixon told Dobrynin during a meeting at the White House on October 20, “it was Israel, not the UAR that ultimately achieved success in the war. Israel therefore wants to hold on to its gains until an agreement is reached that satisfies it and ensures its future security.”34
The timing of proceeding with the Rogers Plan was also less than desirable from Nixon's perspective. Since Meir had left Washington at the end of September, the president had been almost entirely preoccupied with events in Vietnam. Nixon was on record as saying that if substantial progress was not made at the Paris Peace talks by November 1—the one-year anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's bombing halt—he would be forced to take “strong action” against the North Vietnamese. He intended to deliver a “major speech” to review Vietnam policy on November 3, and he did not want any issue interfering with the administration's planning for the speech, nor did he want Middle East issues distracting the Soviets from the message he wanted to get across on Vietnam.35
When Kissinger informed Nixon on October 25 that Sisco intended to present the Rogers Plan to Dobrynin before the end of the month, Nixon made it clear that he wanted the State Department to delay. He instructed Kissinger to “command” Sisco that there be no further contacts with the Soviets “on any subject” until he had given his November 3 speech on Vietnam.36 But when Sisco protested, Kissinger recalled, the president, having little stomach for a fight with the State Department, yielded reluctantly and agreed to let Rogers move forward with his new formula.37
Thus, on October 28, Sisco met with Dobrynin and presented to the Soviet ambassador the text of a ten-point, joint US-USSR working paper, (p.64) which reflected the “mutual” and “common” US-Soviet positions developed during the Two Power talks. The paper called for full Israeli withdrawal to the international border established between Egypt and British Mandate Palestine after World War II, for a binding contractual agreement ending the state of war and prohibiting “acts inconsistent with the state of peace between them,” and for “a fair settlement” to the Palestinian refugee problem. To solve such questions such as the future of the Gaza Strip, security arrangements at Sharm el-Sheikh, and demilitarized zones, Egypt and Israel would hold “Rhodes-type” negotiations, though the State Department formula was specifically vague as to whether that meant the Israeli or Egyptian interpretation of the Rhodes Formula. The State Department paper also called on Egypt to agree to the freedom of passage through the Straits of Tiran and Suez for all Israeli vessels and Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist and live in peace in the area.38
In giving the working paper to Dobrynin, Sisco made it absolutely clear that the document was the result of the process that had begun between the two countries back in March, and he asked the ambassador to report to Moscow that the United States did not consider the revised formulations as elements of any new US document. “What we have tried to do is basically reflect what we hope is concrete U.S.-Soviet understanding reached orally on particular points,” he explained. Dobrynin, though, hardly seemed impressed by what Sisco was telling him, nor did he believe that the working paper accurately reflected Soviet positions. He remarked that the plan “seems rather different than what Soviets had in mind,” and he wanted more concessions from the United States on the timing of the Israeli withdrawal and the nature of the peacekeeping force. Dobrynin also added that the document appeared rather “short” and left several important questions unclear. “The question for the Soviets is whether it is wise to move with so many open formulations,” Dobrynin told the assistant secretary. “A basic judgment would have to be made, and the Soviets might decide it is wiser to try to clarify some of these open questions.”
But Sisco refused to budge. “The fact of the matter is [that the] US has now gone as far as it can substantively,” he replied to the Soviet ambassador, (p.65) visibly disturbed by his comments. The “rubber band had been stretched to the fullest extent.”39
The Galaxy Speech
The joint working paper appeared dead on arrival. Just three days after Sisco handed Dobrynin the text, the Soviet government accused Washington of using “diplomatic corridors to cover up their support for Israel and its aggressive actions” and squarely blamed the United States for the lack of any “tangible results” in the Two Power talks. “The reason lies in the obstructionist line of Israel and the one-sided attitude taken by representatives of some western states who assume that Israel should benefit from the aggression it committed,” the Soviets charged. A separate editorial in Pravda, the Communist party newspaper and voice of the Soviet government, similarly accused Washington with “duplicity” and “bad faith” by agreeing to provide more arms to Israel while at the same time talking peace with the Soviets.40
On November 6, in the first official response to the joint working paper, Georgy Korniyenko, chief of the Soviet Foreign Ministry's American desk and one of the principal Soviet Middle East negotiators, told Ambassador Beam in Moscow that his government viewed the proposal as “unbalanced and unacceptable.” Specifically, Korniyenko said that the Kremlin objected to the fact that the United States tied its language on borders to other issues—Gaza, Sharm el-Sheikh—and which, he argued, must be worked out between parties. Although Korniyenko agreed that the Two Power talks should continue, Beam reported, “He left me with the impression that the Soviets see no possibility of arriving at agreed US-USSR position.”41
To counter the Soviet charges, Sisco wanted Rogers to get out publicly. On November 6, he encouraged Rogers to make a “major policy speech” on the Middle East, which would expose the substantive positions the United States had taken during the past months. These, he believed, were far more balanced than the impression the world had of them. “From a public point of view,” he explained to Rogers, “we have suffered in [the Middle East] because we have not revealed more of the substance, while the Soviets have pegged out the most extreme position publicly—total withdrawal of Israeli (p.66) forces from all of the occupied territories to the pre-June 5 lines.” Although a speech of this magnitude would probably not satisfy the Arabs and would no doubt draw flak from an Israeli government that had objected to the US provisions in the Two Power talks at every point, making the American position public, Sisco maintained, would “ease some of the increasing pressures in the Arab world and take a little sting out of the emotionalism.”42
According to the draft of the speech Sisco had in mind, he wanted it on the record that the Nixon administration had adopted a “balanced” policy in the Middle East—one that seriously took into account the principle and legitimate concerns of both sides to the conflict. He pointed out that in the early weeks of the Nixon presidency there had been a strong effort on behalf of the White House and the State Department to resume relations with Egypt “without conditions” and maintained that the United States did not support Israeli expansionism.
Addressing the Soviet Union, Sisco included tough language that would get the attention of officials in Moscow. He accused the Kremlin of repeatedly spurning opportunities for cooperation with the United States on arms control, ending the Vietnam War, and curbing the arms race in the Middle East. He argued that Moscow had falsely accused Washington of “interference” in the recent Lebanese crisis while at the same time asserting its right of interference in the affairs of the states of Eastern Europe. Most important, though, he put the onus of the success of the Roger Plan squarely on the shoulders of Soviet officials. “Our talks will help determine if the Soviets want a stable peace or whether they would prefer to live with the risks involved in the current unstable conditions in the area. We will continue these talks only as long as there is hope; we want no part of talk just for the sake of talk.”43
Sisco's call to go public with the Rogers Plan entailed enormous risks to US-Soviet relations and the future of détente. To announce the plan at a time when leaders inside the Kremlin were still contemplating its substance ran the risk of angering Soviet officials, whose cooperation was needed in getting Egypt to accept the plan. Moreover, exposing the substance of the plan after Israeli leaders had repeatedly expressed their opposition to it meant that the only way that Israel could accept the initiatives outlined in the joint working paper was for them to be “imposed” upon Israel by (p.67) Washington. For Sisco, however, these risks were secondary. The speech, he explained to the secretary of state, would give the United States a “solid basis” to stand on for some time to come. “I believe the current document is defensible everywhere,” he argued, “and whichever direction this whole matter moves, it is important that more and more of our substantive position be revealed to the public so that it can be demonstrated that ours is a balanced and not a one-sided approach.”44
Despite the inherent risks of moving forward with the speech, Rogers strongly agreed with Sisco. The fact that Rogers had said nothing of substance on the Middle East since the Two Power talks began in March left many wondering exactly where the Nixon administration stood on the major questions regarding a final Arab-Israeli settlement—borders, refugees, and the status of Jerusalem. After examining the draft of the speech, he sent Nixon a letter emphasizing the importance of getting the elements of the American proposal for an Arab-Israeli settlement on the public record to make clear that it was a balanced position and not simply a “carbon copy” of Israeli views. “Such an effort will not satisfy the Arab extremists,” he conceded, “but it will be difficult for either side or world opinion to criticize objectively and will be of some help to our beleaguered friends in the Arab world.”45
If there were any objections from within the administration for moving ahead with the speech on the Middle East, they once again came from Henry Kissinger. In a telephone conversation with Sisco not long after Rogers had sent the draft over to the White House, he emphasized that he did not see the advantage of giving it, and argued that the State Department was off on the wrong track.46 Later, when transmitting the draft of the speech to President Nixon, Kissinger again repeated, by his own admission, his now “tiresome refrain” that all of these exercises were doomed to failure. “No scheme was conceivable that would bridge that gap between the two sides,” he argued. “It cannot produce a solution without massive pressure on Israel. It is more than likely going to wind up antagonizing both sides. It may produce a war.” He also feared that Israel, out of frustration, might strike the Arabs preemptively, or that the Arab countries would shift to hostility when Washington failed to impose its proposals.47
Kissinger's resistance to Rogers's speech, though certainly not without its merits, revealed much about the emerging split between the White House (p.68) and the State Department over the fundamental direction of US policy in the Middle East. Not only did he believe that it was a mistake for the State Department not to extract concessions from Moscow in return for calling on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories, but he argued that Rogers had mistakenly focused on a settlement with Egypt first on the theory that Nasser's agreement would make Hussein's easier. “I have long felt that we should shift focus,” he wrote in a memo to President Nixon in mid-November. In Kissinger's estimate, there was a far greater interest in Hussein than in Nasser, and what was even more important, he argued, the State Department approach completely ignored the Syrian factor. “While I hesitate to say this because of the complications it raises, there will be no settlement until Syria comes into the process. In essence, the roots of the 1967 war lay in Syrian support for fedayeen attacks on Israel. There is no reason not to expect that to continue.”48
Kissinger was not alone in these views. In fact, much of his argument about finding an agreement on other fronts was also conveyed to Secretary Rogers in a telegram from Egyptian foreign minister Mahmoud Riad. Riad believed there were many “positive points” in the joint working paper the State Department had presented to Dobrynin, the most important of which was the provision calling for Israel's total withdrawal to the international boundaries. Like Kissinger, however, Riad believed that settlements with Jordan and Syria must be included in the package. On November 16, he explained to Rogers the necessity of formulating “a comprehensive settlement” wholly on the basis of Security Council Resolution 242. “What we have received are several projects, in different formulas, which ultimately seek to effect partial settlement with Egypt only,” he said. “Therefore, I am sure you will appreciate that our final position cannot be defined until we examine the integrated formula for integrating the Security Council Resolution  of 22 November 1967.”49
The following day, the Israelis added their weight to the list of objections to the State Department approach. During a meeting with Kissinger, Ambassador Rabin explained that Prime Minister Meir believed that the United States had made a “great mistake” and “undermined” Israel's position in future negotiations by becoming more specific on October 28 about the Egyptian-Israeli boundary. Drawing an “exact map,” Rabin protested, (p.69) “even in the context of peace, is subject for negotiations between the parties.” Moreover, the Israeli stressed, much to Kissinger's delight, that the State Department's approach to the Soviets was “basically wrong.” If the real purpose was to find out if the Soviets wanted a compromise, then it was a mistake to “give in” without concession from them. “You should know better than we,” he argued, that the United States can “only move as they move toward you.”50
Despite concerns raised by Kissinger, Rabin, and Riad, the State Department decided to proceed with the speech. Sisco, in particular, was concerned about an upcoming Arab summit, at which he believed the Arabs were going to be extremely critical of the American positions and would galvanize opposition to distort the American position to their respective countries. The only way to get out in front of the Arabs and the Soviets was to publicize the American positions as soon as possible.
It is important to point out, though, that while Rogers and Sisco were eager to expose the substance of their plan, they did so with President Nixon's approval. Through the years there has been wide speculation, advanced mainly by Henry Kissinger, that Rogers went ahead with the speech without Nixon's knowledge or approval. Recently declassified evidence from Kissinger's own records, however, confirms that this was not the case. In a telephone conversation between the national security adviser and Joe Sisco on December 4, Sisco made it clear that Rogers would not move forward on the speech until he got a “general go-ahead” from the president, to which Kissinger replied, “It's in the President's office now.” Even Harold Saunders readily admitted that the White House was not caught unaware by Rogers's speech. “I remember being in the doorway of the Cabinet room when Nixon was informed of Rogers' desire to give a speech on the Middle East,” Saunders said in an interview years later. “I think most likely the actual draft text was given to the President. Nixon and Kissinger discussed it, so it seemed clear to me that the White House was aware of Rogers' plans and at least did not object.”51
On December 9, therefore, the secretary of state spelled out in detail the provisions of the October 28 joint working paper before the Galaxy Conference on Adult Education. Responding to the Soviet critique that the working paper presented to Dobrynin was “one-sided,” Rogers made it (p.70)
Rogers also used the Galaxy speech as an opportunity to address the allegations from the Soviets that the United States had been using the Two Power talks to “divide” the Arab states by urging Egypt to make a separate peace with Israel. “These allegations are false,” he said in no uncertain terms. He pointed out that both the United States and the Soviet Union (p.71) opted to start with the Israeli-Egyptian aspect because of its “inherent importance” for future stability in the area, and simply because one must start somewhere. Any suggestion that the United States wanted a separate peace treaty at the expense of Jordan and Syria was completely unfounded. “It is a fact that we and the Soviets have been concentrating on the questions of a settlement between Israel and the United Arab Republic,” Rogers said. “We are under no illusions; we are fully conscious of past difficulties and present realities.”53
In the four and a half years Rogers served as secretary of state, this was by far most important—and controversial—speech he would make. The New York Times editorialized that Secretary Rogers's “forthright statement” of American policy in the Middle East “sounds a clear call to reason and fair play in an area where passion and bias for too long have obstructed settlement of the 21-year-old Arab-Israeli conflict.” The Washington Post similarly argued that the Rogers Plan was “sound and fair” and stated that, “unlike the Soviet Union, the United States is taking the responsible tack of searching for middle ground.” And Peter Grose, foreign correspondent of the New York Times, maintained that the guidelines for a Middle East settlement publicized by the secretary of state was “the most definitive and comprehensive statement yet offered of what this country has been trying to achieve between Arabs and Israelis, between Washington and Moscow, over the past eight months.”54 More than that, though, the “Rogers Plan,” as it was quickly dubbed, defined the direction of American policy in the Middle East for the following decade. The formulations Henry Kissinger used as secretary of state in his “Shuttle Diplomacy” talks following the 1973 Middle East war and the Camp David Accords President Jimmy Carter brokered between Egypt and Israel in 1978–1979 were largely based on the fundamental principles outlined in the Rogers Plan.55
Still, while the press found every reason to endorse the Rogers Plan, the following morning, Wednesday, December 10, Rogers found himself aggressively defending his speech before a meeting of the National Security Council. With the exception of Sisco and Charles Yost, US ambassador to the United Nations, almost everyone sitting around the table inside the Cabinet Room of the White House—the president, Kissinger, CIA director Helms, Defense secretary Melvin Laird, and Wheeler—objected to the (p.72) strategy Rogers had outlined in his speech the previous evening. The president, in particular, believed the State Department was losing ground in region. He pointed out that in the eleven months since he had taken office, the Soviets had significantly strengthened their position in the Middle East, while the American position with the moderate Arab states had rapidly deteriorated. “I do not mean to say that we have not done all we could do,” he added, but “the danger of war seems greater.” Particularly upsetting to the president was the fact that by calling on Israel to withdraw from the Arab territories, the Kremlin was rewarded for their obstinate position in the Two Power talks. “If the UAR comes out of a settlement whole and gives only vague obligations to peace in return, the Soviets come out looking good and Israel has little in return.”56
The president, though, was not the only one who saw this problem. Kissinger quickly added that the State Department was headed down a “slippery slope” by pressing Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. In his estimate, “the longer Israel holds its conquered Arab territory, the longer the Soviets cannot deliver what the Arabs want.” As that time dragged on, he reasoned, the Arabs would conclude that friendship with the Soviet Union is “not very helpful—that it led to two defeats, one of which the U.S. rescued the Arabs from, and to continued impotence in regaining what they have lost.”57
Rogers believed Nixon and Kissinger's sentiments to be a little disingenuous. Less than a year earlier, the president had authorized the State Department to begin negotiations with the Soviets specifically to find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and avoid a potential superpower confrontation in the Middle East, which would threaten Nixon's goal of cooperation with the Soviet Union on a host of other issues. To suggest now that the administration should back away from calling on Israel to withdraw from the Arab territories not only flew in the face of his earlier comments, but only increased the likelihood that another Arab-Israeli war would erupt.
“Our position has deteriorated because we are seen as the principal supporters of Israel,” the secretary countered. “We send planes and economic aid. Unless we want to change that policy, our position will continue to deteriorate.” Charles Yost quickly jumped to Rogers's defense. As someone (p.73) who had studied the Arab-Israeli conflict from its inception, Yost believed that the administration's deteriorating position in the Middle East was inherent in the situation and argued that even if the administration pulled out of the talks with the Soviets, people would still look to Washington to deliver Israel. “We would, in fact, be even more isolated than we are now, because we would have created the impression that we do not care.”58
The president, though, remained unconvinced. Although he sought a balanced policy in the region, he also wanted to ensure that Moscow would not achieve a strategic advantage. If the United States was going to have to “put the squeeze” on Israel, he believed, then the administration should seek as much as possible from the Kremlin in return. “The Soviets should not come out ahead,” he insisted. “The Arabs played a substantial part in bringing on the [Six-Day] war, and the Soviets should pay some price for picking up the pieces.”59
If Rogers thought the reaction to his speech from within the administration was bad, he quickly found that there was virtually no support for its provisions anywhere else. In Congress, members who feared to take any position that unnecessarily placed pressure on Israel lambasted the Rogers Plan. Former vice president Hubert Humphrey condemned the Rogers Plan as “a sacrifice of Israel's interest to gain accord with the Soviet Union” and accused the secretary of state as being unrealistic in expecting an Israeli withdrawal “in return for not more than what the administration describes as a ‘binding agreement’ from the Arab nations.” Senators Jacob Javits and Edward Brooke both expressed criticism of the plan, maintaining that the Soviet Union “has now made it clear that its policy in the Mideast is to take a mile every time the United States gives an inch.” Only Senator J. William Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, publicly endorsed the proposal, saying that he believed the speech was “an outstanding example of a balanced and sensible approach, in the interests of the United States and in the interests of peace.”60
In Cairo the reaction was equally bad. Foreign Minister Mahmoud Riad fiercely objected to the State Department's insistence that Egypt agree to direct negotiations with Israel at a time when Israel still occupied Egyptian land. “Would you, as an American, have accepted your government negotiating with the Japanese after its attack on Pearl Harbor?” Riad asked (p.74) Rogers. “Was de Gaulle at fault when he refused to negotiate with the Nazis while they still occupied part of France? We find ourselves in the same position now. If we were to accept negotiations with Israel while its forces still occupy even one square foot of our territory, then we would be taking the round of no return.”61
For their part, the Israelis were absolutely incensed by every aspect of the Rogers Plan. In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Meir stated flatly that the prospects for peace “will be seriously marred if states outside the region continue to raise territorial proposals and suggestions on subjects that cannot promote peace and security.”62 Her foreign minister, Abba Eban, similarly argued that Israel insisted upon remaining at Sharm el-Sheikh and therefore could not accept the October 28 formulations as outlined to the Soviet Union in the joint working paper.63 And Rabin's deputy, Shlomo Argov, met with the president's former law partner and special liaison to the American Jewish community, Leonard Garment, at the White House to convey his government's anger at the administration. According to the record of the meeting, Argov believed that the Rogers Plan put the United States and Israel on a “collision course” and argued that this was part of a “deliberate process” on behalf of the State Department that could only lead to a future “arrangement” with Syria regarding the Golan Heights. He also said that Prime Minister Meir felt betrayed by the administration, describing the recent moves as a “scandal,” “calamitous,” and a “national and personal tragedy.”64
The Israelis took particular exception to the statement in Rogers's speech calling on Israel to accept only “insubstantial” modifications in its future borders with Jordan.65 “Never, in any of its decisions, has the Israeli government consented to withdraw from the West Bank,” Ambassador Rabin fumed to Rogers's deputy, Elliot Richardson, shortly after learning of the plan. He pointed out that the cabinet's decision on June 19, 1967, referred only to the Sinai and the Golan Heights, and even there, “withdrawal to the international frontiers was made conditional upon security arrangements that would satisfy Israel.”66 That same week, in a meeting between Secretary Rogers and Foreign Minister Eban at the State Department, Eban left little doubt that his government planned on “substantial” changes along the West Bank, not merely the “insubstantial” modifications Rogers had called for in (p.75) his speech. “Although our proposals have not yet proved acceptable to Jordan, if the United States publicizes its view that Israel must withdraw from the all the territories—including those on the Jordanian border—that will put an end to those contacts.”67
Fearing that the Nixon administration would continue to press Israel to accept the provisions outlined in Rogers's speech, Rabin was called back to Israel during the third week of December, and returned to Washington within days with instructions to “launch a public campaign against the Rogers Plan.” On December 24, he held a background press briefing at the Israeli embassy in Washington at which he called the Rogers Plan “an abrupt reversal of the principle that U.S. policy has hitherto proclaimed” and maintained that US policy, as unfolding, “undermines the principle of negotiation” and “comes close to the advocacy and development of an imposed settlement.”68 He also met again with Kissinger to put matters clearly on the line: “Let me tell you in complete frankness, you are making a bad mistake. In taking discussion of peace settlement out of the hands of the parties and transferring it to the powers, you are fostering an imposed solution that Israel will resist with all her might. I personally shall do everything within the bounds of American law to arouse public opinion against the administration's moves.”69
The Soviet Reply
As much as Israel's “public campaign” against the Rogers Plan was sinking any possibility that it might succeed, the final blow came on December 23, when Dobrynin delivered the official Soviet reply. In a somewhat bizarre statement, Moscow again characterized the US proposal as being of a “one-sided” and “pro-Israeli nature” that could not “facilitate finding ways of settlement in the Middle East.” The official Soviet text, handed to Rogers by Dobrynin, alleged that some of the US provisions altered the position taken earlier by the American side and therefore that the Soviets believed there were insufficient grounds to continue to work for a joint Soviet-American document based on the October 28 formula. At the same time, the Soviets also objected that the American draft did not mention anything about what they deemed the “essence of the key question,” Israeli (p.76) withdrawal from occupied Arab territories, an utterly ridiculous statement consider the plan specifically called for Israel to withdraw from the land conquered during the Six-Day War.70
Equally troubling from the American vantage point, the Soviet statement retreated from Moscow's earlier commitment to have the parties negotiate under the Rhodes formula. In his meeting with Rogers and Sisco, Dobrynin remarked that although the Soviet side had no objection to the Rhodes formula per se, they now felt this formula should not be used in view of public comments made by various parties. Moscow was nevertheless willing to try to go beyond “neutral formulations” where possible in an attempt to find more precise language regarding some of the issues—for example, demilitarized zones, passage through waterways, and security provisions. But the chances for a lasting peace agreement negotiated through his government, he conceded, were slim.
Rogers did not mask his disappointment to what he clearly interpreted as a “retreat” from Moscow's earlier position. In response to Dobrynin's presentation, he emphasized that the United States had gone as far as it could possibly go and that it was now time for the parties to begin a process of negotiations. Any more precise formulations from either Washington or Moscow, he argued, would suggest an attempt to “impose” a settlement, which the United States was simply unwilling to do. Sisco, too, chided the Soviet ambassador for the “unresponsive” statement he had delivered on behalf of his government. The Kremlin's most recent position seemed more a reflection of its position of the previous June than what Rogers and Gromyko had discussed in New York in September, and almost a complete reversal on their agreement to having the parties negotiate under the Rhodes formula.71
Rogers and Sisco had every reason to be disappointed. The Rogers Plan may have been many things—ill-timed, ill-advised, and highly controversial for sure. But “pro-Israeli” and “one-sided” as the Soviets maintained, it was not. The US position to commit itself to a near total Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai to the international border was hardly in Israel's interest, nor was the provision in the plan stipulating that Israel must accept a “just settlement” to the Palestinian refugee problem, which the Arabs would certainly interpret as the “right of return” for those Palestinians whom the wars of (p.77) 1948 and 1967 made homeless. One need only to look at the remarks of Prime Minister Meir to her cabinet on December 22 to understand that the Kremlin had far overreached in its condemnation of the Rogers Plan. “If [the] U.S. proposal were implemented, it would be suicidal and would mean destruction of Israel,” she declared. “Any Israeli government which approved this proposal would be guilty of treason.”72 Following the meeting with Dobrynin, Rogers sent a memo to President Nixon that concluded that the Soviet reply to the American formulations on an Israel-Egypt settlement was “negative” and “unresponsive” and “provides no serious basis for continuing those talks.”73
Even members of the National Security Council staff, many of whom had been the State Department's strongest critics in putting forth a formula that included a firm position on Israel's borders, were astounded by the “cavalier nature” of the Soviet reply. “After actively discussing a joint document” Kissinger's Middle East expert, Harold Saunders, wrote, “they simply turned aside our October 28 formula—containing the position they wanted from us on boundaries—as providing no basis for a joint document.” It was possible, Saunders believed, that the Soviets were testing whether a flat rejection would cause Washington to make a few last concessions or that Moscow simply did not have the power to make Nasser accept the proposal. But more likely, he argued, the Kremlin was content with the present situation. “In any case, the December 23 response is such a step backward that it warrants a sharp rebuff and even telling Dobrynin that we have nothing more to say.”74
Kissinger, though, did no such thing. Just six days after receiving the official reply to the Rogers Plan from Moscow, he met again with the Soviet ambassador with hardly a mention or a condemnation of the fact that his government had flatly rejected a serious peace offer on the Middle East that had taken into account the views expressed by the Kremlin during the eight months of negotiations in the Two Power talks. Instead, as a reward for their intransigence, Kissinger welcomed future Soviet cooperation on a range of bilateral issues with Moscow, including European security, SALT, and Vietnam, and said that both he and President Nixon would prefer that matters of “great importance” be discussed in the private channel between him and Dobrynin, leaving “routine matters” to the State Department.75
(p.78) That Kissinger did not support the Rogers Plan was evident by now. But that he was so willing to reward the Kremlin for its lack of cooperation on an issue that President Nixon had deemed in the first week of his administration to be of “vital importance” showed that his motives in this issue were almost completely selfish. As long as he was not directing Middle East policy, and as long as there was a chance for him to make progress with Moscow in other bilateral issues, Kissinger was willing to disregard Soviet behavior in other areas, especially the Middle East. This is not to suggest that there were not legitimate policy grounds for objecting to the Rogers Plan. Calling for an Israeli withdrawal from the Arab territories arguably rewarded Nasser for provoking the Six-Day War and initiating the War of Attrition. It also unnecessarily put pressure on America's most important ally in the Middle East when Moscow continued to send the Arabs weapons and technology to resist the Israeli army. Still, had Kissinger showed even a hint of frustration to Dobrynin over the lack of progress on the Middle East or indicated that there could be no cooperation on other issues until this issue was resolved, it is hard to believe that Moscow would not have put the needed pressure on Egypt to make an agreement under the terms spelled out in the joint US-USSR working paper.
Conclusions: The End of the Two Power Talks
It is certainly easy to look back on the nine months of negotiations between Washington and Moscow on the Middle East and blame the Soviet Union for the demise of the Two Power talks and the failure of the Rogers Plan. Moscow's refusal to bring Egypt any closer to an agreement at a time when President Nasser was virtually dependent on Soviet economic and military aid to keep his country afloat demonstrated that the Kremlin was hardly committed to finding a resolution to the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The Soviet decision, too, to distort the American position in the Arab world and retreat from the many commitments made to the United States during the Two Power talks only undermined the negotiating process along the way. But for all of Moscow's faults—and there were many—the failure of the Rogers Plan was a result of many factors.
First and foremost was the continued Cold War rivalry. Even though both Nixon and Brezhnev called for a period of negotiation between their (p.79) two countries, the Soviet-American rivalry was still too sharp to believe that the two superpowers could reach an agreement on such fundamental importance as the Arab-Israeli conflict. “Mutual trust was lacking,” Assistant Secretary Sisco later conceded. There were times when the Soviets were sometimes active and helpful in containing violence at certain junctures when they thought it could lead to a confrontation, but they were never helpful in terms of negotiating peace. While both the United States and the Soviet Union wanted to avoid a confrontation in the region, neither seemed willing to put enough pressure on its client to accept a peace agreement, and both continued to adopt policies that escalated the arms race in the region and allowed the War of Attrition to continue. “The operational assumption of the United States of the test of Soviet intentions proved faulty,” said Sisco. “The Soviets gave Nasser a veto. They would not endorse anything he did not accept.”76
Second, the State Department's refusal to coordinate its proposals with the Israeli government throughout the negotiations left little possibility that Jerusalem would accept an “imposed” settlement. Prime Minister Meir steadfastly maintained that the United States had no business taking a position on what constituted Israel's “secure and recognized” boundaries and argued that any peace agreement must be worked out directly through the parties, not through the superpowers. The fact, too, that Rogers offered a Jordan-Israel settlement without even informing Israel ahead of time only exacerbated the growing sense of mistrust between Washington and Jerusalem. Of course, it was not likely that the Israeli government, sitting in its most strategically secure position since 1949, was going to endorse the peace proposal, even one that left the definition of Israel's borders highly ambiguous.
Finally, there was the matter of internal US policy. The lack of cohesion between the White House and the State Department on an issue of such strategic importance undermined the negotiations and allowed the Soviet Union to extract concessions from one which they could not get from the other. The rivalry between Rogers and Kissinger, though still in its infancy, sent conflicting signals to Moscow over who was really in charge of US Middle East policy. In his memoirs, Dobrynin recalls that the divided authority in Washington left his boss, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, (p.80) “thoroughly unnerved” after his visit to the United States in the fall of 1969. “I was dealing with Sisco, who was shrewd, knowledgeable, and very stubborn. He took all his orders from Kissinger, who remained in the shadows, while officially working for Rogers and doing what he could to accommodate him.”77 Sisco, too, remembers that throughout much of the first year of the Nixon administration he spent as much of his time negotiating between Kissinger and Rogers as he did on the problem itself.
In many cases, the differences between the State Department and the White House were very real. As evidenced during the nine months of discussions, Nixon and Kissinger saw the Middle East primarily in broad strategic terms; any agreement, they believed, must be negotiated with the larger goal of détente in mind and “linked” to progress in other areas. Kissinger, in particular, was adamant that the United States could not let American arms in the Middle East be defeated by Soviet arms. “If the Soviets are going to put in anti-aircraft missiles, we have to counter this with more aircraft for the Israelis,” said one former State Department official of Kissinger's views.78 The State Department, by contrast, was far more concerned with trends in the region that could threaten American interests. Rogers and his staff viewed the Arab-Israeli dispute primarily as a regional dispute that, if left unresolved, could threaten American access to vital oil reserves. Yet in either case, Sisco later argued, it was naive to think that the State Department or the White House was oblivious to one or the other of the dimensions. “It was a matter of weight and emphasis,” he said, “and Nixon, interestingly enough, agreed with both views.”79
President Nixon's own ambivalence on the Middle East also weakened the prospects for a peace agreement. At times, he was for an active policy. He encouraged the State Department early on to work with the Soviets in finding a solution to the conflict that would prevent a superpower confrontation in the region. Yet as soon as Rogers offered a plan to the Soviets that took into account their concerns, as well as adhered to Security Council Resolution 242, Nixon did little to support it and even went out of his way to undercut the plan. Not once after Rogers delivered his December 9 speech did Nixon come out publicly and endorse the proposals, nor did he send any signal to Moscow and Jerusalem that the plan was his and not just Rogers's. Moreover, the president routinely maintained that because he received less (p.81) than 8 percent of the Jewish vote in the 1968 election, he was not subject to the pressures from the American Jewish community and would squeeze Israel into an agreement if and when the time was necessary. But in his numerous meetings with Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin during his first year in office, he only reinforced the view that he would continue to provide for Israel's military and economic needs.
That the Rogers Plan did not bring about an end to the fighting between the Arabs and Israelis, however, did not necessarily mean that it was a complete failure. If anything, it gave the United States a firm position to stand on and demonstrated to the Arab world that the United States was prepared to take tough positions against Israel. Not since the United States endorsed the UN partition plan for Palestine in 1947 had the United States taken such a firm position on Israel's borders, and never had Israel been at such odds with the United States, even including when President Eisenhower condemned Israeli government for its behavior during the 1956 Suez Crisis. At the same time, moreover, the Rogers Plan, despite its many flaws, provided the parties the necessary framework for negotiations if and when the talks resumed, a fact that was evident during the negotiations between Egypt and Israel in the Camp David accords of the late 1970s.
To say, also, that the inability of the two superpowers to reach an agreement on the Middle East diminished the possibilities of Soviet-American cooperation in other areas would be premature. As Kissinger's conversation with Dobrynin on December 29 demonstrated, Moscow and Washington remained very interested in discussing ways in which their governments could cooperate in areas such as Vietnam, arms control, and European security, and the parties still held out the possibility that they could “regulate their different interests in the Middle East apart from the Arab-Israeli conflict.” President Nixon even proposed sending American astronauts to Moscow as a sign of mutual cooperation between the two countries in the wake of the collapse of the Two Party talks and held out the possibility that the Kremlin would consider a summit with the United States to discuss the limitation of armaments.80
Still, if the Two Power talks and the Rogers Plan were considered the first test of the Soviet-American détente, they must be considered a failure. Even factoring in Vietnam, both Washington and Moscow understood that the (p.82) Middle East posed the most serious threat for a superpower confrontation and that, therefore, the conflict needed a quick resolution. Yet after nine months of tedious negotiations, the two countries appeared further apart than before. According to former secretary of state Dean Acheson, who was actively following the details of the negotiations, Rogers's effort to produce any movement toward peace or any effect in enhancing the prestige of the United States in the Arab world was “a complete failure,” and he argued that the effort indicated only “the futility of attempting through bilateral talks with the Russians … to guide the parties to a peaceful settlement.”81
Following the Soviet rejection of the Rogers Plan, Assistant Secretary Sisco prepared a memorandum which was sent through Secretary of State Rogers to President Nixon in which he stated in no uncertain terms that the Soviets had “failed the test” that the president had given the State Department in the first weeks of his administration. “They have not been able to produce for whatever reason their concerns, or the Egyptian, or a combination thereof,” he explained, and he advocated that from hereon in, in the peace process, “the United States should seek to do this unilaterally.” The paper went to the White House in the first week of January, and Sisco was traveling aboard Air Force One when the president called him into his compartment to discuss the memo. “Joe, I agree fully with this recommendation,” the president said. “From now on, we're going to go at it alone in the peace process. The Soviets have had their opportunity.”82
(1) . Address by the Honorable William P. Rogers Before the 1969 Galaxy Conference on Adult Education, Sheraton Park Hotel, Washington, DC, Dec. 9, 1969, DSB, vol. 62, January 5, 1970, 7–11 (hereafter cited as Rogers Address 1969).
(2) . Richard B. Parker, The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 1; Peter Grose, “Mideast 1: A U.S. Plan for Steps Toward Peace,” NYT, Dec. 14, 1969; David A. Korn, Stalemate: The War of Attrition and Great Power Diplomacy in the Middle East, 1967–1970 (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1992), 161.
(3) . Telegram 4640 from Tel Aviv, Dec. 23, 1969, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 605, CF, ME, Israel, vol. 3; Abba Eban, An Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1977), 464; Kissinger-Rabin Memcon, Nov. 17, 1969, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, HAKOF, box 134, CF, ME, Rabin-Kissinger, 1969–1970. Rabin's remarks on the Rogers Plan were based on the text of the “Fundamental Principles,” not the speech by Secretary Rogers; Peter Grose, “U.S. Proposals on Mideast Are Disclosed by Rogers,” NYT, Dec. 10, 1969; Raymond H. Anderson, “Egyptians Cold to Rogers Speech,” ibid., Dec. 12, 1969, 14.
(4) . Richard M. Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1978), 478–479.
(5) . Article by Marilyn Berger in the Washingtonian, January 1970, NARA, RG 59, Lot Files, Secretary/Undersecretary, WPR, 1969–1973, box 13; Max Frankel, “The Nixon Team After One Year,” NYT, Dec. 14, 1969.
(8) . Meir, My Life, 350–352.
(9) . Moshe Dayan, Story of My Life (New York: Morrow, 1976), 442–443; Abba Eban, Personal Witness: Israel Through My Eyes (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1992), 476–477.
(10) . Meir, My Life, 306–308.
(14) . Korn, Stalemate, 165–171.
(17) . George C. Denney to Harold Saunders, Oct. 10, 1969, NARA, NPMS, NSCF, box 1155, HHSF; Thomas Hughes to Dean Rusk, Mar. 6, 1968, ibid.; Yitzhak Rabin, The Rabin Memoirs, expanded ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 154–155; Benny Morris, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 375–391.
(20) . Prime Minister's Meeting with Secretary of State Rogers, Sept. 30, 1969.
(22) . Nixon-Kissinger Telcon, Sept. 27, 1969, 4:40 p.m., 5:45 p.m., NARA, NPMS, HAK Telcons, box 2. See also Jussi Hanhimaki, The Flawed Architect: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 94.
(26) . Rogers to Nixon, Oct. 14, 1969.
(28) . Korn, Stalemate, 157–158.
(30) . Saunders to Kissinger, Oct. 22, 1969.
(32) . Memorandum of Conversation with the President, Oct. 27, 1969, Yale University, Sterling Memorial Library, Dean Acheson Papers, Group 1087, RG 4, box 68, folder 173; Acheson-Kissinger Memcon, Dec. 29, 1969, ibid.
(35) . Henry Kissinger, Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America's Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 101–103.
(44) . Sisco to Rogers, Nov. 6, 1969.
(49) . Riad, Struggle for Peace in the Middle East, 110–111.
(50) . Kissinger-Rabin Memcon, Nov. 17, 1969.
(52) . Rogers Address, Dec. 9, 1969, 7–11.
(55) . For details of Kissinger's Shuttle Diplomacy and the Camp David Accords, see William B. Quandt, Peace Process: American Diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2001), 130–204.
(61) . Riad, Struggle for Peace in the Middle East, 107.
(66) . Rabin, Memoirs, 160–161.
(68) . Policy Background: An Analysis of the US Mideast Peace Plan, Dec. 24, 1969, Embassy of Israel, Washington, DC, NARA, RG 59, Lot Files, Secretary/Undersecretary Lot Files, JJS, box 28, Four Power Talks Resumed, November–December 1969; Rabin, Memoirs, 161.
(69) . Rabin, Memoirs, 162.
(72) . Telegram 4640 from Tel Aviv, Dec. 23, 1969.
(76) . Quoted in Richard B. Parker, ed., The October War: A Retrospective (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001), 29.
(77) . Dobrynin, In Confidence, 210–211.
(79) . Parker, October War, 29–30.
(80) . Kissinger-Dobrynin Memcon, Dec. 29, 1969.
(81) . Dean Acheson to Kissinger, Dec. 29, 1969, Yale University, Sterling Memorial Library, Dean Acheson Papers, Group 1087, RG 4, box 68, folder 173.