This is a sponsored post on behalf of Yale University Press and its Jewish Lives series.
The post of Israel’s ambassador in Washington, D.C., as I well know, is an unusual diplomatic position. Since World War II the Washington embassy has been the most senior and most important posting in foreign ministries. Given the crucial nature of Israel’s relationship with the United States, the ambassador to Washington is in most cases a personal emissary of the prime minister: a trusted confidant or public figure, not necessarily a professional diplomat. Effective Israeli ambassadors have tended not to act as traditional diplomats but to become active figures in Washington politics, familiar faces on Capitol Hill and in the national media, interacting with the highest echelons of the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon. This uniqueness of the position is due to the importance of Middle Eastern issues and Israel on the American political and national security agenda, and the Israeli ambassador’s influence (perceived or real) on the American Jewish community. Much depends on the stature and ability of the individual ambassador; the powers that be in Washington waste no time in finding out whether the Israeli ambassador is an effective channel to the prime minister.
Yitzhak Rabin was undoubtedly one of Israel’s most effective ambassadors. In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, Rabin had to calculate the next phase of his career. He wanted to enter politics and become a cabinet member but felt that his transition from the military to the political phase of his career would be facilitated by acquiring the experience a stint as ambassador in Washington could offer. He asked a surprised Eshkol to appoint him to the position, which Eshkol did, in the face of Foreign Minister Eban’s initial opposition.
Rabin was unusually well qualified for the task despite the fact that his command of English was only adequate. He was a well-known, major figure, the victorious chief of staff of the Six-Day War, tightly connected to the prime minister and the rest of Israel’s political establishment, and well versed in the main issues on the U.S.–Israeli agenda, which included the future of territories captured by Israel in June 1967 and Israel’s quest for sophisticated U.S.-made weapon systems. To the Jewish community Rabin was a military hero, an architect of the war that had raised Israel’s stature to new heights. To his interlocutors in the Johnson administration, on Capitol Hill, and in the media, he appeared to be a wise, authoritative figure, an effective channel to the prime minister and his (later, her) cabinet, and a ranking member of Israel’s political elite in his own right.
It took Rabin some time to master his new position. Initially he wanted to focus on the senior levels of the executive branch and let his staff deal with what he viewed as “peripheral constituencies,” such as Congress and the think tank and academic communities. As time went on, however, he would develop strong, fruitful relationships with these groups.
Rabin’s relationship with the organized Jewish community in America had its ups and downs. Johnson had a circle of Jewish friends and confidants—Abe Fortas, Abe Feinberg, Arthur Goldberg, Arthur and Mathilde Krim, to name a few—and he was used to discussing Israeli issues with them as well as garnering their assistance in fund-raising and building support for his controversial Vietnam policy. When Rabin first assumed his post, the deputy chief of mission (DCM) in the outgoing ambassador Avraham Harman’s embassy, Ephraim (“Eppy”) Evron, who managed to build a personal rapport with Johnson, played a key role in working with the president’s Jewish circle. Johnson also got along famously with Eshkol; their personalities and political styles were, mutatis mutandis, alike.
Rabin attached great importance to the American Jewish community. He and Leah traveled extensively in the United States visiting Jewish communities, and they acquired a circle of close Jewish friends in Washington. But Rabin was not fond of the particular fashion in which the Israeli issue was dealt with by Johnson and his Jewish friends. He preferred to deal directly with the White House, and in short order he replaced Evron as DCM and appointed Shlomo Argov to that post. Johnson never warmed to Rabin and dealt with him formally, as most presidents do with most foreign ambassadors. Rabin would have to wait until Richard Nixon’s election to have free access to the White House and a strong personal relationship with the president.
Nor did Rabin have a smooth relationship with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the organization known nowadays as the pro-Israel lobby. The AIPAC of the 1960s, headed by Isaiah (“Si”) Kenen, a Canadian-born Zionist activist, was a far cry from the large, powerful AIPAC that, since the 1980s, has developed from a small, discreet group to a powerful grass-roots political organization. He and his successors wanted to be the key influencers of the U.S.–Israeli relationship on Capitol Hill and resented a powerful ambassador who wanted to manage his own relationship in Congress. In time, Rabin, who initially believed he could accomplish much more by dealing directly with Congress and the executive branch, would find that influential American Jews like Max Fisher, the wealthy Republican businessman from Detroit, Arthur Burns, the head of the Federal Reserve, and Leonard Garment, Nixon’s lawyer, could be very helpful to his mission.
During Rabin’s tenure in Washington the agenda of the American–Israeli relationship was shaped by the aftermath of the Six-Day War and the diplomatic and military conflicts over the future of the territories captured by Israel in June 1967. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Johnson administration supported the Israeli position that Israel should not withdraw from these territories for less than full peace. One clear lesson of the crisis of 1967 was that postwar arrangements such as those imposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 were inadequate, that the territories captured in 1967 were assets to be used to end the Arab–Israeli conflict or at least to put Arab– Israel relations on a sound footing. But the Johnson administration and its successors were adamant that an Arab–Israeli settlement “must not reflect the burden of conquest,” that is, minor border rectifications could be contemplated but in return for peace Israel would have to withdraw from the territories captured in the June 1967 war.
This position was only partially congruent with Israel’s own position, as, on June 19, the Israeli cabinet resolved that in return for full peace and adequate security arrangements it was willing to withdraw from the Sinai and the Golan Heights, but the resolution did not apply to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel held that the issue of sovereignty over Palestine west of the Jordan was open. This was a secret resolution, but the gist of it was conveyed by Foreign Minister Eban to U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk soon after it was made. Rabin himself was unaware of these developments when he was sent to Washington. Four months later, under the impact of the negative resolutions adopted at the Arab summit conference in Khartoum in September, the Israeli cabinet revoked the June 19 resolution, this time without informing the United States.
The differences between the American and Israeli positions would surface time and again in the coming years, but in the second half of 1967 there was sufficient common ground to enable the United States to thwart efforts by the Soviet, Muslim, and Arab blocs in the UN to pass a resolution calling for a full Israeli withdrawal without the benefit of peace accords with the defeated Arab states. Finally, in November 1967 a compromise formula in the best tradition of “constructive ambiguity,” drafted by the British diplomat Lord Caradon, proved acceptable to both sides and became Security Council Resolution 242. One byproduct of these developments was the appointment of the Swedish diplomat Gunnar Jarring as the mediator between Israel and its Arab antagonists. Jarring began shuttling between Israel and its neighbors, except for Syria, which at that point refused to accept SC 242. Jarring’s efforts proved ineffective and were eventually supplemented by two diplomatic fora: the two-party talks of the United States and the Soviet Union and the four-party talks of the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France. As Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Rabin had to deal with both the U.S. view and the handling of Jarring’s mission. Rabin’s management of the U.S. angle produced frequent tensions with Israel’s UN ambassador, Joseph Tekoa, who insisted that the Jarring mission was part of his portfolio.
When Jarring began his shuttle diplomacy, hostilities had resumed along the Suez Canal. What began as a series of isolated attacks and counterattacks in October 1967 developed by March 1969 into a full-fledged “War of Attrition” that lasted until August 1970. It was fought primarily between Egypt and Israel, but there was also significant fighting along the Israeli-Jordanian border with both Palestinian and Jordanian forces and occasionally in the Golan Heights and on the Lebanese-Israeli border. As the term “attrition” implies, the purpose of the Arab parties was not to achieve victory but to wear Israel down and create additional political and diplomatic pressure on the country and its main supporter, the United States.
As Israel’s ambassador in Washington during these years, Rabin’s principal mission was to help maintain Washington’s support for the territorial status quo so long as a diplomatic settlement acceptable to Israel was not available; he also helped persuade reluctant American politicians and bureaucrats to provide Israel with sophisticated weapon systems. Rabin’s tenure can be seen in three distinct periods, defined by his effectiveness and stature: an introductory phase from his arrival in March 1968 to January 1969, when Johnson departed from the White House; from January 1969 to September 1970, when his closeness to Kissinger and the Nixon White House culminated in the joint U.S.-Israeli action in Jordan; and from September 1970 to his return to Israel in March 1973, when he was at the height of his influence and effectiveness.
During his first few months in Washington, Rabin had to deal with a president who had announced he would not seek reelection and whose main interest was the bane of his administration, that is, the war in Vietnam and the country’s mounting opposition to it. His interest in the Middle East and in Arab-Israeli relations was limited. By September 1968, in the absence of presidential focus, Washington’s support for the territorial status quo in Israel had begun to fray. Rabin was asked by Secretary of State Rusk for Israel’s response to Soviet offers to the United States to promote a diplomatic solution. The Soviet offers reflected Moscow’s support for Egypt and were patently not acceptable to Israel. It was clear that the administration was entering into a dialogue with the Soviet Union that would weaken its original post–June 1967 position. In early November 1968 Rabin found out that in an earlier meeting in New York Rusk had given Foreign Minister Mahmud Riyad of Egypt a seven-point plan for settling the Egyptian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli conflict. Under this plan Egypt, in return for a full Israeli withdrawal, would agree to a formal ending of the state of war and sign a joint (and ill-defined) document with Israel. The Palestinian refugee problem would be solved on the basis of a free choice by every refugee. Rabin was shocked and alarmed at receiving news of this proposed agreement.
In the end, the U.S. paper was rejected by Egypt, but the United States was not to be deterred. On September 19, Rusk invited Rabin for “a vigorous talk.” He said it was “up to Israel to make its position clear, to move beyond generalities and get into specifics.” Rabin argued back, urging Rusk “to reject the Russian plan. After all, it lacks the elements both Israel and America had agreed must be part of any political settlement in the Middle East. It did not mention peace and it did not include any concrete expression of recognition for Israel or acceptance of her existence.” When Rusk asked whether it would be enough “for Israel and the Arabs to sign a joint multilateral document,” Rabin explained that Israel “wanted a bilateral, contractual peace agreement with each and every neighboring Arab state.” Rabin left with the secretary a written aide-mémoire, but the gap between the State Department’s and Israel’s position was all too evident. The pressure continued when Rusk’s deputy, Nicholas Katzenbach, invited Rabin on November 13 for a lengthy discussion. The talk revealed the growing distance between the U.S. and Israeli views of the border rectifications demanded by Israel in a peace settlement and the best diplomatic strategy to achieve it. Johnson’s national security adviser, Walt Rostow, summed up the situation in a memorandum he submitted to the president on November 15, 1968: “Rabin feels we’ve changed our position and undermined Israel’s bargaining position. The fact is that this has been our consistent position for over a year, but the Israelis have turned off their hearing aids on us. As for undermining their position, we can’t afford to go along with their bazaar haggling if we’re going to have any chance of peace.”
A great deal of Rabin’s energy and time during this period was spent trying to stem this drift of Washington’s toward a position closer to that of the Soviet Union, the European powers, and, of course, the Arab states. He was quite effective in his conversations with Kissinger but less so with the State Department.
Rabin’s other main effort during this period was to secure the sale of fifty F4 Phantom jets Johnson had promised to Eshkol. It was a crucial issue. The sale would effect a substantial upgrade of Israel’s air force and overall military capability and would be the first sale of a major advanced offensive weapon system by the United States to Israel, an important milestone in turning the country into Israel’s chief source of military equipment. Johnson’s promise to Eshkol was resisted by powerful elements in his administration, foremost among them Secretary of State Rusk and Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford. Some felt it would enhance Israel’s military advantage over the Arabs to a dangerous level. Others saw it as a golden opportunity to revisit the issue of Israel’s nuclear option and sought to create a linkage between the two issues by way of forcing Israel to offer greater transparency in return for receiving the Phantom jets. In Israel, Washington’s ambassador, Walworth Barbour, dealt with Eshkol and his ministers while Eban negotiated with his counterpart, Rusk. But the main Israeli effort was invested in Rabin, who started his campaign in the State Department and ended up in a tug-of-war with the assistant secretary of defense, the formidable Paul Warnke.
The question of Israel’s nuclear capability was not a novel issue to Rabin. Israel’s national security establishment in the 1950s and 1960s was split over the nuclear question—between advocates of the nuclear option as the ultimate deterrent, led by Shimon Peres, and those who believed in conventional deterrence, identified with the Achdut Haavoda faction of the Labor Party and its security experts, Alon and Galili. Rabin began by supporting conventional deterrence, but by 1963 he had changed his mind and came to the conclusion that Israel would not be able, in the long run, to afford the cost of a conventional arms race.
Rabin’s change of view happened to coincide with a period of massive U.S. pressure on Israel to come clean about its nuclear plan and capabilities that had begun under Kennedy and continued under Johnson. Eshkol is reported to have allayed Johnson’s concerns with the formula “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East,” but the pressure was soon renewed. Rabin himself was exposed to it as chief of staff in 1965 in meetings with the imposing Averell Harriman, who at that time served as ambassador-at-large for the Johnson administration, and Robert Komer, a staff member of the National Security Council, who were dispatched to Israel by the Johnson administration. Harriman, subtly, and Komer, more bluntly, expressed their dissatisfaction with Eshkol’s formula. Komer told Rabin, “If Israel goes in this direction, she might bring about the greatest crisis ever in its relationship with the United States.”
Rabin and Warnke met several times in November 1968 to discuss—or rather argue about—the draconian Memorandum of Understanding the Pentagon was seeking to attach to the sale of the fifty Phantoms to Israel. The minutes of these meetings read like a description of an elaborate minuet: Rabin rejecting Warnke’s efforts to impose a ban or at least limitations on Israel’s nuclear and missile capabilities; Rabin fending off Warnke without actually admitting that Israel had such capabilities or intentions to develop them. When Warnke asks, “What was specifically meant by the word ‘introduce’?,” Rabin asks him for his definition of nuclear weapons, “since you are more familiar with these things than we are,” and then asking Warnke if he “consider[ed] a nuclear weapon one that has not been tested and has been done by a country without previous experience?” Rabin argued that all nuclear powers had tested their nuclear weapons and asked, “Do you really believe introduction comes before testing?”
Rabin nonetheless recognized that, sophistry aside, the give-and-take with Johnson’s cabinet secretaries and their assistants was stale. He resorted to a different tactic. Through mutual Democratic friends, Rabin sent President Johnson a message that the Republican candidate, Nixon, if elected, would be committed to delivering the planes to Israel. This tactic may not have been elegant, but it was effective. In mid-January 1969, just before he left the White House, Johnson overruled his subordinates and ordered them to implement the sale. But negotiations were far from over. Rabin would have to go through a second round of sterile dialogue in 1969, initiated by Nixon’s deputy secretary of state, and would again need to shift the discussion to a higher level. Not until December 1969 was the deal finally concluded, in a meeting Rabin arranged between Nixon and Golda Meir.
A new chapter in Washington’s policy toward the Arab– Israeli conflict and in Rabin’s tenure in Washington would begin with Nixon’s inauguration on January 20, 1969. Nixon’s secretary of state was William Rogers, a distinguished Republican lawyer. It did not take long for tensions to develop between Secretary of State Rogers and Nixon’s brilliant national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. Bureaucratic rivalries are built into the American political system, and tension between the secretary of state and the national security adviser over the conduct of U.S. foreign policy is one of them. During Nixon’s first years in office, he kept Kissinger away from Middle Eastern issues, giving Rogers and the State Department primacy in this area. Nixon tended to view the Middle East and the Arab–Israeli conflict primarily through a global lens: as an area of intense conflict with the Soviet Union and a potential “powder keg,” as Nixon used to put it. It was important to avoid a Soviet-American collision in the Middle East, but it was also important to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining ground in the region. This was the very point argued by Rogers and the State Department—that America’s support for Israel was undermining the position of its moderate Arab allies, and it was therefore imperative to push for a swift resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict even if this required a distancing from Israel and Washington’s own original post–June 1967 policy.
Kissinger was critical of this policy. His rivalry with Rogers was exacerbated by his conviction that Rogers’s and the State Department’s policy made no sense. What was the point in forcing Israel to withdraw from the Sinai and return it to Nasser, Moscow’s client? When the Egyptians and other Arabs discovered that Moscow could not return the lost territory to them and turned to Washington to obtain it, Washington’s policy could change. Nixon kept listening to Kissinger’s advice, but throughout 1969 he tended to support Rogers and the State Department. He gave them space to negotiate with the Soviet Union, Britain, and France in the framework of the two powers and the four powers groups and refused to sign new major agreements on arms supply with Israel.
Rabin had a preexisting personal relationship with Nixon. In 1966, when Nixon, at that time considered a spent force after losing both a presidential and a gubernatorial race, visited Israel and was given little attention by the government. Rabin, as chief of staff, hosted him in style and gave him a thorough tour. In 1968, on the eve of the presidential election, Rabin met with Nixon. Although he did not advertise it, Rabin privately expressed to his confidants his preference for Nixon over Hubert Humphrey. Rabin thus now had a friendly president in the White House, although his meetings with him were rare. His regular contact at the White House was Kissinger and, in the State Department, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Joseph Sisco.
Although he did not at that time deal directly with Middle East diplomacy, Kissinger was a very influential member of the administration and a first-rate guide to Washington politics, U.S. policy, and world affairs. In time Rabin and Kissinger became close friends, deeply appreciative of one another. Sisco was also a key player in this grouping. He was the principal U.S. foreign policy officer in charge of the Middle East, dealing with the influential Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, the Europeans, the Arabs, and, of course, the Israelis. Unlike most of his colleagues in the bureau, he was not an Arabist by training or inclination. He was also very skillful at sustaining a good personal relationship with both Rogers and Kissinger. Kissinger described him fondly but with a touch of irony: “Intense, gregarious, occasionally frenetic, Joseph Sisco was not a conventional foreign service officer. … He turned out to be a living proof of what imaginative leadership could achieve in the State Department. … Enormously inventive with the talent in the stratagems that are the lifeblood of Middle East diplomacy, sometimes offering more solutions than there were problems, Joseph Sisco seized the bureaucratic initiative and never surrendered it.”
As 1969 wore on, the State Department increased the pressure to implement policy geared toward a swift resolution and away from Washington’s own original post–June 1967 policy. In October and December Nixon finally authorized the Rogers Plan. The plan represented everything Israel was opposed to: full Israeli withdrawal for less than contractual peace. Israel reacted sharply, denounced the plan, and launched a massive campaign against it in the Jewish community and on Capitol Hill. Nixon used Kissinger and Rabin to send a back-channel message that he was not entirely supportive of the plan. Kissinger also told Rabin repeatedly that the president was one of Israel’s few friends in the executive branch, and it would be calamitous to antagonize him. And so the campaign orchestrated by Rabin targeted Rogers rather than Nixon. Rogers was understandably offended and took Rabin to task for it, complaining about being made into a scapegoat and being depicted as anti-Israel, when he was merely implementing American policy. Rabin actually liked Rogers and had a high regard for him personally but profoundly disagreed with his policy and understood it would be a capital mistake to criticize Nixon personally.
While he was attempting to repudiate the political trends represented by the Rogers Plan, Rabin launched a more discreet effort directed at his own government. He argued repeatedly in his cables to the prime minister that Israel’s failure to find an effective solution to the full-blown war of attrition launched by Egypt in March 1969 was undermining Israel’s position in the United States. As he wrote in his memoirs: “Israel disappointed the US. It had no proper response to the war of attrition. … The Americans never admitted it and it’s doubtful whether they would admit it now. But they assumed that Israel was powerful enough to inflict on Egypt a blow that would put an end to its will to continue the war of attrition. As the war continued, the US position in the Middle East kept eroding, and as the erosion kept growing so did US willingness to come to an agreement with the Soviet Union.”
Rabin argued over and over that this was neither his personal opinion nor his impression but that it was indicated to him by senior members of the administration. He tended to refer to his conversations with Sisco, trying to disguise the fact that his principal interlocutor was Kissinger (in the Israeli system, sensitive cables tended to leak or be leaked). Kissinger was critical of Rogers’s and the State Department’s line, tended to look at the Middle East in geopolitical terms, namely, as primarily an arena of Soviet–American rivalry, and was probably not averse to seeing Rogers and his policy defeated.
Rabin believed instead in the need to escalate the attacks on Egypt and to launch “deep-raid bombings” against strategic targets in order to bring Nasser to his knees. In Rabin’s view, Nasser’s capitulation or collapse would be construed as an American achievement and a blow to the Soviet Union and would reduce the pressure on both Washington and Jerusalem to accommodate Egyptian and Soviet pressures. This approach had its opponents and critics in the Israeli cabinet, first and foremost Eban. Eban and his loyalists were opposed to escalation as such and doubted that Rabin was on solid ground in interpreting and reporting the U.S. position. They found it difficult to believe the United States was encouraging Israel to escalate its military attacks rather than tone them down.
The acrimonious debate between the foreign minister and the Washington ambassador was yet another turn in a relationship going from bad to worse. As we have seen, Rabin and Eban had had a sharp disagreement in May 1967 when Eban argued in the Israeli cabinet that the United States did not want to see Israel go to war over the closure of the Tiran Straits. Later, when Rabin asked Eshkol to send him to Washington, Eban objected. Early in Rabin’s tenure, Eban came to visit President Johnson at the White House. Eban snubbed Rabin by excluding him from the meeting and then dismissing him from his own office at the embassy in order to make a call on the secure line to Jerusalem. Rabin retaliated by aborting Eban’s attempt to use a visit to New York to return to Washington. It was quite easy for an ambassador of Rabin’s stature to persuade the prospective American host that the prime minister was not interested in having her foreign minister come to Washington at that particular time. In February 1969 Eshkol died and was replaced by Golda Meir, who had no time for Eban. The new prime minister wanted Rabin to report directly to her and bypass the foreign minister, further exacerbating their fraught relationship. She told Rabin it was her responsibility to update the foreign minister when necessary. This probably did not break Rabin’s heart. Bypassing the foreign minister and his ministry had another advantage beyond fewer dealings with Eban: it was (and still is) a well-known fact that interesting, and all the more so provocative, telegrams tend to leak from the Foreign Ministry. Leaking was and is used by politicians and diplomats for various reasons, often to cultivate relations with journalists, to promote or obstruct a policy line, sometimes to embarrass the sender. Over the years different ambassadors had devised a whole set of measures in order to overcome this problem. Rabin did send regular cables and reports to the foreign minister and to the Foreign Ministry, but his most important and sensitive telegrams were sent to the prime minister through the Mossad communications channel. So in September 1969, during Meir’s visit with Nixon, the two leaders, after preparation by Kissinger and Rabin, formally decided to bypass the State Department and Foreign Ministry and communicate directly through the national security adviser and the ambassador.
Rabin’s disagreement with Eban and the Foreign Ministry’s leadership over the recommendation to launch the policy of deep-raid bombing was particularly sharp. Eban and his associates disagreed with the substance of Rabin’s recommendation as well as with what they saw as his tendency to generalize about U.S. policy on the basis of his conversations with Sisco. When Eban criticized him for this, Rabin responded pointedly, suggesting that Eban, who had failed to understand the subtlety of Washington’s position in May 1967, continued to misunderstand U.S. policy.
Rabin was by no means deterred by the criticism. He continued to push for aggressive tactics and went so far as to suggest that Israel threaten to occupy Cairo. Needless to say, Eban was horrified. Rabin’s outlook was most fully articulated in a cable he sent to Eban on April 17, 1970, with copies to Dayan, Aharon Yariv, the director of military intelligence and a friend of Rabin’s, and Simcha Dinitz (Director General of the PM’s office), prompted by the knowledge that Dayan had asked Sisco a direct question during Sisco’s visit to Israel:
The guiding line in the US’s approach to Israel’s military operations is to avoid being drawn into a situation that can be defined as a collusion. … The US will absolutely refuse to say in advance in a clear and formal fashion “go for deep-raid bombing” in the same way it refused on the eve of the Six-Day War to tell us “start the war.” Furthermore, any attempt by us to present such questions to a representative of the US government in order to receive a clear answer points to a wrong assessment in this cardinal matter. … [T]he US understands that Israel has the right to take independently military measures that it views as necessary for its security. If the US takes exception to these measures, it finds the way to clarify it to Israel. … Posing a direct question to Sisco with regard to deep-raid bombings is a small-scale repetition of our attempt on the eve of the Six-Day War to receive from the Americans a formal approval to go to war. … In my humble view posing this question will prompt the Americans to rethink the ability to discuss this delicate issue with us in the future. We will try to correct it in our contacts here.
Kissinger, who knew Rabin and Eban well and worked with both, saw their rivalry as more than a clash over policy and a place in the hierarchy. To him, it was a clash between “two very different persons: The urbane, complex, polished, Cambridge don and the tough, direct, prickly Sabra [native Israeli] military man.” Rabin did not have many friends and admirers in the Foreign Ministry, but those he did have, such as Moshe Bitan, the deputy director general for North America, thought Rabin conducted himself as a cabinet minister rather than as a diplomat. He mentioned in his diaries correspondence he had with Rabin’s deputy in the embassy, Shlomo Argov, who wrote, “Your criticism of some of Yitzhak’s telegrams are quite to the point. I assume you have no argument with many of the things he says. The problem is that he says them in a style and a form that must also bother his friends. I try here and there to moderate his statements but as you can see, not very successfully.”
With Rabin’s encouragement, but primarily owing to the mounting toll exacted by the War of Attrition, Israel would adopt the policy of deep-raid bombings Rabin so aggressively pushed for, using its aerial superiority to hit strategic targets deep inside Egypt. The new policy produced a swift escalation. A helpless Nasser traveled secretly to Moscow in January 1970 and told his Soviet patrons that unless they came to his aid he would resign. The Soviets responded, undertaking direct responsibility for defending Egypt’s airspace, first, by sending several batteries of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) operated by Soviet crews to Egypt, then by sending Soviet warplanes and pilots for combat missions along the Egyptian–Israeli front.
It was a new and dangerous phase of the Cold War in the Middle East: no longer war by proxy but with direct Soviet participation. Nixon’s admonition that the Arab–Israeli conflict was a powder keg was now vindicated. The Israeli pilots did well in the one dogfight they had with Soviet pilots, but the SAM-6 missiles proved deadly. Whatever electronic defenses Israeli fighter jets had proved insufficient against them. The United States did not seem to possess (or did not wish to share) more advanced equipment. Israel lost several planes, and its political and military leadership were shaken by the direct clash with the Soviet Union. Rabin and his colleagues felt they could cope with Arab adversaries, but once the Soviet Union decided to intervene directly it could and should be checked only by the United States.
It was against this unfolding backdrop that the U.S. secretary of state released the Rogers Initiative. It was different from the Rogers Plan in that its focal point was an Egyptian–Israeli ceasefire in place but similar in that the ceasefire was linked to the quest for a comprehensive diplomatic solution in the spirit of the Rogers Plan. The Rogers Initiative intentionally had something for everybody: it would supposedly defuse a dangerous international crisis; it would extricate Israel from the predicament of a direct military conflict with the Soviet Union; and it would offer Egypt the prospect of a diplomatic process predicated on the original Rogers Plan.
It was precisely this final point that pitted Meir against the Rogers Initiative. She immediately sent Rabin a message for the president rejecting it. Rabin thought this was a grave error and was reluctant to pass it on to the president. He asked Meir to suspend the message and to allow him to fly to Israel in order to persuade her and the cabinet to adopt a different approach. It was unusual for an ambassador to take such a drastic step—and for a strong-minded prime minister like Meir to agree to it—but Rabin was not a conventional ambassador, and it was clearly a crucial moment worthy of further reflection. These were very tense weeks in Washington’s relationship with Jerusalem. Meir was willing to accept the principle of the Rogers Initiative, namely, the cease-fire in place, even if this meant the resignation of the right-wing members of the national unity government; she could not, however, agree to language linking it to the original Rogers Plan. Telegrams and phone calls between the two capitals were frequent and heated. Meir called Sisco angrily on the phone, and Rabin was summoned to Kissinger for a dressing down. As Rabin puts it, “Thousands of words, many of them enraged. Golda scolded me furiously, but the entanglement remained unresolved.”
Despite the absence of a clear formal Israeli acceptance of the initiative, a cease-fire of ninety days went into effect on August 7, 1970, but the end of the fighting was soon over-shadowed. Israel found out through aerial reconnaissance that the Russians and the Egyptians had violated the terms of the cease-fire in place (namely, based on a freezing of the status quo) and had moved several SAM-6 batteries toward the Suez Canal. The United States was skeptical, and it took a while for Israel to persuade the United States that the violation had occurred. There were genuine disagreements between Israeli and American imagery analysts, but the Americans’ reluctance to accept the fact that the Soviets had cheated was evident and had serious implications for the relationship between the two super-powers.
However, once the United States did endorse the Israeli complaint, Washington and Jerusalem decided to stay with the Rogers Initiative. The United States undertook to limit the potential damage to Israel by providing the country with new sophisticated equipment. Yet the damage caused by the advancement of the antiaircraft missile batteries closer to the Suez Canal could not be undone, and the Israeli air force would pay dearly for it during the first days of the October War in 1973. The tug-of-war over the cease-fire along the Suez Canal finally ended on August 8, when the cease-fire between Israel and Egypt went into effect. However, the calm of August was soon to be overshadowed in September by two momentous developments.
The first of these developments was subsequently named Black September: King Hussein’s military campaign launched on September 7 against the PLO in order to reassert his sovereignty and restore his control of Jordan’s national territory. Hussein was prompted by egregious provocations: the attempt on his life on September 1 and the hijacking of three Western airliners by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The planes landed, were parked, and were subsequently blown up in Zarqa in central Jordan. With determination and brutality Hussein’s army defeated the PLO. This prompted Syria, the PLO’s ally and protector, to intervene on the PLO’s behalf by sending its tanks into Jordan’s territory on September 18.
The move by a Soviet client to invade the territory of an American protégé was a move on the international chessboard and confronted the Nixon administration with an acute dilemma. At the height of the Vietnam War the last thing needed was a new military entanglement in the Middle East, but watching Jordan be invaded and defeated by Syria was equally unacceptable. The option chosen by Nixon and Kissinger was to ask Israel to save the Hashemite regime. It so happened that Meir was in New York, about to depart for Israel. Rabin was with her and was reached by an anxious Kissinger on the phone. The president and his national security adviser wanted to know whether Israel would be willing to use its army to save the king. This was far from a simple decision. Israel needed clarifications and assurances from the United States. Most important, it wanted an umbrella against Soviet military intervention. The minutes of Rabin’s telephone conversation with Kissinger on
September 21 still convey the air of drama of those days:
Kissinger: We have asked Sisco to talk to you in a few minutes. … He will give you a reply which in principle is yes, but I would like to make the following suggestion. The less you say and reply is better. Just communicate with your government and then come in and see me. It is terribly important that we know who says what to whom and I will give you guidelines on that.
Rabin: In the meantime I have instructions too. More detailed.
Rabin was flown by the administration from New York to Washington in order to be closer to Kissinger. After much consideration, Israel’s response was positive. In the end, actual military action was not required, as Israel’s military moves on the ground and in the air sufficed. The commander of Syria’s air force, Hafez al-Asad, refused to commit his jets, and without aerial support, Syria’s tanks became sitting ducks. Jordan’s own tanks and planes pushed back Syria’s armored columns.
This was to be one of the high points of Rabin’s tenure as ambassador, a demonstration of deft political and diplomatic give-and-take. Not only was the Nixon administration spared the need to intervene, but the president could argue that the Nixon Doctrine, that is, relying on regional allies rather than on American troops, was working. On September 25 Kissinger conveyed to Rabin a message to Meir from the grateful Nixon: “The President will never forget the role played by Israel in preventing a deterioration in Jordan and in checking the attempt to topple the regime. … The US is fortunate to have in Israel a Middle Eastern ally; what happened will be taken into account in any future development.”
The risk taken by Israel would pay great dividends over the next three years. It would set the stage for a period of unprecedented closeness and intimacy in Israel’s relationship with Washington. But in retrospect it was a mixed blessing in that it reinforced Meir’s policy of trying to freeze the status quo and contributed to the stalemate that would lead to the October War.
The second momentous event that occurred in September 1970 was Nasser’s death from a heart attack on the twenty-eighth. It may well have been expedited by the tension and aggravation caused by Black September. Nasser’s death marked the end of an era in Arab politics. It also brought to power Anwar Sadat and with him the October War and Israel’s first peace treaty with an Arab country.
Intimacy and closeness with the White House did not mean Israel could rest on its laurels and perpetuate the status quo. The Rogers Initiative was tied to renewal of the quest for a settlement and, more specifically, to the revival of the Jarring mission. By December 1970 pressure from the State Department and the White House on Israel to move toward a settlement became more palpable. Prompted by this pressure, in October 1970 Meir and Dayan more forcefully raised with Kissinger the notion of an interim settlement predicated on an Israeli withdrawal from the eastern bank of the Suez Canal.
The Israeli idea of the interim settlement was given further impetus when Egypt conveyed a message to the United States expressing interest in the idea in January 1971, relaying that it preferred to do this through the United States, not through Jarring’s efforts. Sadat was not taken seriously as Nasser’s successor when he was chosen in September 1970. He was Nasser’s deputy but was seen by Egypt’s power brokers as a harmless transitional figure to be replaced once they sorted out their own differences. Sadat, however, proved to be ambitious and cunning and in short order consolidated his own power over the machinery of the Egyptian state. He had a complete program for transforming Egypt’s domestic and external policies. Sadat was determined to shift from a Soviet to an American orientation and to disengage from the conflict with Israel. This was demonstrated in February 1971 by Egypt’s response to the questions addressed by Jarring to Israel and Egypt: a dramatic statement of willingness “to enter into a peace agreement with Israel” in return for a full withdrawal.
Israel’s diplomatic agenda and Rabin’s in Washington were now shaped by the need to respond to Sadat’s bold new diplomacy, to Washington’s obvious eagerness to exploit the new opportunities offered by the change in Egypt, and to Jarring’s and the State Department’s understandable drive to start negotiations for a comprehensive Israeli-Egyptian settlement.
The United States was disappointed by Israel’s evasive response to Jarring, nor was it enthused by Meir’s concept of an interim settlement. The give-and-take over the interim agreement revolved around three issues:
1. The question of whether the United States was interested in a reopening of the Suez Canal. It was assumed the Pentagon preferred it remain closed so as to slow down Soviet shipments to the Vietcong. The U.S. position in 1971 was that it was better to keep the Canal closed, but in the interest of peace in the Middle East it was ready to help it reopen.
2. Egypt’s insistence that the interim agreement be explicitly linked to progress toward a final deal. Sadat was clearly worried that by agreeing to an interim agreement he would be collaborating in postponing a comprehensive settlement to an indefinite future date.
3. The terms of the deal: the depth of Israel’s withdrawal from the canal and the size and nature of Egypt’s presence on its eastern bank.
As a condition for actually going along with the idea of the interim settlement Meir wanted Washington to formally abandon the Rogers Plan, and her own concept of the interim agreement offered was rather limited. In the coming months Rabin became a consistent and persistent advocate of Israeli flexibility in an effort to maintain Israel’s credibility and the Nixon administration’s goodwill. He was branded in the Israeli government as being dovish. In his conversations with his American interlocutors, Rabin kept referring to his dovish image and asked them not to embarrass him and complicate his relationship with the prime minister by referring to the flexible ideas he raised occasionally on his own. This was to no avail, and his relationship with Meir became strained. In reporting on one of his conversations with Kissinger, Rabin was trying “to forestall her anger.” He admitted in his cable that “I may have gone beyond my powers on airing proposals for a partial settlement, but in view of my relationship with Kissinger and my confidence in him—and considering present political circumstances—I thought that Israel ought to make salient contribution to furthering the political process. We have a vital interest in inducing the president to disown the Rogers Plan and there is no sense in doing so unless we inject momentum into the political process in the context of the partial settlement.”
The prime minister’s response was in line with Rabin’s fears. After thanking him briefly for his report she called him a week later, “notifying me,” Rabin wrote, “that the proposals I discussed with Kissinger were unacceptable to her. She regretted that I aired them, even privately, without first requesting permission. She also expressed her concern that Kissinger might have conveyed the main points of my proposal to the President, thereby weakening Israel’s stand in our debate with the State Department over the terms for a partial settlement. Finally, the Prime Minister told me to notify Kissinger of her sharp reaction, ask him to overlook our private conversation and tell him to regard my proposals as null and void.”
The American–Israeli conversation over the interim settlement idea continued into 1973, but by then it was essentially sterile. Nixon and Kissinger did want to see progress between Egypt and Israel, but there was no sense of urgency. Nor did they want to seek out a confrontation with Meir when the November 1972 presidential elections were looming. Sadat, meanwhile, was moving in the right direction: in July 1972 he expelled the Soviet advisers from Egypt and opened a discreet channel with Kissinger through his national security adviser, Hafez Ismail. Kissinger’s insistence in 1969 that Egypt should eventually see the light and turn to Washington and away from Moscow in order to regain the Sinai was finally paying off. Although Sadat did not fully sever his relationship with the Soviet Union, the process was unfolding, and Kissinger was willing to wait.
Meir, in turn, was marking time. She had no interest in a comprehensive or partial settlement, but she knew that in order to keep Nixon and Kissinger on her side she had to come up with positive ideas. In December 1971 she arrived for another meeting with the president with some new ideas for an interim settlement. She was now willing to agree that Israel’s right to use the reopened Suez Canal be first recognized in principle, then implemented at a later phase. She proposed that the IDF would withdraw to the western side of the Mitla and Gidi passes, and Egyptian technicians and policemen could be deployed in the area evacuated by Israel once the canal was reopened. This position was not acceptable to either Egypt or the United States, and in any event, the prime minister was not deeply invested in it. Rabin had been initially skeptical of the settlement idea but gradually warmed up to it; Meir told her American counterparts she accepted the idea under certain conditions, but it is doubtful she ever took the idea seriously. Dayan, an early advocate of the idea, abandoned it rather than fight over it with the prime minister.
Not much changed between December 1971 and the end of Rabin’s mission to Washington, in March 1973. Nixon and Kissinger were fully aware of the prime minister’s reluctance to move on either a full or a partial settlement, despite her stated position. Her argument was that there was not much she could do before the Israeli parliamentary elections, planned for October 1973, and Nixon and Kissinger were willing to wait before pushing more vigorously for movement. Meir’s last meeting with Nixon and Kissinger during Rabin’s tenure as ambassador took place between February 28 and March 1, 1973. The minutes of Rabin’s conversations with Kissinger on the eve of that visit reflect the unusual intimacy and candor that came to characterize their relations. Kissinger prepared Rabin in great detail for the prime minister’s conversations with the president, offering him tactical advice on how to maximize the effect of the meeting. Rabin, in turn, when asked by Kissinger for the rationale of an Israeli military action in Lebanon, told him that Dayan might have acted in order to obstruct the success of the prime minister’s visit. In Rabin’s words, “I do not know why the Prime Minister allowed the raid into Lebanon. When I was Chief of Staff whenever we were trying to achieve something from the United States in the political arena, I piped everything down. . . .” And when Kissinger asked him, “What do you think is the reason for these moves?” Rabin responded by saying, “Frankly, I think the only motive is Dayan’s desire to prevent a successful visit by the prime minister, because his chances are better if she retires before the election. It is a political year.” Kissinger reciprocated Rabin’s unusual candor with a detailed description of the conversation he was about to have with Ismail.
Meir was not the only person marking time in 1972. Rabin felt that his mission in Washington had run its course, that he had achieved the high point of his ambassadorship, that in order to move on in his political career he had to be in Israel, not out of it. His relationship with Meir had deteriorated. For some time Meir had not been pleased with Rabin’s growing independence, and his tendency to lecture the cabinet, including herself, in his cables on the proper way to understand the ways of Washington. Rabin, acutely aware of the change in Washington’s position due to the changes in Egypt represented by Sadat’s regime and its determination to see some forward movement, kept pressing for an interim agreement. Meir was displeased with Rabin’s line. She felt he “went native,” as ambassadors tend to do, and was overly influenced by Sisco. During one of her visits she even asked Amos Eran, Rabin’s aide and confidant in the embassy, “Tell me, did Sisco brainwash Rabin? What is it, does he accept all his positions? Does he have that kind of influence over him?”
Rabin was aware of the shift in his relationship with the prime minister. He was also distressed by two other issues. One was the ceaseless campaign conducted against him by Eban, his subordinates in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the cohort of journalists who took their cue from Eban and his men. And more important, Rabin felt that his quest for a cabinet position was going nowhere. At that point he had been let down three times by Meir and the Labor Party leadership during his tenure in Washington. The first episode had occurred in September 1969; earlier that year the party leadership had wanted him to fully join the political fray, to run for the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and become a cabinet member. This was early in Rabin’s stay in Washington, so he declined. But in September Meir offered him a shortcut. During one of Rabin’s visits to Israel to prepare her for a meeting with Nixon, Meir told him that after the next parliamentary elections (scheduled for October that year and on the assumption she would form the new government), she wanted him to join her cabinet as minister of education. Rabin gladly accepted and gallantly told the prime minister she should not feel bound by her promise, that he would fully understand if it turned out after the elections that it could not be implemented. And indeed, it was not. Rabin had been sorely used, not for the first or last time, as a counter-weight to Dayan. The Labor Party leadership had been worried that Dayan might secede and run on his own.
Rabin wrote angrily about the episode in a letter to his father and sister:
I do not know what exactly happened after the elections. When I was in Israel two weeks ago she [Meir] summoned me and explained that due to Washington’s importance and the lack of a suitable person [to replace me] she decided that at this time I would stay in the US. I responded by saying that even though she asked me in September, I demanded nothing from her. Quite to the contrary, I left her a way out. I added that in September I had doubts whether she really wanted me to come. Furthermore, the whole media game that revolved around me and the cabinet was not dignified. Still, she owed me nothing and does not owe me an explanation. Unrelated to the positive qualities which make her the most suitable Prime Minister at this time, it is difficult for me to say that her behavior in this matter was something to be proud about. … Anyway I am not sorry that I stayed here.
This episode played out in early 1970. In 1971 the issue of Rabin’s joining the cabinet was raised again, several times. During a visit to Washington, the finance minister, Pinchas Sapir, a close associate of Meir, consulted with Rabin about inviting Haim Bar-Lev, his successor as chief of staff, to join the cabinet. Rabin felt awkward but spoke positively about Bar-Lev. Labor’s leadership saw greater political value in recruiting “the fresher” Bar-Lev over Rabin. In June 1971, however, during Rabin’s visit to Israel, Sapir tried to set the record straight and told Rabin he wanted him to join the cabinet prior to Bar-Lev, who was to end his military service in 1972. But there were opponents, first and foremost Eban. There was also the issue of finding a replacement for the ambassador post in Washington. General Yariv, the director of military intelligence, who was offered the position, declined. Meir told Rabin he had to stay on another year in Washington and would join the cabinet upon returning in 1972. And then, in March 1972, Bar-Lev indeed joined the cabinet.
Disheartened and disappointed, Rabin wrote a bitter letter to Meir. The letter is not dated and may or may not have been sent, but the text shows how despondent Rabin became and how frustrated he was:
I had some hesitations whether I should write you this letter. I finally decided to write it, hoping that it will be received in friendship and understanding. When I was in Israel and you decided, against my will, that I will stay here for another year, I accepted that decision with a heavy heart. All my concerns have been vindicated. A general and personal situation developed that became difficult and almost intolerable. Everything that you told me, twice, and was not implemented by you (namely, my joining the cabinet) turned my position into practically a subject of ridicule. It seems that it is almost common not to respect what is being said to me. … Of course, I am instructed by you to keep my mouth shut, and I cannot defend myself. … You never stood up to defend me.
I would not have needed it, had I been at home. I would have known how to do it myself.
Rabin’s and Meir’s relationship was not helped when Rabin got into some trouble in the 1972 U.S. presidential election when he took a public position in support of Nixon against his Democratic opponent, George McGovern. Rabin saw Nixon as a genuine friend of Israel, felt beholden to him, and was concerned with McGovern’s liberalism. In an interview on Israeli radio in June 1972 Rabin stated, “While we appreciate the support in the form of words, we are getting from one camp, we must prefer support in the form of deeds we are getting from the other camp.” Rabin’s remark produced angry reaction in both the United States and Israel. The Washington Post published an editorial critical of him titled “Israel’s Undiplomatic Diplomat.” Rabin, however, did not regret the incident and defended his conduct in his memoirs, published several years later: “In that interview I noted that never in America’s history had a president gone so far in his pro-Israeli declarations or in expressing America’s commitment to Israel’s security as President Nixon had in his address to Congress following his return from Moscow. That was a fact and at most I was bringing it to the attention of the Israeli, not the American, public. I truly cannot understand how my words could have been interpreted as a ‘campaign speech’ when the campaign had yet to begin and I was at any rate addressing myself to a public that was not going to the polls.”
The incident did not develop into a serious issue. Neither McGovern nor the chairman of the Democratic Party, Lawrence O’Brien, saw any point in inflating it, and Rabin’s and Israel’s important friends in the Senate, Henry Jackson and Stuart Symington, wrote to Meir in support of Rabin. The incident died down shortly thereafter.
Rabin completed his mission in Washington and returned to Israel in March 1973. He hosted Meir for the last time just before his departure, in February. Nixon, who was fond of Rabin, expressed his hope that he would be promoted upon returning to Israel. Meir responded, “It depends on his behavior.” It was an obvious reflection of the tension that came to characterize Rabin’s relationship with the prime minister and a difficult beginning to the next political chapter, in the spring of 1973.
Rabin’s tenure in Washington was an important phase in both his career and his personal life. It helped him transition from a ranking army officer to a politician with rich, extensive diplomatic experience, a profound knowledge of the American political system and global politics, and a valuable network in the United States. Despite his rocky relationship with Meir toward the end, Rabin’s mission in Washington was considered to be a success and a stepping-stone. But equally important was the impact America had on Rabin’s persona. As he himself wrote, he was predisposed to fall in love with America by his father’s stories and recollections. He returned to Israel as an admirer of the American political system and way of life. Rabin adopted American notions of a market economy, and his personal life-style was transformed. He developed a taste for whiskey and became an enthusiastic tennis player. The Rabins’ intensive social life in Washington turned Leah into a very successful hostess and her husband into a more enthusiastic participant rather than the proverbial loner. Rosa Cohen’s son had traveled a long way from her radical socialist values.
Excerpted from Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman, by Itamar Rabinovich. Copyright © 2017 by Itamar Rabinovich. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Itamar Rabinovich is president of The Israel Institute (Washington, D.C., and Tel Aviv); Global Distinguished Professor, New York University; and Non-Resident Distinguished Fellow, Brookings Institution. He is a former president of Tel Aviv University and was Rabin’s ambassador in Washington and chief negotiator with Syria.