"When Israel pleaded for immediate American arms and ammunition shipments at the start of the Yom Kippur War, [then-Secretary of State and National Security Advisor] Henry Kissinger was not eager to help Israel right away," says William B. Quandt, the man who at the time served as head of the Middle East desk at the National Security Council.
"Instead, he delayed the weapons shipment, much to the dismay of Israel's leaders. Kissinger believed that such a step would move the Arabs to lose faith in the Americans and in effect deny the U.S. a chance to become an accepted mediator by both sides. That's why he hoped Israel would win the war without our direct intervention."
Quandt, who was part of the decision-making process in dozens of key, fateful instances, became Kissinger's personal assistant and close associate. This week, this veteran foreign policy hand paid a quick visit to Israel, where he took part in a conference organized by the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. Quandt will also appear in a special televised documentary produced by Keshet titled "Yomanei Milhamah" ("War Diaries").
Quandt gives us a rare glimpse into the complexity of the relationship between the American administration and senior Israeli government figures on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. He also talks about Kissinger the politician -- the Jew whom the Israeli government thought it could count on to stand foursquare with the Jewish state but who instead turned out to be a strategist who sees the big picture and whose top priority is maintaining American interests, even if they come at Israel's expense.
"The politicians who came into contact with Kissinger at the start of his term in September 1973 were proud of him because he was considered to be the first American Jew who held the positions of secretary of state and national security advisor and thus would want very close relations with Israel," Quandt said.
"Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Yitzhak Rabin, were convinced that Israel had a close friend in the [Nixon] administration."
It wasn't long, however, until a quite different reality began to take shape. "Kissinger wasn't an agent working at the behest of the Israeli government," Quandt said.
"He was first and foremost an American. He would act in ways that at times angered [then-Prime Minister] Golda Meir. It was Kissinger who forced Israel to accept a deadline for the war to draw to a close -- October 22. Meir asked him, 'Why did you force us to end it?' She wanted to recover from the humiliation which she experienced at the start of the war, when Israel was caught ill-prepared, by scoring a huge victory, and Kissinger stopped her."
"In fact, Kissinger was quite angered over Israel's diplomatic policies," Quandt says. "He claimed that Israel's leaders were braggarts. In private meetings, he displayed firmness toward Israeli representatives, and he said there was a line that he could not cross."
"Still, at the end of the day he would stand by Israel's side," Quandt said. "In Israel, they knew this, and they appreciated it, even when he pressured the Israeli government at times."
"Another dramatic aspect of the unusual dynamics of Richard Nixon's attitude toward Israel is the question of American aid during the war," says Quandt. "In the American diplomatic realm, there were three key players -- Nixon, who at the time was bogged down by the fallout from the Watergate scandal; Kissinger, who was the president's chief executor; and the Pentagon, whose job was to deliver foreign aid when the order was given."
"Nixon was not enamored with the Israeli government. He thought that pressure needed to be applied on 'the old woman' (Meir) to agree to peace talks. The president, however, immediately acceded to Israel's request for help. This aid was not delivered out of any special love for Israel, but because of his concern that the Russians would bolster the Arabs as part of the Cold War."
What was Kissinger's position?
"He thought that the best thing for American interests is to withhold assistance to Israel," Quandt said. "He expected Israel to win the war in two days, and he wanted the U.S. to keep afar while promising aid after the war."
"There was an understanding between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that neither side would intervene in the Middle East. Kissinger's response to Israel was, 'Of course we will help you, but we won't do it openly.' He offered the Israeli government American weapons and the use of American planes."
According to Quandt, however, there was a problem because there was a limit as to how much aid could be delivered quietly. "Kissinger proposed that privately owned charter planes deliver some of the equipment and weapons, but this was difficult to organize since this required mid-air refueling for aircraft that were carrying heavy cargo, and the Europeans were not willing to go along with it. This whole situation resulted in a delay, and it prompted a lot of frustration in Israel."
"Do as I say"
Quandt reveals one of the least known stories about the war. "Kissinger wanted an immediate cease-fire on October 12, after just six days of fighting, and he was very close to getting it," he said. "He asked Golda, who was demonstrably opposed, to agree to a cease-fire. While applying pressure he also promised the Israelis, 'From the moment the cease-fire goes into effect, Israel will receive all of the weapons and American assistance that it asked for immediately'."
"To Kissinger's surprise, the British spoiled his plan when they asked, 'Why should we support the plan if we don't know that the Egyptians will accept it?' Kissinger was furious, and he answered them: 'Don't even ask. Just do as I say.' But the British refused, and they asked [then-Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat if he was willing to accept a cease-fire."
"Sadat was emphatic," Quandt recalled. "'No, we are winning the war!' he said. Then the British refused to submit the proposal to the United Nations. In response, Kissinger yelled at them, 'You are ruining the diplomacy!'"
That was when everything changed, according to Quandt. "Kissinger realized that the only way to get Sadat to reconsider a cease-fire would be for him to begin losing the war," he said. "This was the impetus for us to start sending weapons to the Israelis so that Israel would start ratcheting up the intensity of its military operations while knowing that more weapons were on the way."
"Indeed, on the night of October 13, Nixon ordered the Pentagon to dispatch ships carrying 100 tons of arms and personnel to Israel," he said. "As we all know, this didn't impact the course of the war, but from a psychological standpoint it made a big difference and gave Israel more confidence."
As one would anticipate, especially when dealing with such dramatic episodes, Kissinger has a different recollection, which he expressed in his memoir. According to Kissinger, it was the Pentagon, which he claims was motivated by a pro-Arab bias and a desire to bolster its oil interests, which delayed the arms shipments. Kissinger was always in favor of delivering assistance to Israel.
"The real story, from a diplomatic angle, is much more complex," says Quandt, who disagrees with his former boss' claims.
A diplomatic opportunity
Aged just 32, and just one day before the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, Quandt was named chief of the Middle East desk at the National Security Council. When he returned home, the phone rang. He was informed that the Yom Kippur War was about to erupt in a few hours, and that Golda Meir told the American ambassador to Israel, "We are in trouble."
Before his appointment, Quandt was a member of the National Security Council staff, though he did not have direct contact with Kissinger. But his promotion and the eruption of war less than 24 hours later completely changed the picture.
"Because of the war, I was meeting Henry every day," he said. "I can't say that he trusted my opinion, since Kissinger was a man who relied on almost no one to give him advice. I don't want to overstate the importance of my job title, but I was in an excellent vantage point to gauge the situation. I made certain proposals on a number of matters. I organized meetings. I worked for an organization that coordinated the American response to the war under the supervision and management of Kissinger, and I jotted down notes and short memoranda on the issues that we were dealing with."
Quandt served in the NSA in the 1970s. He was involved in the contacts which led to the Camp David Agreements. He also spent countless hours working on issues related to the Israeli-Arab conflict. In 1979, he retired from politics and took up positions in the academic world, becoming a senior Middle East researcher at leading universities in the U.S. He wrote eight books devoted to American policy in the Middle East and the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Quandt sheds light on Kissinger's attitude toward the Middle East. "When the war broke out, his first reaction was one of anger," he said. "He was surprised, and as someone in a sensitive position of a global superpower, you don't want to be surprised. He thought Sadat had lost his mind, and he was uttering all of the stereotypes that you could think of -- 'Those irrational Arabs,' 'Why is he up to this nonsense? The Israelis will reach Cairo in three days,' 'Why can't Sadat wait? I had planned peace talks and now he is ruining everything'."
How did the Egyptians respond?
"On the first day of the war, Kissinger was quite emotional. On the second day, he received a politely worded message from the Egyptians, who claimed: 'We tried to get your attention through other means and it didn't work, we know that in the event of war we will be on opposite sides, but it's important that you understand why we did it.' Sadat embarked on war because of his great frustration. He didn't want war, and he appealed to the U.S. and the UN in hopes that they would ensure he would receive all of the Sinai back. In exchange, he was willing to consider all of Israel's other needs. Meir refused, and Kissinger came to an understanding with Meir and Dayan that negotiations between Israel and Egypt would begin in January, after the elections in Israel."
"Kissinger thought that the message transmitted by the Egyptians was a fair one, and from the second day onwards he thought solely in terms of the American point of view," Quandt said. "His mindset was focused on how this crisis could be leveraged diplomatically after the war ends. On the one hand, we couldn't allow Israel to lose the war. On the other hand, Kissinger was convinced that Israel would rout the Egyptians within a few days."
"That's how he managed the war from a strategic standpoint," he said. "He wanted to ensure an Israeli victory, but at the same time he was determined not to intervene in such a one-sided manner. He wanted to maintain some balance so that the Arab side could trust the Americans after the war. He devoted tremendous efforts to find that balance, and that is the most riveting lesson of wartime diplomacy. When do you ask for a cease-fire? How does one approach the Israeli request for immediate armament? Should one involve the Soviets or leave them out? Every day we would revisit these issues."
The diplomatic clock was ticking
Classified documents from the Yom Kippur War archives were recently made public. Quandt, a skilled researcher, took great interest in the newly revealed material and the surprising revelations they contained. By extension, he enthusiastically agreed to edit and write the foreword of the English edition of Yigal Kipnis' new book, "1973 -- Haderech l'milchama ("the path to war"), which was published last year by the Hebrew-language publisher Kinneret Zmora-Bitan.
Kipnis' book contained previously unknown bits of information that were gleaned from the newly declassified archival material. "These revelations which came from the Israeli archives taught me a number of things," Quandt says. "For instance, there was the explicit understanding between the U.S. and Golda Meir and her associates at the end of 1971 in which there would be a period of two years until the next elections in Israel during which there would be no room for any diplomatic moves."
"The archived materials also reveal information about the very intimate relationship between the U.S. and Israel, two countries who confided in each other on virtually everything," he says. "One of the differences in the way both countries view the world is rooted in the fact that Golda claimed that Sadat is an enemy that can't be trusted, while Kissinger saw him as a potential partner."
Indeed, one of the conclusions reached by the Americans following the war was that their relationship was too close, which can explain why neither side was ready for war.
"Many research studies were done in the U.S. regarding the question of how we didn't see it coming," Quandt said. "One of the main conclusions was that we became much too reliant on Israeli intelligence. Our close ties with Israel during the war prevented us from using independent sources of our own and using our own unbiased judgment. We leaned on Israeli intelligence, particularly on Israel's interpretation of the intelligence, due to our feeling that Israel had a better grasp of the situation than we did, and it needed to worry more than we did. We got to the realization that in the future we would need to trust our sources and our judgment, because the Israelis are also capable of making mistakes."
Quandt regrets the fact that Washington failed to apply more pressure on Israel to take action on the diplomatic front toward the Egyptians before the elections. He wishes that the U.S. had not capitulated to Golda Meir's emphatic refusal to engage in any negotiation until after the elections in Israel, a move that eventually compelled Sadat to opt for war.
What could you have done differently?
"We thought we had time, and it seemed inconceivable to us that Egypt would enter a war in which they had no chance. But we knew that Sadat was frustrated. There were signs to that effect, like the idea of using oil as a political threat. The Russians warned that there would be a war. We mistakenly thought that this was just a ploy to pressure us to expedite the diplomatic process. We very much wanted to. Nixon even told Kissinger: 'Henry, you know the situation in the Middle East is going to blow up and we need to do more, we need to press the Israelis without it looking like we are pressing them.' But Kissinger didn't want to do this prematurely. He wanted to stick to the timetable that was agreed upon by him, Golda, and Dayan."
In hindsight, Kissinger also regretted this, and he expressed this sentiment when he met Sadat after the war on November 7. "Kissinger found out that Sadat had an interesting way of being 'above it all,'" Quandt said. "He didn't get into any details. Instead he always tried to look at the wider picture. Kissinger anticipated a tiresome argument regarding the cease-fire agreement of October 22. He told Sadat, 'We can spend weeks just discussing the cease-fire line, but I have an alternative proposal. Let's talk about a disengagement of forces agreement that would pull the Israelis back to their side of the [Suez] Canal. That would certainly take a few months, but it will be much more beneficial and important.'"
"To Kissinger's astonishment, Sadat replied, 'Okay, let's go for it.' We learned that Sadat had no desire to argue about trifle matters. He took Kissinger aside and said that he is ready to make many concessions, but only on condition that word of this would not be leaked. Sadat is the only politician who laid out his final positions in the beginning. He said that we, the Americans, need to create the atmosphere and make it seem as if we were pushing him into a corner and that he would make it seem as if he wasn't too enthusiastic about it. That was the only way it would work, he told us. He planned everything. We had an easy time dealing with Sadat. He was flexible on most issues except for one -- the territorial issue. That was his red line. He wasn't willing to give up one centimeter."
"He was skeptical"
Quandt believes the Nixon administration made a number of errors. Specifically, he noted the secretary of state's level of preparedness. According to Quandt, Kissinger had a "blind spot" regarding just how volatile the situation was. "He didn't think the military option was at all possible because after the Six-Day War and the American aid that was flowing into Israel since 1970, Israel was perceived as very strong."
After the war, it also took Kissinger a long while to get to know Sadat and judge him from up close. The secretary of state realized that Sadat was a man who was willing to break from the other Arabs and enter into peace talks.
"Kissinger was excellent in dealing with strong leaders, dictators with authority, like the leaders of Russia and China as well as with Sadat and [Hafez] Assad," Quandt said.
According to Quandt, the Yom Kippur War was "four weeks during which Kissinger was totally focused solely on that. This was an issue that was extremely important to him. He was at the height of his powers and political influence and he managed this crisis."
If there was one issue Kissinger was slow to grasp, if he ever grasped it at all, it was the Palestinian question. "At the time, the major players were the states who initiated all of the major processes, and Kissinger was part of the classic school of thinking which taught that one needed to deal with states and not with organizations."
What about the Arab-Israeli conflict? "Kissinger was skeptical that this was a soluble conflict," Quandt says. "He was of the opinion that this was a deeply ingrained conflict and that this would continue for many years, irrespective of how many diplomatic steps and agreements are reached. Deep in his heart, he didn't believe in a comprehensive peace agreement and an end to the conflict, and he never thought he would see such a thing in his lifetime."