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On the Road Again — Kissinger’s Shuttle Diplomacy

In January and May 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger engaged in “shuttle diplomacy,” a term coined by the members of the media who followed Kissinger on his various short flights among Middle East capitals as he sought to deal with the fallout of the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. After three weeks of fighting, a ceasefire found Israeli forces entangled with the Egyptian and Syrian forces. This presented President Richard Nixon and Kissinger with an opportunity to play a lead role in disengaging these armies from one another and possibly laying the groundwork for further steps to peacefully resolve the 25-year conflict.

In January 1974, Kissinger helped negotiate the first Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement in eight days, and in May, he arranged a Syrian-Israeli disengagement after a month of intense negotiations. Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy secured one last deal in September 1975 with the conclusion of a second Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement.

The shuttles were an intensely stressful experience whose success rested not only on Kissinger’s statesmanship but on the imperturbable character and endurance of men like Dr. Harold ‘Hal’ Saunders. While working for the Bureau of Near East Affairs, Saunders accompanied Kissinger on his Middle East shuttle runs. These shuttles negotiated — detail by detail – disengagement agreements between Egypt, Israel, and Syria.

Saunders’ analyses and nearly indefatigable nature were invaluable assets in the exhausting marathon of negotiations, as he notes in his interview with Thomas Stern beginning in November 1993. He died in March 2016; you can read his obituary in the Washington Post.

Go here to read about Kissinger’s secret negotiations to normalize relations with China and other Moments on Kissinger.  Read about the Camp David accords.


“Our strategy was articulated over and over again”

SAUNDERS: We all, and Henry especially, saw the peace process as what I later described as “a series of mediated agreements imbedded in a larger political process.” I did that after having left government while writing about the process in retrospect. That was the lesson I drew for our efforts.

When we went to the Middle East, we always stopped in a number of Arab capitals, before and during the negotiations. On several occasions, I was sent to Algeria or to Saudi Arabia to brief the leadership of those countries on what was happening at the negotiating table. We would regularly send letters from the plane to various Arab leaders to keep them advised on the peace process.

Occasionally, the group went to brief the key leaders. It was quite clear that we were trying to build a political base of support for our efforts among the Middle East leadership group. We were always mindful that all the political leaders in the area, and particular the Israeli ones, needed to be able to cite enough advantages from the any concluded agreements so that they could gather enough domestic political support when the signing time came around.

That part of the peace process gave me a large dose of the political context within which we were operating…. I was responsible for gathering all relevant material, putting it in a meaningful context and submitting it to Kissinger — usually in the form of a briefing book….When we worked on the details, the larger context was never forgotten. We fully understood that whenever we drafted an agreement. We would push the details as far as we could, recognizing that some desirable goals could not be met at that time, leaving those issues till the next agreement.

What we could not achieve during one stage became literally and figuratively the basis of the check list for the next set of negotiations. The American team members might not phrase this approach in the same words as I have just done, but Henry Kissinger’s notes used in his conversations with the leadership in the Middle East reiterated over and over again the logic of the Middle East peace process — its short-run achievements and its longer range objectives. So our strategy was articulated over and over again and I would guess that you can find it also in the backgrounders to the press.

“Kissinger stopped being the Secretary of State and became Dr. Kissinger, an American professor serving as a consultant to the State of Israel

I can give you a marvelous example that the overall strategy was always present when we worked on the details. One day, during the Israeli-Syrian shuttle, we returned to Jerusalem from Damascus. We met with Israeli officials in Prime Minister Golda Meir’s conference room.

The issue on this day was how many artillery pieces or tanks with long-range guns could be permitted in a limited armament zone to be established on the Syrian side of the buffer zone. The Syrians had given us a number. The Israeli, I guess, had given us a lower number even before we went to Syria. The check list for that day would undoubtedly have the two numbers on it.

Henry told the Israeli the number that [Syrian President Hafez] Assad had given him. Golda Maier, in a passionate statement, said that the Syrian number did not represent disengagement; it was just too large for the Israeli to swallow. She became very emotional and said that what we were negotiating could not be called a “disengagement agreement”, if the Syrian numbers had to be part of the final document.

At that stage, Kissinger did what he occasionally did during the shuttles. He stopped being the Secretary of State of the United States, who was trying to mediate an agreement. He became Doctor Kissinger, an American professor serving as a consultant to the State of Israel, who, incidentally, had shared the Jewish experience. This metamorphosis was done in a very impressive, subtle and admirable fashion. Everything he did was perfectly proper, but somehow he managed to change from his official role as a mediator to that of a counselor.

That afternoon, he said that for a moment he wanted to leave the number issue aside. He then began to remind all in attendance of the fundamental strategy that he was pursuing. He noted that the interim agreements were designed to acquire control over the peace process, to push the Soviets out of their involvement in the area and to obtain European support for the peace process by getting the oil embargo lifted.

(That embargo, which had been imposed in 1973, was later lifted as a consequence of the first Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement in January 1974 and the promise of a Syrian-Israeli disengagement).

He laid out all of these goals and by doing so, he pushed back the Israeli gloom. He reminded them gently that what was at stake that day was the basic strategy and the long-range goals.

The number of artillery pieces and tanks was only incidental to the general direction and final goals to be achieved. Kissinger painted that big picture exquisitely, without giving offense to anyone around the table, completely analytically and masterfully propounded.

Meir took her team off into her office, adjacent to the conference room which we were using. After a period of time, the Israelis returned and Meir told Kissinger that he understood how the Israelis felt and that he was free to do whatever necessary to get the agreement.

She would trust him to get the best number he could get from the Syrians. (From left: Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz, PM Golda Meir, NSC Staffer Harold Saunders, Nixon, Kissinger, unidentified; Photo: National Archives)

I characterized Kissinger’s roles as I did because I think it was a fair reflection of the proceedings. It seemed perfectly natural. In his own mind, he was only articulating the grand strategy that we were pursuing. He may not have been conscious of his metamorphosis. He might be surprised by my characterization, but he might well agree with it. It is also possible that he changed roles quite consciously because he was most often very deliberate about his words and actions. He changed his roles time and time again.

What I am trying to emphasize is that we always lived with the long-term strategy, regardless of the short-term efforts that we might be making. Before each trip, I would write a memorandum analyzing the situation then in existence, the long-term goals we were trying to achieve and how that particular trip was to move the negotiations forward along the long range path.

So everything we did was intended to move the process further along towards the long range goals. The detail agreement was another step down the road.

Architect of the Next Step

When we working on how the Israelis might be convinced to leave the Mitla passes [32 km-long snaky pass in the Sinai, about 50 km east of Suez, which were the site of major battles between Egypt and Israel during the wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973] during the negotiations of the second Sinai agreement, we were concerned that by doing so, we were probably foreclosing any further Israeli concessions on the Sinai.

When the second Sinai agreement was signed, most of us thought that the step–by–step strategy for the Sinai had come to an end. Later on, of course, we reexamined our views and indeed achieved further progress.

This is just another illustration of how conscious we were, as we’re negotiating agreements on many details, of the long-range strategy and the relationship of each detail to the end of the process.

It was a marvelous atmosphere which brought out the best in all of us because we had a fundamental analysis, a long-term strategy and a myriad of details to be negotiated. The resolution of each detail would eventually achieve our long-term objectives. We, of course, were always sufficiently flexible to correct our long term strategy if current circumstances so dictated.

The second Sinai agreement, which was negotiated between the fall of 1973 and 1974, was a good illustration of the fits and starts that we inevitably encountered as we planned the next steps…

Roy Atherton [Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs from 1970-74, then Assistant Secretary from 1974-78] had described that job as being the “architect of the next step.”

I think that was an apt description because we in fact became accustomed to operating in that fashion. That is, always keeping the next step in mind as we progressed along the long-term strategy road. The details never drove our strategy, but would occasionally require mid-course corrections or additions to our goals.

For example, we had not contemplated the stationing of U.S. personnel in the Sinai passes to monitor the agreements. It was an idea that was introduced in June 1974 by one of the other parties. I don’t think we would have ever suggested it or volunteered our people for such a task. But when it appeared to be important to the Israelis, we went along and launched a very successful effort.

Our strategy didn’t change, but here was an implementation step that we had not considered, but since it was perfectly consistent with our long-term goals, we acquiesced. Our willingness to station monitors made the agreement more acceptable to the Israelis without foreclosing the possibility of the whole Sinai being returned to Egypt as was later done. So we were certainly willing to entertain new ideas as long as they were consistent with our long-term strategy.

Diplomacy by Checklist

The strategy memorandum outlined the goals that we hoped to achieve during a particular trip. The daily checklist listed the people that Kissinger was to see on a specific day. For each person to be seen, we listed the minimum agreements that Kissinger had to get in order to fulfill the needs of our strategy.

When we began the shuttle diplomatic track, each meeting needed a separate checklist; so for a particular day we sometimes ended up with two or three checklists. (Saunders, seated at left, with Egyptian officers while negotiating an agreement in 1974. Photo: UN/AP)

The opening paragraph of a checklist would remind Kissinger what his last meeting brought out as a requirement.

That is, if he were to see [successor to Golda Meir as Prime Minister, Yitzak] Rabin for example, the checklist might well begin: “During your last meeting with [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat, he asked that the Israeli give –. Sadat said he needed that concession to make a deal work. You said that you would try to ask the Israeli for that concession.”

After a meeting, on the way to the airport, either by helicopter or car, I would take the next meeting’s checklist and bring it up to date in light of what had transpired at the meeting we just left. That new checklist would include any comments that were to be passed on to the next interlocutors and a list of items under negotiations that had to be discussed further and resolved. So the checklist in fact consisted of a record of each meeting, the progress made towards our goals and the next steps that had be taken to move the process forward.

When we shuttled between Egypt and Israel, we prepared a new checklist — at least three every day — before meeting each side and then a final update at the end of the day in preparation for the next day’s first meeting. From the point of view of a historian, those checklists are an invaluable resource because he or she can easily trace the path of the negotiations, literally step by step.

It was my job to update the checklist continually. It was, of course, made easier by the fact that Roy [Atherton] and I had worked so closely together for so many years that we barely needed to speak to each other. We knew full well what was on the other person’s mind. Though, if he had been concentrating on a special issue, he would sometimes give me something for the next day’s checklist.

As the shuttle progressed, we began to add draft paragraphs of the agreements being negotiated to the checklist. The paragraphs had brackets for certain portions where no agreement had been reached and negotiations over specific language agreeable to both sides became part of the next day’s meetings with each side. The text was typed up so it could be presented to each side, clearly indicating where changes had been made since the last time it had been discussed and with the language yet to be agreed to clearly indicated.

This system was a device that Roy and I developed as the best means of trying to keep track of fast moving developments. The system was a new one for us, but then none of us had ever participated in shuttle diplomacy. It was important that somehow we keep track of all the requirements, demands and wishes that each side kept throwing at us.

There were dozens of questions and answers given every day which had to be remembered and tracked. These had to be later woven into the text of agreements and therefore had to be systematically recorded and tracked. The need to keep track of a myriad of details forced us to invent the checklist system.

These were the days before computers were available. All of the updating had to be done manually. The principal capitals were only an hour’s plane ride from each other. Then we had a few minutes going to and from an airport. Not much time! We had to compress the time we had in order to update the checklists. The first few trips were manageable because I only had to update the checklist.

“Oh, hell, Mr. Secretary, there are too many pages!”

By the time we were getting to the end of the shuttle, we not only had the checklists, but also texts and annexes. We were by then dealing with a significant volume of paper, all of which had to be continually updated. We had two typists with us; they had to retype many of the pages during each flight.

Of course, we also had a Xerox machine on the plane, but we soon learned that when the plane began to descend for landing, the machine would reprint on only the top part of the page. That even further compressed the time available for typing and reproduction, particularly when we had pilots who preferred longer approach paths.

I remember that on one trip, Joe and I were frantically collating. One would hardly expect that to be in the job description for the Under Secretary for Political Affairs. In any case, on that occasion, Kissinger came out of his compartment and looked at a page and said that he had specifically instructed us to make certain changes on that page.

I said, “Oh, hell, Mr. Secretary, there are too many pages!” But I took the page and gave it to the typist to redo. By the time she finished, we were already on our glide path and couldn’t reproduce the page. When we landed at Giannakla airfield — a military base — in the Nile Delta (a wine- grape growing area with a Greek name), we had to copy this page in 110 degree temperature while the Egyptian Foreign Minister was waiting outside to greet us.

I asked the pilot over the intercom not to stop the plane but to keep it rolling on the ground until we had all the copies made and collated. I don’t know where he went, but he taxied long enough for us to finish the job. The party on the ground that was awaiting us must have thought we lost our marbles.

We worked very hard on these flights and managed to get a lot of work accomplished, even under very trying circumstances, as I described earlier.

In addition to revising the check lists and agreements after each meeting, I also sat in on every meeting. We spread the responsibility for note-taking around. Kissinger demanded verbatim texts of the meetings.

I never transcribed the notes I took; I never had time for that. I had books full of these notes which we used as the record of the meetings. I don’t know if they were ever fully transcribed. We never felt that we needed that. With the notes that Joe [Sisco, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, NEA], Roy and I took, we had a full record of what transpired.

The checklist was maintained for all the shuttles. It became almost immediately obvious that it was the right system for our task. Kissinger found it very helpful; he would use the checklist during the meetings to make sure that all the pertinent issues were covered. His copies of those checklists would show notations and checks to show that he had covered all the topics. It became the basic working document for him.

It worked so well so that when Roy and I took our first trip to the Middle East with [incoming Secretary of State Cyrus] Vance about three weeks after [Jimmy] Carter’s inauguration, we used the same system.

Roy and I agreed that Vance had never done one of these Middle East shuttles, although he had had considerable experience in the peace-making process in Cyprus. He hadn’t asked us for the checklist, but we decided we would use it anyway and it proved to be as helpful to Vance as it had been to Kissinger. Vance’s efforts in the Middle East were not as intensive as Kissinger’s. Yet the process of going from one party to another and back again was the same….

“It was vital to the success of the mission that all participants understood that Kissinger had the full support of the President under all circumstances”

I should note that our days were filled by other things in addition to meetings, updating of check lists and texts. For example, on the last flight of almost each day, Kissinger sent back a report to the President.

He was very careful with both Nixon — who was under domestic political fire at the end of 1974 [because of the growing Watergate scandal] — and then [Vice President Gerald] Ford — who was new to the job without ostensibly much foreign policy experience — to keep them current on the negotiations in some detail.

With Nixon, he was acutely conscious not to leave the impression that he considered the President to be on the way out and that therefore he, Kissinger, would handle the negotiations on his own. He knew that he had to have the President in full support; otherwise he would not have had as much clout as he needed to make progress. He could not afford with either Nixon or Ford to appear to work on his own.

It was vital to the success of the mission that all participants understood that Kissinger had the full support of the President of the United States under all circumstances. So on most nights, on the last flight for the day, Joe, Roy and I (and Bob Oakley later) would sit down and draft the report.

When we got on the plane, we would split responsibilities for drafting a paragraph or two on each issue discussed during the day to be sent to the President. This report to the President did not get any distribution outside the White House and I would guess very little, if any, inside.

Exceptions to this rule were made under special circumstances. For example, if Larry Eagleburger was not with us on the trip, he might get a copy from [National Security Advisor] Brent Scowcroft. The NEA Bureau did not receive copies and was essentially uninformed until I would return and briefed my staff.

In addition, on a number of occasions, Kissinger would want to send his personal report to some other Arab leaders, such as Sadat during the Syria-Israel shuttle. Sometimes, messages would be sent to [Jordan’s] King Hussein or the President of Algeria or the King of Saudi Arabia. So we had to draft those as well.

You can easily see that those last flights of the day were extremely busy, not only with these messages, but also with an update of a checklist because we might still have another meeting after landing. Kissinger would very quickly give us what he wanted to report to the President or Sadat or the other Arab leaders. Each of us would undertake to do certain of these messages or portions. Our secretaries were worked very hard for that hour in flight, especially since most of the messages were dictated first. The checklist I did manually because it didn’t really lend itself to dictation.

On occasions, Kissinger would call us to his hotel room. There were no scheduled staff meetings, but when the occasion demanded it, he would bring us together to discuss an issue or issues. These sessions were very much ad hoc; there was no set pattern, but brain-storming was done as required and as time permitted. (Photo: Toranian /AP Photo)

There were times of course when Joe, Roy and I — and later Bob — would meet together to consider various issues. Out of those meetings often came ideas that we put in front of Kissinger. It is impossible to trace the genesis of any particular idea. It may have come during these sessions or when we met with Kissinger or during a coffee-break.

We were completely steeped in the peace process and thought of little else so ideas would spring forth at any time. We might then discuss them with Kissinger or put them in a memorandum.

Kissinger handled the press briefings, usually personally. Occasionally, a particular reporter would be sent to one of us by Henry to answer a specific question or sometimes Henry would ask one of us to go a particular reporter to discuss a specific issue. But the “unidentified senior official” who was often quoted in the press was always Henry….

“I was asking myself how much longer could I, physically, stand the pace”

The only time [the fatigue factor] weighed on my mind at all was in the 35-day shuttle between Syria and Israel.…

I remember that in 1974, during one of Kissinger’s shuttles — after 26 trips into Damascus — I was asking myself how much longer could I, physically, stand the pace. I never came to a conclusion because that shuttle ended soon thereafter and we went home for a breather.

I do not believe that, despite being on the road for 35 straight days, our production suffered. It took a lot of effort to negotiate and draft an agreement that contending parties would sign. We did that even though it took us 35 straight days. We had to be just as acute at the end of the period when worrying about the last negotiating issues as we were when we began the process. I don’t think the physical fatigue made a difference.

Of course, I am only speaking for myself; others may differ. I don’t think the intense process made a difference to our ability to cope with issues even week after week of work. We were tired, but I don’t believe that it reduced our effectiveness…. I did wonder how much more we could endure. Fortunately, [Syria’s] Assad gave in before we did….

As far as Syria was concerned, my deepest personal involvement occurred during the efforts to conclude a Syria-Israel disengagement agreement. I added up for Kissinger that up to the Fall 1974, we had spent 130 hours with Assad. That was an unprecedented amount of time to spend with a head of state on a specific issue.

Assad was unique; he was a very interesting personality. We would have to remind ourselves periodically that Assad had been called the “Butcher of Hama” because in the meetings we had with him, he was very engaging. He had a very earthy sense of humor, to which Kissinger played. He laughed easily with a twinkle in eyes.

Many of the jokes he really enjoyed dealt with Kissinger’s stabs at [Syrian Foreign Minister] Abdul Halim Khaddam….Kissinger would say that he was trying to arrange a blind date for Khaddam with Golda Meir, which Assad found very funny. That simple kind of humor caught the fancy of both Assad and Kissinger; it was not malicious and Assad loved it.

Assad was very intelligent and loved to bargain. He had a bazaar mentality extraordinaire….The shuttle lasted 35 days. It included 26 round trips between Ben Gurion airport and Damascus International. That meant 26 meetings with Assad. Most of those meetings averaged six hours.

“’I have never seen anyone who would walk up to the brink, put both feet over and hope that there would be a branch which he might grab on the way down’”

The pattern was to have a meeting in Jerusalem in the morning, rush to Ben Gurion airport, fly to Damascus arriving just before lunch or perhaps, on good days, just right after. (I say “good days” because the lunch in Damascus was the same day in, day out.)

Upon arrival we would go to the guest house and brief Khaddam for about an hour. He would then brief Assad. Then we would be told that the President was ready to receive us and we would go to his conference room where he and two or three of his advisors would meet us (usually Khaddam and a senior Syrian foreign service officer and an interpreter). We also had an interpreter and Joe Sisco, Roy Atherton, Tom Scotes (the head of our Interest Section in Damascus) and me.

Assad paid a lot of attention to the Israeli press. That was facilitated by Khaddam’s staff. They read carefully how various senior Israeli officials depicted the negotiations. From time to time, they would complain to us on some spin that the Israelis might have given a situation.

Whenever Kissinger would carry an important message from the Israelis, Assad would ask one or two of his military leaders to join us. Then a broader section of his inner circle could hear the message directly from Kissinger. He did that to enhance his policy making mechanism. We would meet for three or three and a half hours, adjourn for dinner in his office — catered by the same hotel that provided us lunch, so that lunch and dinner were frequently the same.

At about 7:30 p.m., we would leave for the airport, fly back to Jerusalem, and meet late that evening with the Israelis. We did not have many opportunities to escape the process.

After about a month, Kissinger drafted a public statement which declared that the shuttle would be broken off. A few days later, as we were leaving Assad’s office after again having failed to reach agreement, Assad called him back and said that perhaps agreement could be reached.

There was a lot of brinkmanship in that Israel-Syria shuttle. When the agreement was nailed down, as Kissinger was leaving for the last time, he said to Assad, “You know, Mr. President, I have seen people who would walk to a brink, look over and step back. I have even seen a few people who would put one foot over the ledge and then step back. But I have never seen anyone who would walk up to the brink, put both feet over and hope that there would be a branch which he might grab on the way down.”

The first disengagement was with Egypt in January 1974; Syria was May 1974. In the summer and into the fall 1974 we were considering the possibility of trying to conclude a Jordan-Israel disengagement agreement which would have concluded the series with all of Israel bordering antagonists. That plan was aborted.

[Preparation for the next round] depended on where the negotiations stood. It is worth noting that in the period from the end of the 1973 war to the fall of 1975 three interim agreements were negotiated. For every agreement, there were two or three trips to the Middle East.

In March 1975, we had a shuttle that ended with no agreement. We ultimately achieved that agreement in August after another shuttle. For every agreement, there were shuttles to prepare the way.

“During negotiations, Assad would explore all possibilities, but never showed his hand until the end of the process”

[When in] early 1975 we turned our attention to a second Israel-Egypt agreement, we wanted to keep up the peace process momentum. Assad opposed that. One day, he explained, very straight forwardly to Kissinger, why, as the President of Syria, he would not find such a second agreement in Syria’s interest. (Photo: Getty Images/AFP)

He was basically interested in maintaining a united Arab front; he could not countenance Egypt going off by itself. He believed that if Egypt and Jordan had their territories returned, no one would pay any attention to Syria. No one could care less if the Golan Heights were ever returned.

He said to Kissinger: “Therefore I disagree profoundly with what you have planned (going back to the Egyptians), but I don’t want that to affect our relationship.” I thought that was a very statesman-like comment.

That was just one example of how direct and straight forward Assad could be. He just stated his views honestly, without acrimony. During negotiations, he would explore all possibilities, but never showed his hand until the end of the process.

In addition [to the shuttles], there were visits by involved foreign ministers to Washington, which were an important part of the process. So the process never really stopped. There was no pause. It was a continuing process which by its very nature forced us to think about the next steps all the time. The strategy was therefore continually evolving.

When a visitor would come to see the Secretary, we would send up the equivalent of a checklist which would update the circumstances and list the actions that needed to be taken, either by us or the visitor, to move the process forward. So the process was constantly evolving and therefore needed continual attention.

In addition, our ambassadors needed guidance, both in terms of general updating and in answer to specific questions that may have been posed to them. [U.S Ambassador to Egypt] Hermann Eilts was particularly important in that respect in light of his close relationship to Sadat. Sadat and Eilts would have discussions continually which required Washington involvement.

Some of the issues raised by Sadat needed Kissinger’s personal involvement and sometimes even the President’s. The constant and continuing nature of the process required Kissinger’s frequent involvement, which meant that even after I became Director of INR [Bureau of Intelligence and Research] in 1975, I had to travel with Kissinger wherever he went on an extended trip so that he would have someone at his side to handle matters that involved the Middle East peace process. Only Roy or I could have handled that chore, but I, as Director of INR, could be part of the Kissinger entourage without raising any speculation.