Henry Kissinger: The art of Middle East diplomacy

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 30 Nov 2023

Al-Ahram Weekly reviews a new book on the Middle East Peace Process as designed by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and told by author Martin Indyk.

Sadat and Kissinger in the former s house nearby the Giza Pyramids

Martin Indyk, Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy, New York: Knopf, 2021, pp688

In his insightful new book Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy, veteran US diplomat Martin Indyk explains why peace has not been and is not likely to be achieved between the Palestinians and Israelis, no matter what initiatives may come. He shows why former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, despite his exceptional wit, failed to see in former Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat “a revolutionary leader” who would go to war in the pursuit of liberating Egyptian territory.

“I had been present at the creation… [of the War on 6 October 1973] as an Australian graduate student living in Jerusalem… I would lie awake at night in a kibbutz near Gaza where I had volunteered my labour, heartsick at the causalities of a war I was convinced was unnecessary, fearing for Israel’s ability to survive,” Indyk writes in the early pages of his account.

At a later point in his introduction, he writes about his fascination as a student in Jerusalem with the diplomatic craft that Henry Kissinger, the first naturalised US citizen to be given the job of secretary of state, used to get the Israelis and Egyptians to work together on a ceasefire. This was followed by the negotiations that ended the October War, the last of the Arab-Israeli wars, and paved the way for the signing of the first ever Arab-Israeli Peace Treaty between Sadat of Egypt and prime minister Menachem Begin of Israel.

These lines are perhaps as good an introduction as any to the mind set of this diplomat, with his long career in managing the Arab-Israeli, and particularly the Palestinian-Israeli, struggle. They prepare the reader for an account that is unapologetically influenced by admiration for Kissinger’s plans for the region, which were able to survive for three consecutive decades during the Cold War and beyond until they ceased to work and no other plans were on offer to bring about Palestinian-Israeli peace.

Indyk, as he makes clear throughout the book, was always convinced that a compromise could have saved the day for everyone. If this had been achieved, Israel could have had its “Jewish state” with clear-cut lines on security and refugee issues, and the Palestinians could have had their state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The question, according to this book that Indyk published earlier this year after having been working inside the White House and at the State Department for over a quarter of a century, was not only about what the Palestinian and Israeli leaders would agree to, or, for that matter, about what regional partners in the Arab-Israeli peace would condone. This was despite the fact that some of the characters who engaged in the first rounds of the negotiations were so grand, he says, “that they were larger than life.” Instead, it was also, and often enough most significantly, about what the US could broker or rather enforce at the negotiation table. 

The first few lines of Indyk’s book contain unmasked praise for the diplomacy of Kissinger, who succeeded, while only two weeks into the job as secretary of state as the Watergate scandal sank the presidency of Richard Nixon, to manage the October 1973 War in such a way that it granted Israel close to military dominance, but also granted Sadat sufficient military and political gains to allow him to walk the path of peace that he seemed inclined to embrace, and to accommodate the former Soviet Union and present the US as the ultimate broker of Middle East peace.

Later, the ability of the US to be an uncontested broker, Indyk’s book indicates, seems to have either expired or lost its way in the late 1990s, with the 1998 Wye River Memorandum being to date the last peace agreement that the US has managed to broker between the Palestinians and Israelis. 

HENRY KISSINGER: It would be hard to miss a key point in Indyk’s book — that Kissinger, despite some inevitable mistakes and his identity as a Jew obsessed by memories of the European Holocaust, was able to work with both Arab and Israeli partners to conclude workable deals. 

In his research for the book, Indyk has made much use of Israeli archives, which are unlike “the Arab archives that… remain closed to the public.” He has also had lengthy interviews with Kissinger himself and with other politicians who were involved in the management of the struggle, many of whom he met while trying to do part of the job that Kissinger himself had done a few decades earlier.

“I have tried to take the readers into the rooms where he [Kissinger] conducted his diplomacy,” Indyk writes.

“In one respect, this is a book of deep history about a period when the Middle East seemed to move into a new era of accommodation. But it is also a story about the beginning of the American-led Middle East Peace Process told from my perspective as someone who was directly involved in what looks now to have been its denouement. I have tried to tell the story both as a historian poring over the records that preserve the memory of what happened, and as an actor in a master class, seeking to derive and apply the skills and lessons of Middle East peacemaking from the consummate diplomat.”

According to Indyk, “the graduated step-by-step peace process that [Kissinger] developed became his primary mechanism for creating a new regional order in the Middle East that sidelined the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War.” For Kissinger, the pursuit of peace in the region was essentially about producing a reliable set up for “a stable order in a highly volatile part of the world.” And, he adds, “the Kissingerian Middle Eastern order would last for almost thirty years.”

In part, Indyk seems to blame the US leaders of the past two decades for causing a situation in the Middle East that ate up the stability that Kissinger had worked to construct. This, he suggests, included the decisions of both Republican and Democratic Party presidents to encourage the deposing of powerful Arab leaders, either by US-led wars, or by US-led support for revolutions, or as former US president Donald Trump did, by overlooking the basic requirements of a US role in the region.

He seems to be suggesting that the leaders of the past couple of decades were short on some of the key qualities that helped grant Kissinger his skills, among them a willingness to take risks. In the 1960s, Kissinger proposed the need for the US to consider a “flexible response” to the threat of a nuclear strike, and he had a profound dislike for the muted reaction to big steps on the part of his rivals. Most of all, he had a deep appreciation of the importance of historical context in international politics and the mindsets of the leaders involved.

Indyk argues that these were the qualities that guided Kissinger in designing his policies on the Middle East, like in Vietnam and on the détente, or the lack thereof, with the former Soviet Union. “Eisenhower’s handling of the 1956 Suez Crisis did gain his attention; he came away convinced that it was bad policy to weaken friends and help Soviet clients,” Indyk notes.

All this was far from being related to Kissinger’s Jewishness, although he was not in conflict with this or with his Holocaust nightmares that recalled family and friends, altogether adding up to over 100 people, who died in Europe. Kissinger was quite upfront about this, as he often said that “you cannot have 13 members of your family perish in the Holocaust and not have that impact on your identity,” Indyk writes.

Indyk does not deny his own fears for the safety of Israel during the early days of the October War, and he recalls, too, the concern of Kissinger for the ability of Israel as “a tiny Jewish state… in a hostile world of Arab states bent on its destruction” to defend itself. In the early 1960s, he adds, Kissinger was “impressed by Israel’s existence, with a population at the time of only 2.3 million situated on a ‘splinter’ of territory surrounded by much larger, hostile Arab states.”

It was around this time, he says, that Kissinger informed the State Department that Israel was building nuclear weapons and that “only an ironclad US security guarantee could forestall this.” 



Indyk credits Kissinger with being the founder of what has become known as the Peace Process. 

However, he hastens to add that in the mind of Kissinger, the objective of the process was to establish a more sustainable order [after the October War] rather than peace itself, because “he did not believe [it] was an achievable or even desirable objective.” 

Throughout his career, or at least for the most part, Indyk notes, Kissinger “would consistently shy away from aiming for peace treaties, instead seeking agreements that would give all sides a stake in preserving the existing order.” In Kissinger’s analysis, he adds, “peace was abstract and reversible. What mattered more was an absence of war.”

However, notwithstanding Kissinger’s “fears” for Israel, the way Indyk explains Kissinger’s position on Eisenhower’s choices on the 1956 Suez Crisis makes it comparable to Kissinger’s disapproval of later US president Kennedy’s “muted response to the building of the Berlin Wall.”

As far as Kissinger was concerned, Indyk argues, there were three leaders in the Middle East that the US was interested in: the leaders of Israel, Iran, and Egypt after the latter had left the Soviet camp. These were the partners that Kissinger wanted to establish the new Middle East order with. Right from the beginning, he recalls, the Soviet Union wanted a full Israeli withdrawal from the Arab territories it had occupied in 1967, while the position of the Kissinger team, still only on the US national security side of things, was largely based on a partial rather than a full withdrawal. 

Kissinger opposed — and practically blocked — all attempts by the then US secretary of state William Rogers to discuss a close to full withdrawal with Moscow. Nixon, who had concerns over the impact of Kissinger’s Jewishness on his positions on the Arab-Israeli struggle, also had an issue with what he and Kissinger qualified as the “intense bureaucracy” of the State Department.

Meanwhile, Yitzhak Rabin, then a top Israeli general who had gone to Washington as Israeli ambassador, made it clear to all in the State Department and the White House that Israel would not work according to any international plans and would only negotiate with the intervention and the backing of the US on the basis of Israeli strength. This has been the case since in the history of the Peace Process.

In late 1960s Washington, Indyk writes, Rabin’s position made him “a natural interlocutor for Kissinger”. One of the things that the two men saw eye to eye on was the need to put more military pressure on Egypt. Rabin thought this would establish a new balance of power not just with the Arabs but with the Americans as well. Kissinger thought that it would increase the Soviet dilemma in the Middle East, given that Moscow was then the main arms supplier to Egypt.

“Nixon talked from time to time [after the 1967 War] about imposing a solution on Israel for which arms supplies were an obvious lever. But Rabin was counting on Kissinger to make the argument against linkage,” Indyk says.

Kissinger also did much more. He acted, with the support of Nixon, and in cooperation with then Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, to thwart the Rogers Plan that was proposed in December 1969. Meir also worked with Rabin to increase the military pressure on Egypt through increasingly deep raids into the country, including attacks on the outskirts of Cairo in January 1970. 

Three months later, Nixon told Rabin to approach him through Kissinger whenever Israel needed arms and he would find a way around the bureaucracy. A few months later, Kissinger was telling Israeli top military figure Moshe Dayan that he had to maintain the military pressure. “They must never think you are wavering… If from time to time you did not give them a brutal blow, they will wear you out,” he said.

Kissinger was convinced that diplomacy in the absence of taking a firm stand against Soviet moves on the other side of the Suez Canal was futile, Indyk argues. Shortly afterwards, Kissinger was proposing to Nixon that Israel intervene in Jordan on behalf of the US to help former king Hussein against a militant Palestinian group that was using Jordan as the scene for its activities.



From this moment on, Indyk draws a detailed profile of Kissinger as almost the ultimate mover-and-shaker of US foreign-policy decisions vis-à-vis the Middle East, not just in terms of relations with the regional players, but also in terms of managing relations with the Soviet Union in the Middle East.

Indyk shows at great length how Kissinger played all his cards at the same time to make sure that Israel kept the upper hand — without deny Washington all possible leverage over Tel Aviv — and how every single weakness of every Arab ruler, especially those of the countries surrounding Israel, was fully manipulated to serve his plan of “motion without movement” followed by “step-by-step negotiations” leading to limited Israeli withdrawals from most of the Arab territories it had occupied in 1967. 

“Special status [was given] to Arab Jerusalem,” a term that, according to the book, first came out during a 1972 visit by then Egyptian national security advisor Hafez Ismail to the Oval Office.

The highly detailed accounts of the October War as seen from Kissinger’s office, the days of the talks to achieve a ceasefire, as managed with Moscow, and the subsequent “shuttle diplomacy” to start a possible settlement are perhaps the most captivating part of Indyk’s book — not just because they offer a close analysis of the making of the strong US-Israel bond, which had started prior to the October War with the full US commitment to Israeli security, but also because they show at length the pitfalls that paved the way to the currently blocked peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Indyk does show some admiration for Sadat. He repeatedly indicates that Kissinger made a mistake in underestimating Sadat’s political shrewdness and his ability to live up to his words when months before the October War he told the US magazine Newsweek that the US would be making a big mistake if it continued to think that the Egyptians and Arabs were “crippled”.

Indyk also credits Sadat with showing an impressive ability to manoeuvre out of deadlocks and to make gains out of challenging the status quo, whether these gains were smaller or larger ones. 

The account of Sadat’s political gestures towards the US before the October War, the negotiations of the ceasefire, and the political talks that followed are all testimony to a Sadat who is certainly not without political and personal vulnerabilities, but who also had a shrewdness that was always applied to serve a clear objective.

The account of the Sadat-Kissinger talks, which started with the 7 November 1973 meeting in Cairo, offers insights into how Kissinger perceived the then Egyptian president and how he found him willing to play the political game either out of conviction or out of an impulse that could have been stimulated by a vision or a dream.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: