he late Egyptian president Anwar Al-Sadat once called him the “miracle worker” when talking about Henry Kissinger, the first Jewish-American secretary of state and former national security adviser in the administrations of former US presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in the early and mid-1970s, who passed away on 29 November.
To fully grasp the direction and impact of Kissinger’s diplomacy in the Middle East after the 1973 October War, we have to contextualise it in the Cold War confrontation between the US and the former Soviet Union with special relevance to the Middle East.
Three years before the outbreak of the October War, Kissinger told reporters on a trip to California that “expelling” the Soviets from Egypt was one of the main objectives of US foreign policy. The other principal objective once the war had broken out was how to leverage it to conclude peace in the region.
From a US perspective, the starting point for any peace attempt was Egypt. Kissinger had paid his first visit to Cairo back in November 1973 when he held face-to-face talks with the late Egyptian president. Later on, he told the press accompanying him that Al-Sadat “was going for peace” and that he was looking forward to discussing “the big picture” and the road ahead as far as the future of the Middle East was concerned.
Kissinger summed up this position by telling US reporters some months later that “there are few national leaders with whom you can discuss ten years [ahead]. With Sadat, you can come closer to it than with anybody else.”
In January 1974, and due to Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy between Cairo and Damascus and Tel Aviv, both Egypt and Syria signed their respective Disengagement Agreements with Israel as part of a step-by-step diplomatic approach and an attempt to solve, through small steps and limited diplomatic wins, the complicated history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
According to one of Kissinger’s top aides, “Kissinger made a judgement at that first meeting with Sadat that this was a man on whom we could build our peace strategy. This was the only person who seemed to understand our conceptual approach… He instinctively saw the qualities in the man and the opportunities in the situation. [Sadat] was not hampered by preconceptions. He could make a very quick adjustment and exploit the moment, exploit the opportunity.”
In the meantime, Kissinger told the US reporters accompanying him that the Egyptian president “often showed more flexibility than his aides, whom he had to overrule at certain crucial times to keep the talks going.” In retrospect, I wish Al-Sadat had had more time to listen to his top assistants.
In his autobiography, the late Egyptian leader returned the favour to Kissinger. He wrote that “our first session of talks took three hours. The first hour made me feel that I was dealing with an entirely new mentality, a new political method. For the first time, I felt I was looking at the real face of the United States, the one I had always wanted to see… Anyone seeing us after that first hour in the Tahrah Palace would have thought we had been friends for years.”
He once told Kissinger that “you are not only my friend. You are also my brother.”
More than 50 years later, it would be preposterous to talk about a permanent peace in the Middle East when the Israeli army has been bombarding, intensively, indiscriminately, and savagely, more than two million innocent Palestinians in the Gaza Strip for the last eight weeks. There is no end in sight to this genocide and what could come after it.
Maybe five decades earlier the Kissinger shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East was looking for peace. However, the question will always haunt us of what kind of peace the talks and the negotiations that ensued had had in mind.
Of the Israelis, after the October War, Kissinger believed that they had a deep sense of historical tragedy and that they were in mortal danger. “They face an actively hostile world in which we are the only ones who are pursuing policies generally parallel to their interests,” he said.
The legacy of Kissinger in the Middle East will remain highly controversial. He served the strategic interests of his adoptive country the US as well as those of Israel. To argue that his shuttle and personal diplomacy put the Middle East on the path of a just, permanent, and comprehensive peace would be an exaggeration.
He once described his tentative peace strategy in the region by underscoring the fact that the Nixon administration in the early 1970s was “trying to strike a balance between the concerns [of both sides]… trying to give the Israelis enough of a sense of military security so that, in their hysteria, they will not strike out… and trying to give the Arabs enough of a sense of dignity so that they do not feel that they are at the mercy of the Israelis.”
More than 50 years after Kissinger’s diplomacy, peace, security, and stability in the Middle East are still distant objectives.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly