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Martin Indyk Writes the Palestinians Out of the History of Kissinger's Middle East Diplomacy

Israeli Prime Minister, President Richard Nixon, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 1973

What happens when one former policymaker writes a book about another? There are two likely possibilities. One is that the author uses their expertise, experience, and access to produce an incisive, original assessment of their subject. The other is that they reproduce the biases of their position, fail to do the necessary research, and end up producing little that is new. In his new book on former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli conflict, Martin Indyk, a veteran of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, manages to do both, but especially the latter. And it is nowhere more evident than in his account, or rather non-account, of the Palestinian issue.

It's no secret that the international order of today’s Middle East is a direct legacy of Kissinger’s Arab-Israeli policy. The 1967 war in the Middle East had ended with Israel in control of the West Bank, Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula. Later that year, Egypt launched a war of attrition along the ceasefire line that led to thousands of casualties annually. When Kissinger became national security advisor in early 1969, he found himself dominating most foreign policy issues, with the exception of the Middle East, which Nixon left to Secretary of State William P. Rogers. State Department diplomats finally brokered a ceasefire in 1970, but Kissinger used his increasing influence to stymie their efforts. In 1973, the Arab states launched a war that fell short of military victory, but arguably constituted a political one, as the United States was forced to get deeply involved in negotiations over territory, peace, and other issues. Kissinger, who had taken over as Secretary of State just two months earlier, brokered a ceasefire, then embarked on a series of trips between Israel and the Arab states known as “shuttle diplomacy.” He managed to press Israel and its neighbors into three agreements, two with Egypt and one with Syria. Kissinger left office in early 1977 amidst serious tensions, including a civil war in neighboring Lebanon that seemed likely to spark another Arab-Israeli War.

While peace in the Middle East seemed to have elude even the formidable Kissinger, within a few years the “peace process” saw wider success, at least by some measures. At Camp David in 1978, Jimmy Carter’s team negotiated an agreement that set the stage for a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel the following year. In reality, the bloodiest years of the Arab-Israeli conflict were arguably still to follow: Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and a Palestinian intifada in 1987. The end of the Cold War brought some hope. The PLO rejected terrorism in 1988, entering negotiations with Israel; in 1993, the Oslo Accords were announced, laying out a roadmap to peace in the region; Jordan and Israel signed a peace agreement in 1994. Most recently, Donald Trump’s Abraham Accords, which marked the normalization of the relations of three new states with Israel, stands in the long tradition started by Kissinger. American policymakers to a greater or lesser degree all saw themselves as following in the footsteps of Kissinger, hoping to broker the next great agreement on the road to peace.

While they are a generation apart, Kissinger and Indyk share much in common. Both were born outside the United States, yet found great professional success in American government service. Both have Jewish heritage and share a professed attachment to Israel. Arguably, Indyk has been more critical of Israel than Kissinger, having at times strongly condemned Israeli settlement activity – something from which Kissinger has generally refrained. Like Kissinger, Indyk had some partial successes, playing an important role in brokering the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty and the 1998 Wye River Memorandum between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, yet left his positions short of having achieved a full peace. Ultimately, as the book reveals, their worldviews are fundamentally similar, leaving Indyk largely positive towards what many historians regards as Kissinger’s disastrous legacy in the region.

Kissinger’s approach to the Middle East, Indyk writes, can be summed up in a single word: order. Like most others who have written about Kissinger, he traces the former secretary of state’s worldview to his doctoral dissertation on the 19th century Congress of Vienna system, which constructed a balance of power that kept relative peace on the European continent for nearly a century. In the Middle East, Israel, the major power most closely aligned with the United States, was the starting point for Kissinger’s new order.

So far, so conventional. But in Indyk’s view, order for Kissinger was never just about power. To make an order successful, most, if not all, major powers must accept it as legitimate. At the time, no Arab state accepted Israel’s existence. Kissinger therefore pushed for what he called the “step-by-step” agreements, bilateral accords between Israel and Arab states that transferred small amounts of territory to improve Israel’s security situation. These incremental steps would help get Arab states to gradually accept Israel’s existence. Yet not every party in the Middle East needed to have their needs met, and according to Indyk, Kissinger never intended to force Israel to return all of the territory it conquered in 1967.

The strongest part of Indyk’s book is its day-by-day accounts of Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy. Drawing on his own experience, Indyk paints in bold colors a picture of a mediator with clear goals and priorities, willing to use every trick in the diplomat’s book, including persuasion, threats, flattery, humor, duplicity, empathy, and ridicule. He reveals the importance of Kissinger’s mastery of detail and, above all, his ability to ignore factors that do not easily fit into the regional order he was eager to create. For Kissinger, efforts to achieve “comprehensive solutions” that resolved all existing disputes between Israel and its neighbors – such as those promoted by the State Department under Rogers – were quixotic and naïve. Instead, step-by-step, bilateral agreements offered the best chance to resolve the region’s problems in a way that benefited the United States and its allies. Kissinger sought to sell these steps to Israel in terms of “territory for time”; in other words, Israel would cede a slice of land to fend off pressure for a comprehensive settlement, while Arab countries would grow anxious to reacquire lost territory, only some of which would be given back.

On other issues, however, Indyk’s account does not just fall flat. It stands proudly oblivious. He seems to have ignored – “missed” would be too kind in the age of Google Scholar – an entire generation of excellent scholarship on Kissinger and the Middle East. Some of it supports his contentions. For instance, the argument that Kissinger did not intend to force Israel to evacuate all of its territory has been put forward by Salim Yaqub, who maintained that Kissinger “deliberately designed [the Arab-Israeli peace] process to enable Israel’s indefinite occupation of Arab land.”

Much of it, however, points in the opposite direction. To better understand the motivations of Rogers and the State Department, Indyk should have engaged with the work of Craig Daigle, who insists that the October 1973 War was at least in part a product of détente between the two superpowers. Had the US and Soviet Union not spent so much time avoiding the Middle East, they might have been able to bring the Arab parties and the Israelis closer together. In my own work, I have argued that Rogers’ efforts to broker agreements may have seemed frenetic to skeptics such as Kissinger, but they were largely intended as efforts to head off growing radicalism in the region that fed off the stalemate, threatening countries seen as close to American interests, including Jordan and Lebanon.

Above all, the one thing that unites all of this newer literature is that it gives a more prominent role to the Palestinians. A decade ago now, Paul Chamberlin demonstrated how the Palestinian fighters saw themselves as part of a broader global resistance movement against power, establishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with, despite efforts by the United States and Israel to marginalize them. In The Good Spy, Kai Bird reveals extensive coordination through the relationship between CIA officer Robert Ames and Arafat’s deputy Ali Hassan Salame, which opened what Bird called “a back door to a peace settlement” that Kissinger ultimately did not take advantage of. Diplomacy towards the Arab-Israel conflict, particularly the Palestinian issue, was also a crucial part of the early years of Lebanon’s Civil War, which broke out largely in response to the presence of armed Palestinian militants on Lebanese territory.

For Indyk, however, the Palestinians were hardly a factor in Kissinger’s mind, which focused on a creating an order for the powerful, while the PLO was both weak and hopelessly radical. Indyk devotes a few lines in the work to Palestinian issues, primarily to downplay their relevance. For instance, he mentions briefly that the United States established an intelligence connection with the PLO, but accepts Kissinger’s own explanation that this was a feint to moderate their behavior while the United States brokered agreements between Israel and the Arab states. Indyk also argues that it was no surprise when, as part of the 1975 Sinai II disengagement agreements, Kissinger pledged to Israel not to negotiate with the PLO until they renounced terrorism, thereby excluding them from negotiations for more than a decade. For Indyk, this was not a “blind spot,” as critics have previously charged, but rather a careful calculation.

The problem is that this is not supported by the documentary record of the period. From the early 1970s, Palestinians were sending message after message to Kissinger trying to get the US to talk to the PLO. The US took these messages seriously. The possibility of opening negotiations with the Palestinians was the subject of a series of meetings in the fall of 1970, when it seemed that the Jordanian regime might fall at any time. It was considered once again following the 1973 war, when the US was ready to have officials meet with Yassir Arafat himself. As Hal Saunders made clear years ago, the 1975 promise not to negotiate with the PLO was specifically written in order to maintain the possibility of contacts with the Palestinians. Indeed, in 1976 Kissinger even called US-PLO cooperation “historically inevitable” in a conversation with his advisors. Dismissing US contacts with the Palestinians supports Kissinger’s own narrative, but does not do justice to the situation at the time.

This matters for understanding Kissinger’s legacy. For Indyk, the order that Kissinger sought to construct requires leaders with both strength and extraordinary vision. Kissinger, Indyk suggests, was lucky to find Israeli and Arab leaders able to set aside their preconceptions for the sake of reaching peace. Indyk, both in the book and elsewhere, has lamented the death of Yitzhak Rabin, who he saw as one such leader, the type of which seem sorely lacking today. Perhaps, Indyk seems to hope, a future, skilled American negotiator of Kissinger’s caliber will be able to shepherd these enlightened leaders from both sides towards a peace agreement that finally ends in a viable two-state solution.

While good leaders can certainly play a role in bringing about peace, this ignores the impacts of decades of marginalizing of Palestinian concerns. The Camp David Accords and Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty essentially wrote off the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, as Seth Anziska has demonstrated. It allowed for the Israeli settler movement to begin to colonize the Palestinian territories, as Gershom Gorenberg has analyzed. The absence of a possible solution to the challenge of the Palestinian refugees in neighboring countries helped undermine Lebanon and led to the creation of Hizbullah, an Iranian-funded organization vehemently opposed to Israel. In the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, Hamas and Islamic Jihad would form and thrive in an environment where secular parties were either coopted or repressed. Ultimately, dissatisfaction would grow so great as to produce two intifadas that would grievously harm both Palestinians and Israelis. These are every bit as much the legacies of Kissinger’s policies as the peace agreements.

Many will be rightly skeptical that any leader today could bridge the gap between Israeli and Palestinian positions on peace, which are further apart than ever before. Indeed, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared the Oslo Accords dead, while Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has stated that he opposes another “Oslo Process” and the creation of a Palestinian state. Resolving the Palestinian issue requires leaders who are not just brave, but open to ideas other than a two-state solution. Had Kissinger been willing to address this issue earlier, it might have been possible to stop the Israeli settlement activity that has made two states virtually impossible. Indeed, Kissinger’s failure to pay adequate attention to the Palestinian issue may prove to be his most lasting legacy, a critical flaw in an edifice that otherwise seemed sound. Justice, and not just legitimacy, may also be a necessary part of a stable international order.