U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on Sept. 1, 1975.
Photo: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images
The encomiums have flowed voluminously for Henry Kissinger, and there have been some condemnations too. But even in the latter, little attention has been paid to his efforts to prevent peace from breaking out in the Mideast — efforts which helped cause the 1973 Arab–Israeli War and set in stone the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This underappreciated aspect of Kissinger’s career adds tens of thousands of lives to his body count, which is in the millions.
Kissinger, who died at 100 on Wednesday, served in the U.S. government from 1969 to 1977, during the Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford administrations. He began as Nixon’s national security adviser. Then, in Nixon’s second term, he was appointed secretary of state, a position he held on to after Ford became president following Nixon’s resignation.
In June 1967, two years before the start of Nixon’s presidency, Israel had achieved a gigantic military victory in the Six-Day War. Israel attacked Egypt and occupied Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, and, following modest responses from Jordan and Syria, also took over the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
In the following years, the ultimate fallout from the war — in particular, what, if any, of the new territory Israel would be able to keep — was still fluid. In 1968, the Soviets made what appeared to be quite sincere efforts to collaborate with the U.S. on a peace plan for the region.
The Soviets proposed a solution based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 242. Israel would withdraw from the territory it had conquered. However, there would not be a Palestinian state. Moreover, Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Arab–Israeli War would not return to Israel; rather, they would be resettled with compensation in Arab countries. Most importantly, the Soviets would pressure their Arab client states to accept this.
This was significant because at this point, many Arab countries, Egypt in particular, were allies of the Soviets and relied on them for arms supplies. Hosni Mubarak, who later became Egypt’s president and/or dictator for 30 years, started out as a pilot in the Egyptian air force and received training in Moscow and Kyrgyzstan, which was a Soviet republic at the time.
When Nixon took office in 1969, William Rogers, his first secretary of state, took the Soviet stance seriously. Rogers negotiated with Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the U.S., for most of the year. This produced what American diplomat David A. Korn, then assigned to Tel Aviv, Israel, described as “a comprehensive and detailed U.S. proposal for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
One person prevented this from going forward: Henry Kissinger. Backstage in the Nixon administration, he worked assiduously to prevent peace.
This was not due to any great personal affection felt by Kissinger for Israel and its expansionist goals. Kissinger, while Jewish, was happy to work for Nixon, perhaps the most volubly antisemitic president in U.S. history, which is saying something. (“What the Christ is the matter with the Jews?” Nixon once wondered in an Oval Office soliloquy. He then answered his own question, explaining, “I suppose it’s because most of them are psychiatrists.”)
Rather, Kissinger perceived all the world through the prism of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Any settlement at the time would require the involvement of the Soviets, and hence was unacceptable to him. At a period when it appeared in public that an agreement with the Soviets might be imminent, Kissinger told an underling — as he himself recorded in his memoir “White House Years” — that was not going to happen because “we did not want a quick success [emphasis in the original].” In the same book, Kissinger explained that the Soviet Union later agreed to principles even more favorable to Israel, so favorable that Kissinger himself didn’t understand why the Soviets acceded to them. Nevertheless, Kissinger wrote, “the principles quickly found their way into the overcrowded limbo of aborted Middle East schemes — as I had intended.”
The results were catastrophic for all involved. Anwar el-Sadat, then Egypt’s president, announced in 1971 that the country would make peace with Israel based on conditions in line with Rogers’s efforts. However, he also explicitly said that a refusal of Israel to return Sinai would mean war.
On October 6, 1973, it did. Egypt and Syria attacked occupied Sinai and the Golan Heights, respectively. Their initial success stunned Israeli officials. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was convinced Israel might be conquered. Moreover, Israel was running out of war matériel and desperately needed to be resupplied by the U.S.
Kissinger made sure America dragged its feet, both because he wanted Israel to understand who was ultimately in charge and because he did not want to anger the oil-rich Arab states. His strategy, as another top diplomat put it, was to “let Israel come out ahead, but bleed.”
You can read this in Kissinger’s own words in the records of internal deliberations now available on the State Department website. On October 9, Kissinger told his fellow high-level officials, “My assessment is a costly victory [for Israel] without a disaster is the best.”
The U.S. then did send huge amounts of weaponry to Israel, which it used to beat back Egypt and Syria. Kissinger looked upon the outcome with satisfaction. In another high-level meeting, on October 19, he celebrated that “everyone knows in the Middle East that if they want a peace they have to go through us. Three times they tried through the Soviet Union, and three times they failed.”
The cost to humans was quite high. Over 2,500 members of the Israeli military died. 10,000-20,000 were killed on the Arab side. This is in line with Kissinger’s belief — recorded in “The Final Days” by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — that soldiers are “dumb, stupid animals to be used” as pawns in foreign policy.
After the war, Kissinger returned to his strategy of obstructing any peaceful settlement. In another of his memoirs, he recorded that in 1974, just before Nixon resigned, Nixon told him to “cut off all military deliveries to Israel until it agreed to a comprehensive peace.” Kissinger quietly stalled for time, Nixon left office, and it didn’t come up with Ford as president.
There’s much more to this ugly story, all available at your local library. It can’t be said to be the worst thing that Kissinger ever did — but as you remember the extraordinary bill of indictment for him, make sure to leave a little room for it.
The post On Top of Everything Else, Henry Kissinger Prevented Peace in the Mideast appeared first on The Intercept.