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Why Today’s Middle East Needs Henry Kissinger’s ‘Less Is More’ Approach

The shock came on Oct. 6, 1973 — on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur and in the Muslim sacred month of Ramadan. Egypt’s forces assaulted the Israelis across the Suez Canal and Syrian tanks smashed through Israeli defenses in the Golan Heights. A 19-day war had begun.

It is often forgotten just how rattling that month was in Washington. A troubled U.S. was on its way out of Vietnam, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned, and Watergate exploded in the “Saturday Night Massacre.” In the meantime, pummeled Israel turned for help to its American ally. Airlifts of armaments came. But then Arab oil producers, led by Saudi Arabia, imposed an embargo on anyone aiding the Jewish state, prompting U.S. economic woes. Moscow threatened intervention on behalf of the Arab side, calling up airborne and amphibious troops and expanding its Mediterranean naval forces. U.S. intelligence reported that Soviet ships bound for the Middle East might have nuclear weapons. Washington issued “Defcon III,” the highest level of worldwide military alert.

When the war broke out, Henry Kissinger was asleep in New York where he was attending U.N. meetings. He had been elevated from national security adviser to secretary of State just two weeks earlier. Now he became the key actor in Middle East diplomacy.

His efforts are detailed exhaustively in Martin Indyk’s estimable and deeply researched new book, The Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy (Knopf, 2021). This ex-assistant secretary of State, ambassador to Israel and participant in Israeli-Palestinian parleys offers a strong brief for Kissinger’s strategy during the war and the “shuttle” or “step-by-step” diplomacy — better called flight-by-flight — that he conducted afterwards.

Indyk is perhaps too accepting of his protagonist’s own narratives, but he shows cogently how Kissinger’s worldview and his mix of skillful political pressures, discerning brinksmanship and dexterous prevarications brought results few imagined possible. Kissinger’s Middle East diplomacy was a feat that should impress even those who criticize him trenchantly for his role in American foreign policy decisions concerning elsewhere in the world.

The key to his success was a realistic evaluation of what could and could not be accomplished in the circumstances. That discernment is perhaps the book’s lesson for today.

“It is difficult,” Kissinger wrote in White House Years, “for any American leader to accept the fact that in some conflicts opposing positions are simply irreconcilable.” If any row seemed to approximate that formulation, it was that among the Arabs and Israel.

There have always been — I streamline — two basic outlooks on Arab-Israeli peace-making.

One envisions a “comprehensive” solution to the conflict’s conundrums. All the issues, it assumes, are so trussed together that none can be treated in isolation. Only an all-encompassing peace deal can resolve the conflict.

The second outlook assumes that a piecemeal approach alone can plausibly begin to unravel the regional knots — and then only under ripe circumstances. Without them, moral demands for total peace are unlikely to yield useful results. With them, however, foes might agree on enough to reach partial accords. This is what the 1973 war allowed.

Kissinger believed a “comprehensive” approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict naïve. His lodestar came from events a century and half earlier. The Congress of Vienna, made up of multiple gatherings that restructured Europe after the Napoleonic Wars, was the subject of his first book. It describes Allied powers establishing a long-term balance of power among European states after defeating a force — Napoleon’s France — that had disrupted the continent.

“Congress” in “Congress of Vienna” was a euphemism. There was no plenum, only accords negotiated separately. They produced a lasting order. (Kissinger, however, was not prone to interrogate the implications of different kinds of order. In the Vienna case, order consolidated conservative interests, restored Old Regimes and undid republicanism and liberalism.)

Ending disorder was in Kissinger’s mind as he pursued cease-fires and then interim accords during and after the “October War.” Reality made a definitive settlement chimerical; the belligerents would never reach compromises in a group get-together. The parties did in fact meet briefly in December 1973 at a “Geneva Conference,” but this served as cover as Kissinger pursued agreements, “step-by-step” and separately between Israel and Egypt, and between Israel and Syria.

There were, however, other ingredients in Kissinger’s diplomacy. He sought to convince Arab interlocutors that the route to achieving any of their goals could go only through Washington. In the end, he did not establish a Vienna-like balance of Middle East powers; he diluted the Kremlin’s regional influence, a broader American strategic goal.

Another part of the mix was Anwar Sadat. Kissinger wasn’t the only “Master” to whom Indyk’s title should have referred. Few gave Sadat much credence when he became Egypt’s president after charismatic Gamal Abdul Nasser’s death in 1970. Sadat’s earlier career had been underwhelming. Yet a perspicacious observer would have noticed how quickly he outmaneuvered challengers in 1971, particularly the pro-Kremlin faction within Egypt’s leadership. Still the country, in pretty dire economic straits, remained dependent on Moscow. And Israel still sat in the Sinai, which it had won in the 1967 war.

So, Sadat tried to reshuffle his international cards. Frustrated that détente-minded Moscow didn’t make Egypt a priority, he ordered 20,000 Soviet advisers out of the country in July 1972. It “came as a complete surprise,” Kissinger would write. But little of great consequence changed.

In the meantime, Israeli thinking was governed by what came to be called “the Concept.” One evening in spring 1973, when an undergraduate studying Egyptian foreign policy at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, I heard it articulated persuasively at a seminar of professors and (I guessed) some security figures. They gauged Egyptian and Syrian capabilities at length, assessing munitions, armored vehicles, spare parts and so on in light of Israel’s defenses. Conclusion: Egypt and Syria couldn’t win a war with Israel, and a war that could not be won would not be launched.

The Israelis didn’t count on a war that Sadat knew he couldn’t win (after all, Israel had the bomb). Instead, he intended to bloody them, provoke international crisis and instigate diplomatic processes in which he had a strengthened hand. The aims: to retrieve the Sinai by shifting Egypt into the American camp and to be done with the conflict. He also thought that what was good for Egypt was good for the Arab world.

This enabled Kissinger’s diplomacy once shooting began. His developing approach and Sadat’s purposes coincided.

After being thrashed at first, Israel began to prevail in the battle. When it was poised to destroy Egypt’s Third Army, Kissinger insisted on a cease fire, creating a semblance of a military balance of power. Sadat could claim victories and move on. The result would eventually be interim pacts negotiated by Kissinger: “Sinai I” (in late January 1974) and “Sinai II” (in September 1975, and signed formally in Geneva). These, step-by-step, separated combatants, repatriated prisoners of war, created demilitarized and buffer zones, placed U.N. and U.S.-manned warning stations in strategic places and initiated phased Israeli withdrawals. The Suez Canal zone was to be reopened and repopulated and Egypt regained Sinai oil fields, economic boons Sadat dared not lose again. Each step made it costlier for the opposed sides to return to war.

An accord between Syria and Israel proved especially tough, but Kissinger shuttled back and forth in spring 1974 between the two countries and attained similar, if narrower results than those with Egypt. Syria’s dictator, Hafez Assad, still harbored hopes to impose, eventually, radical Pan-Arabist priorities on the region with Soviet help. However, Moscow was debilitated diplomatically in the region because it cut ties with Israel in 1967 and supported Damascus’s fierce rhetoric. Even though Syria had initial successes in the October war, the Israelis reversed them and reached striking distance of Assad’s capital. Still, Syria held Israeli POWs and Israel knew that taking Damascus would be very costly.

Both sides needed Kissinger. And Assad also worried that Sadat might opt for a separate peace with the “Zionist state,” leaving him in the cold. His concerns were not unfounded. But if such qualms pushed him to be receptive to Kissinger’s efforts at first, a return to rigidity — he seemed to insist that he be guaranteed all that he wanted, as if negotiations didn’t imply concessions by two sides — contributed to the realization of his fears in the long run. He did, however, follow through on agreements made through Kissinger.

Through all these developments a bond developed between Sadat and Kissinger. “Trust” is not the word that comes readily to mind when it comes to these wily men, but Indyk describes a remarkable confidence that emerged. By contrast, he describes difficult interactions between Kissinger and Israeli leaders like Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. Indyk concurs often with Kissinger’s ire at their “inflexibility.”

The Holocaust has always haunted Israeli decision-making and Kissinger understood this well. Indyk points rightly to this and reminds readers that Kissinger first came to the U.S. as a Jewish refugee from Nazism. And even though in White House Years he wrote that he “knew little of the Middle East” when he joined the Nixon administration, in fact — as Indyk mentions — Kissinger had visited the Jewish state five times, including just before and after the Six Day War.

Yet more historical context is needed. Israel’s “obstinacy” had additional sources. It would have been useful for Indyk to lay some of them out. In the 1956 Suez Crisis, Israel seized Sinai only to evacuate it under U.S. pressure. This came with guarantees Cairo accepted. U.N. forces would separate Egyptian and Israeli armies on the border and also sit at the Sinai’s southern end to insure passage of Israeli shipping through the Straits of Tiran. In May 1967 Nasser demanded that those troops exit, and the U.N. agreed quickly. He militarized the Sinai, closed the Straits, and although the U.S. had promised a maritime coalition would break a blockade, it never materialized. When Egypt, Syria and Jordan signed a military pact, an Israeli strike was inevitable. Afterwards, however, the Jewish state found itself branded widely as the aggressor.

This train of experiences shaped profoundly Israel’s mindset, making Jerusalem less amenable to a comprehensive solution that it feared might entail disagreeable impositions. However, a step-by-step effort offered alternative, practical prospects. And it suited both Kissinger and Sadat. The latter also had a worry: a functional Geneva Conference (as opposed to a ceremonial meeting) might unleash a Syrian-led and Soviet-backed onslaught in the name of Pan-Arabism, scuttling any give and take between him and Israel. Moreover, American elections were on the horizon the year after Sinai II. Who knew what that might bring? A changed foreign policy and perhaps a new approach?

The Camp David Accords of 1978 would be an indirect result of Kissinger’s diplomacy. When Jimmy Carter entered the White House in 1977, he wanted to leave “step-by-step” behind and to pursue a comprehensive solution. Israel, Egypt, and Syria had not signed peace treaties and disagreements among them were far from resolved (Israel was still in much of Sinai and the Golan). Importantly, Carter was keen to address the occupied West Bank and the Palestinians — the “step not taken,” as Indyk puts it, after Kissinger’s moves. Yet Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization he led did little to convince Israelis that they might assent to a Jewish state. (And Jordan then still claimed sovereignty over the West Bank.) Carter’s Palestinian priority was forthright. Judges Indyk: “Unlike Kissinger, who went to great pains to convince Israelis that he was in their corner” when he pressured them, “Carter was deaf to their concerns.”

And now Carter misconstrued Sadat. Bent on a new Geneva Conference chaired jointly by Moscow and Washington, he “was oblivious to Sadat’s antipathy to the Soviet Union.” As Indyk notes, Carter’s “monumental flip-flop” — his return of American policy to the idea of a comprehensive approach — led Sadat to another dramatic move. After a clandestine rendezvous in Morocco between Hassan Tuhami, his deputy prime minister, and Israeli foreign minister Moshe Dayan, Egypt’s president circumvented Carter. He flew to Jerusalem in November 1977 to offer peace directly to Israel in its parliament in return for the territories — all of Sinai was his priority — occupied in 10 years earlier. Carter was so committed to a comprehensive solution that he thought to oppose Sadat’s trip, according to his aide, Stuart E. Eizenstat, as Indyk points out.

Sadat soon encountered a different complication. Israel’s right wing had, for the first time, come to power. Its leader, now prime minister, Menachem Begin, welcomed Sadat warmly to Jerusalem. But throughout his career he had been an insistent foe of Israeli territorial concessions. Israeli-Egyptian negotiations stalled. Carter then gambled and invited both leaders to Camp David, where a treaty was finally hammered out. Begin agreed to a full withdrawal from Sinai and to dismantling Israeli settlements there, but only under pressure from his own delegation (Dayan, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman and, by telephone, hawkish Ariel Sharon).

Carter was hailed — justifiably — as midwife of a difficult birth. But the child arrived only because Sadat had foiled his earlier quest for a comprehensive solution by his trip to Jerusalem. Sadat’s face-to-face peace offer was convincing to Israelis in a way that a Geneva Conference could never have been. The Camp David Accords were accomplished finally through bilateral negotiations with an American intermediary. They cracked one problem — Sinai — while the others were skirted with generalities and a fudging formula endorsing Palestinian “autonomy.”

Yet the incompleteness was a good in itself. The peace treaty ended decades of war that cost thousands upon thousands of Egyptian and Israeli lives.

Future efforts, like the Oslo Accords, would not have been possible had “step by step” not opened the way. Oslo itself was supposed to be carried out through steps, success in one leading to another. More recently, the Abraham Accords, the single Trump achievement in the region — Indyk appropriately calls that president’s overall policy “a vanity project” — could not have happened without Oslo, a quarter century earlier. And while there were a few ups and many downs between “Oslo” and “Abraham,” it was Yitzhak Rabin’s deal with the PLO that opened the way to ties (some more straightforward, some not), between Israel and several Gulf states, already in the 1990s.

Today, the fates of the West Bank and Gaza remain unresolved — and look likely to remain so. Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas is 86 and ailing with no succession process in place. Even a dovish Israeli government would hesitate to make far-reaching compromises without some surety that the other side would dependably carry out its part of a bargain. Chances for an agreement with Hamas, the Islamist zealots who reign in Gaza, are slim (and they have gained significant West Bank support).

Then there is Israel’s ruling coalition today: a volatile mix of hawkish right-wingers, centrists, doves and an Arab faction, yoked together last June mostly by opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power. While it represents an improvement on Netanyahu’s Trump-like recklessness, any small step entailing territorial compromise chances its break-up.

Meanwhile, the “peace plans” most commonly discussed are comprehensive designs, none of which have propitious prospects given Palestinian and Israeli realities. Right-wingers, historically, wanted annexation of the West Bank. But that, pointed out the left, would mean incorporating its Palestinian population into a single state. It would be, finally, a prescription for civil wars — unless Israel forsakes completely any aspiration to be a democratic Jewish state with, as its Declaration of Independence put it, “complete equality of social and political rights.” Anti-Zionists also speak of a single state solution — a “democratic secular” one, following an old PLO formula. But that too is a prescription for civil wars under the guise of a solution. Most Zionist doves have called traditionally for a “two state solution” — Israel and an independent Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza. That idea faces daunting obstacles in the forms of a large Israeli settlement population in the West Bank and a Palestinian leadership that is ineffective or obdurate or both.

Might a “step by step” approach grapple with today’s West Bank and Gaza?

Kissinger’s name and the idea of “interim” steps reappeared in an Israeli bestseller in 2017, provoking considerable debate. It’s author, Micah Goodman, is an admirer (virtually an apologist) of Vladimir Jabotinsky, founder of the Zionist right-wing in the 1920s. For a half century, he wrote, Israel was in a Catch-67 (his book’s title, echoing Joseph Heller’s novel).

The “67” is the 1967 War, in which Israel occupied the West Bank, now packed (in some areas) with Jewish settlers. Should this territory be yielded for peace (but with security provisions) as the mainstream left has advocated? Or should it be ingested into Israel, as the right wants on nationalist and/or religious grounds? The society is so polarized that whichever option is taken, Israel’s domestic divide would simply deepen. That’s the “catch” (and Goodman’s real concern). Factor in infirmities of and extremism in Palestinian politics and it would be better, he thinks, to “shrink” the conflict through partial measures rather than pursue an overall peace. He assumes, rightly, that what the Palestinian and Israeli sides find minimally acceptable for such an accord is irreconcilable.

“Shrinkage” is a prescription ready-made for the current Israeli government, which has seized on the idea to allow its incongruously allied components to survive together. The actual options Goodman proposes that Israelis — his target audience — discuss are not so original, and he admits it. He insists that his orientation is “pragmatic,” although it doesn’t seem to invite Palestinian interlocutors.

One option is a partial peace entailing Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, except for a defense corridor along the Jordan River Valley and Jewish settlement blocs. Old Middle East hands will recognize here an update of the “Allon Plan,” proposed after the Six Day War by a Labor party politician.

The second possibility: a Palestinian “almost state” in part of the West Bank — expanded self-rule but not sovereignty. Palestinians living in areas still controlled by Israel would become Israeli “residents” or “almost citizens.” Longtime Middle East observers may find in this a riff on what Begin suggested at Camp David to sidestep exiting the West Bank.

Neither option contests Israeli settlements. Nor is a second phase of steps suggested if the results of an initial one is deemed satisfactory — more or less — after a given amount of time. And there’s the problem. Even if a comprehensive solution should, rightly, be bracketed for now, smaller steps, if successful, can only be awarded two, not three cheers. To succeed, those walking them need some sense that they might get somewhere elsewhere one day — to options in a distant future, perhaps with a new generation of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. A precondition for that is shrinkage of ultra-nationalism in both the Palestinian and Israeli camps.

Mitchell Cohen is co-editor emeritus of Dissent and teaches political science at Baruch College, CUNY. His latest book is The Politics of Opera (Princeton).

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