Martin Indyk has spent a significant part of his working life as a diplomatic mediator between Israel and the United States. Under the Clinton administration, Indyk served first as Middle East adviser at the National Security Council and then later as the US ambassador to Israel.
During US president Barack Obama’s second term, Indyk served as Washington’s special Middle East envoy for the resumption of Israel-Palestinian negotiations — and resigned after nine frustrating months of intransigent negotiations that went nowhere fast.
Standing witness to decades of dead-end talks with poor results has left Indyk introspectively pondering two important questions. Is Washington really capable of acting as a neutral arbitrator in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict? And, when trying to play the role of global policeman, would the US be better off taking a more even-handed approach to international diplomacy, especially in a region as volatile, unpredictable, and hostile as the Middle East?
While trying to figure out a plausible answer to both questions Indyk says he found himself harking back to successful American efforts to advance a peace process in the region five decades ago. At the helm of those diplomatic negotiations was the Machiavellian master of realpolitik, Dr. Henry Kissinger.
“If diplomacy is the art of moving political leaders to places they are reluctant to go, then Kissinger was the master of the game,” writes Indyk in the opening pages of his new, aptly-titled book, “Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy.”
Under Richard Nixon, Kissinger served as both National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Kissinger then continued as Secretary of State under Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford.
Kissinger’s suave presentation of US foreign policy serving under the Nixon and Ford administrations turned him into a global celebrity. He was credited with a multitude of diplomatic achievements, including advocating the policy of détente, which saw the US developing cordial relations with the Soviet Union and China during a particularly hostile period of the Cold War.
Facilitator of compromise
Indyk, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that “for the four years that he was Secretary of State, Kissinger pretty much did nothing else but promote peace and order in the Middle East.”
But, he claims, Kissinger’s impressive record of Middle East peacemaking has been largely forgotten by most historians.
“So the book’s purpose is to really look at how he did it — not only as a historical study, but also for the lessons we can learn for how to make peace, and how to establish order in a region that is as troubled today — in different ways — as it was back then,” the 70-year-old seasoned diplomat and foreign relations analyst tells The Times of Israel from his home in New York.
The book begins when Kissinger was only two weeks into his stint as Secretary of State. Kissinger’s first major diplomatic test came on October 6, 1973, when Egyptian and Syrian forces launched a coordinated attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. The two Arab nations were hoping to win back territory lost to Israel during the Six Day War in June 1967.
Then, on October 19, 1973, with the war still raging and Israeli forces threatening both Damascus and Cairo, Kissinger embarked on a mission to Moscow and Tel Aviv to negotiate the ceasefire that would end that war and launch a new role for the US as the broker of Arab-Israeli peace.
Indyk says Kissinger skillfully maneuvered to secure four ambitious and somewhat contradictory objectives simultaneously in negotiations to end the Yom Kippur War.
First, he needed to ensure the victory of America’s ally, Israel, over the Soviet-backed Egyptian and Syrian forces. He also wanted to prevent a humiliating defeat of the Egyptian army so that its leader, president Anwar Sadat, would be able to enter peace negotiations with Israel with his dignity intact. At the same time, he needed to prove to the Arabs that only the US could deliver results for them at the negotiating table, while also maintaining the détente with Moscow — even as Kissinger worked to undermine the Soviet position of influence in the Middle East.
“By the time Kissinger got involved in the peacemaking effort in the Middle East, the United States and the Soviet Union had already reached an understanding,” Indyk says. “Unlike other regions in the world, they agreed to cooperate in terms of trying to maintain calm there.”
“That was an important element of détente, but that broke down in 1973, and Kissinger shifted from cooperating with the Soviet Union to competing with them,” says Indyk. “And he found that all the Soviets could offer the Arabs was arms.”
Indyk says Kissinger was adamant that the US would always be able to guarantee that Israel would never be defeated by Soviet arms. And, if the Arabs wanted to win back territory, they would have to turn to the US and be willing to negotiate, since Washington knew it could influence Israel diplomatically.
During these negotiations, says Indyk, Kissinger always understood Israel’s anxieties — which were a product of both Jewish history and the particular circumstances — given the vulnerability of Israel’s borders and the hostility of its neighbors. He says Kissinger’s step-by-step approach to international diplomacy was designed in part to avoid breaking Israel psychologically by trying to force it to withdraw in one step to the vulnerable pre-1967 borders.
“Kissinger understood that the United States always held the high cards in negotiations because of its relationship with Israel,” says Indyk. “And once Kissinger was able to prove that he could deliver Israel, and the Soviet Union had nothing to offer the Arabs, one by one the [Arabs] turned to the United States.”
An American-led order in the Middle East
Indyk’s book also lays out a diary entry account, taken from a four-year period beginning in 1973, of Kissinger’s complex diplomatic negotiations with a number of prominent politicos and heads of state. Among the book’s major characters are Anwar Sadat, Golda Meir, Hafez al-Assad, King Hussein of Jordan, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin.
Indyk then points to the diplomatic results Kissinger produced during the period the book covers, between 1973 and 1977. The exhausting and frantic political negotiations were regularly dubbed “shuttle diplomacy” because of the seemingly endless flights the Secretary of State made between Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus, and other Arab capitals.
Crucially, the negotiations Kissinger embarked on resulted in three agreements: two in the Sinai between Israel and Egypt, and a Golan Heights disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria. In all three cases, Israel ceded territory in return for stable, interim borders.
Indyk notes that Kissinger succeeded in laying the foundations for an American-led effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. This included the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty negotiated by US president Jimmy Carter, which was instrumental in leading to the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords and the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty consummated under US president Bill Clinton.
“Kissinger’s purpose was not so much to make peace as it was to establish a new American-led order in the Middle East, which had a profound impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and on Israel’s survival and well-being, within that context,” says Indyk.
“Kissinger was convinced [during that time] that the Arabs weren’t ready to reconcile to Israel’s existence,” Indyk adds, “and that Israel wasn’t ready or capable of making the kinds of concessions that would have been required in order to achieve an end of conflict, end of claims, peace.”
Indyk notes that Kissinger’s diplomacy was far from a perfect performance. He says Kissinger often wore blinders in his pursuit of order and stability, missing both warning signs of war and openings for peace. These errors came with a high human cost and strategic consequences that continue to impact peacemaking to this day.
Indyk says that had Kissinger taken Sadat’s threats much more seriously from the outset in the autumn of 1973, the Yom Kippur War might have been averted altogether. And had Kissinger enabled King Hussein of Jordan to regain a foothold in the West Bank when he had the opportunity to do so, the Palestinian issue may have turned out dramatically differently.
Instead of peace, a balance of power
In his own career as a diplomat, Indyk also walked in Kissinger’s footsteps. He participated in National Security Council meetings in the White House Situation Room where he convened the Washington Special Action Group, as well as Oval Office appointments with Israeli and Arab leaders.
In researching and recounting Kissinger’s Middle East negotiations, Indyk was aided by the fact that as a member of Clinton’s peace team, he had the opportunity to engage intensively with three key political actors from Kissinger’s era of peacemaking — prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, King Hussein, and Hafez al-Assad, the former president of Syria.
The book was also written with the extensive cooperation of its subject, Henry Kissinger. As part of his research, Indyk discussed numerous diplomatic case studies at length with Kissinger himself, in many long interviews. Kissinger even granted Indyk access to his own personal papers.
“One of the main things I learned when I was talking to Kissinger is that he obfuscates and keeps things close to his chest,” says Indyk. “Kissinger’s focus was [always] on order, not peace. He is deeply skeptical that peace can be achieved and more interested in buying time to introduce a step-by-step process to achieve a balance of power, because he believes in a hierarchy of power.”
During that lengthy interview process, Kissinger also confirmed to Indyk that even if he had stayed on in his role as Secretary of State, he would have continued to aim for non-belligerency agreements with Israel’s Arab neighbors rather than peace treaties. This is primarily because Kissinger was afraid that if he pushed the opposing parties too hard for a final peace agreement, the peace process would break down.
“It was this skepticism that led him to be very careful, conservative and cautious, which is the hallmark of his approach to [diplomacy in the Middle East],” says Indyk.
Historian and student
Indyk says that in writing this book he wanted to tell the story from two perspectives — first as a historian, and secondly, as a student in a master class seeking to derive and apply the skills and lessons of Middle East peacemaking from Kissinger, the consummate diplomat.
Along the way, Indyk says, he has tried to illuminate Kissinger’s experiences with some of his own. Today, he recalls some of the historic victories and failures he encountered in his own diplomatic career.
Indyk remembers an important private conversation he had with then-US president Clinton in Washington back in the early 1990s.
“In our first discussion about the Middle East, I said, ‘We can end the Arab-Israeli conflict.’ Clinton looked at me and said, ‘I want to do that,’” Indyk says with a self-deprecating chuckle. “We had considerable success until the end, when it all blew up in our faces.”
Initially, those early efforts for a peaceful reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians looked hopeful. In September 1993, the Oslo Accords led to a monumental historical moment where prime minister Yitzhak Rabin shook PLO head Yasser Arafat’s hand on the South Lawn of the White House, while Clinton stood between them as the blessed peacemaker. Two years later, Arafat and Rabin returned to Washington to sign Oslo II.
Indyk worked behind the scenes as Clinton’s trusted advisor and negotiator on both occasions. He was also present at the White House in October 1998 to witness the signing of an agreement that strengthened Israeli security while also expanding the area of Palestinian control in the West Bank.
On that occasion, Indyk was Madeleine Albright’s assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. But Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu were two unlikely peacemakers during this uncertain period, where the peace process was on shaky ground following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
Even after Rabin’s death, some hope appeared to be on the horizon for a lasting peace settlement to arise from Oslo. But when the second Palestinian intifada erupted in Gaza and the West Bank in 2000, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was once again in tatters.
“It all [dissolved] at the intifada,” Indyk recalls. “And we’ve never been able to put it back together again, despite four [American] presidents trying.”
“After Rabin and Arafat, we didn’t have leaders capable of bringing their people around to supporting the kinds of concessions that both sides had to make,” says Indyk.
Turning his attention to the future, Indyk says he believes Washington diplomats — including key players in the current Biden administration — need to take a more nuanced and realistic approach if they aim to successfully bring lasting political stability to the region anytime soon.
Indyk says that the basic lesson of his book is that bringing peace to the Middle East requires “Kissinger’s concept of a legitimate order [where] an equilibrium in the balance of power [rests] on the side of a force that can maintain stability.”
“But that is not enough, and Kissinger always understood that alone was not enough,” he says. “It’s also important to have a new step-by-step process that has an economic component [for peace], but that needs a political horizon too.”
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