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A World Apart? : The White House and the Middle East | The Nation

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A World Apart? : The White House and the Middle East

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The second shift came with President Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger, who leveraged Johnson's position to the hilt. Tyler quotes Kissinger, the closest thing his story has to a villain: "Our objective is always, when the Soviet Union appears, to demonstrate that whoever gets help from the Soviet Union cannot achieve its objective, whatever it is." Earlier Tyler writes:

About the Author

Bernard Avishai
Bernard Avishai lives in Jerusalem and New Hampshire. He is a visiting professor of government at Dartmouth and an...

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Was there a distinction between defending Israel and defending her 1967 conquests? It was a question that Nixon, too, regarded as important. But Kissinger, the diplomatic practitioner who admired subtlety in foreign policy, dismissed this as irrelevant "fine-tuning."

It was Kissinger, Tyler argues, who initiated a pattern of standing up to the Soviets, ignoring the Arab states, neutralizing State and Pentagon skeptics and (by contrast) befriending Israel's diplomats and appeasing Israel's Congressional advocates--people like, most notably, Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the Democratic senator from Washington. Kissinger provided the open door for the lobby to push on.

The turning point, Tyler stesses, was not the 1973 war but a meeting that might well have prevented it. The summer before, Brezhnev was visiting San Clemente on a kind of detente victory tour. Sleepless, he called Nixon and Kissinger to a late-night meeting and pleaded for a US-Soviet approach to resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict, arguing that another regional war would throw the superpowers into a potentially nuclear confrontation. He suggested broad principles: guarantees for Israeli security and an end to attacks on Israel from Arab territories, safeguards for Israeli shipping and Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders. "If we can get agreement on these principles, we can then discuss how to use any influence on the contending parties," Brezhnev said.

But by then the United States was Israel's major arms supplier. Nixon, who fancied himself Eisenhower's protege, allowed that the United States did not "owe anything to the Israelis." Yet Kissinger prodded Nixon to reject the overture. Both were convinced that Israel had an overwhelming military advantage to preserve the status quo; Nixon was embattled in Watergate, and Kissinger argued that the last thing the administration needed was a fight with Senate Democrats over Israeli security. His enthusiasm for Israeli power was natural for a Jewish refugee who had been part of the US Army's occupation of Germany. (He was a German interpreter in the counterintelligence corps.) What Kissinger did not know was that Brezhnev had intimate knowledge of Anwar Sadat's preparations for retaking the Suez Canal by force of arms.

Kissinger had been so certain of Israel's superiority that when an Arab attack was imminent, he warned Prime Minister Golda Meir not to take pre-emptive action. But after a week of horribly bloody battles, it became clear that the IDF would only slowly gain the upper hand. The IDF had lost fifty planes, 500 tanks and 3,000 soldiers, and Meir felt the need to put Israel's nuclear forces on alert. At that moment, the United States faced the choice of working with the Soviets to impose a cease-fire and lay down the "principles" of a regional settlement, or of resupplying the IDF in a massive airlift and putting off a cease-fire until Israel could fight its way back to a military advantage. Kissinger chose the latter course, even daring to put US nuclear forces on alert when Brezhnev threatened to intervene in defense of Egypt's entrapped Third Army. After this, Tyler implies, the US-Israeli alliance was forged in blood.

Tyler's Kissinger seems true, on the whole. Kissinger did strike the Manichaean template that spread among politicians and reporters in the 1970s, representing Israel as the US ally and "strategic asset" in the region. (The State Department's traditional client Saudi Arabia made things easy by unleashing an oil embargo against the West.) After Kissinger, pressuring Israel seemed something like a basketball coach foolishly demoralizing his slightly brazen power forward. Still, there are some episodes left out of Tyler's narrative that would mitigate any one-sided portrait. Israeli air power, responding to Kissinger's request, actually did help save King Hussein's neck in 1970, when Jordan was invaded by Syria during Black September. Jimmy Carter's eventual Camp David initiative would have been unimaginable without Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy, which produced disengagement agreements with Egypt and Syria.

Indeed, the second interim agreement with Egypt, which saw Israeli cargoes pass through the Suez Canal for the first time, never would have been consummated had Kissinger not gotten tough with Israel. (I covered this period, contributing reports from Jerusalem to The New York Review of Books.) Yitzhak Rabin's government had refused to withdraw the IDF behind the Sinai's Mitla Pass. Kissinger, now running foreign policy for Gerald Ford, announced a "reassessment," during which time new arms agreements with Israel were suspended. Thousands of Israeli rightists, led by the settlers' group Gush Emunim, took to the streets, shouting "Jew boy! Jew boy!" at Kissinger: the organizer of the airlift was now a traitor to their dream of Greater Israel. (All of this is missing from Tyler's account.)

It was precisely during the period of the reassessment that seventy-six senators, led by Scoop Jackson (and his protege Richard Perle), delivered a letter to the White House supporting Israeli claims. AIPAC had been formed in 1953, but it came into its own with this letter, which, hoisting Kissinger with his own anti-Soviet petard, made detente its foil. (Perle had been the moving force behind the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which, in effect, made detente hinge on Soviet Jewish emigration--a kind of dry run for hounding Kissinger on Israel, too.) It all seems so quaint now, Kissinger's fight with the neocons over who was overreacting enough to Soviet power.

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