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Laurie Kellman

NextImg:With ‘shuttle diplomacy,’ step by step, Kissinger chased the possible in the Mideast

LONDON — When it came to the Middle East, Henry Kissinger wasn’t pushing for peace - only for what was possible.

By the time Kissinger died Wednesday at 100, the agreements he negotiated as United States secretary of state between Israel, Egypt and Syria stabilized borders for nearly half a century after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. His work and the pacts it produced sidelined the Soviet Union and set the U.S. as the region’s chief negotiators.

But Kissinger did not resolve the fate of the Palestinians - indeed, no one has - and his legacy in the Mideast remains debated.

He saw decades of Israeli occupation and growing rage among Palestinians and lived long enough to see Hamas fighters storm out of the Gaza Strip Oct. 7 and kill about 1,200 people in Israel on the bloodiest day for Jews since the Holocaust.

Kissinger, a Jew who fled Nazi Germany with his family when he was 15, posed a query two weeks before his death about whether Israel can now deal with not just threats from states like Iran, but also the fury of militants that was evident in the Oct. 7 rampage.

“In the Middle East, a barbaric attack by terrorists has redefined the problem for Israel and its allies,” Kissinger said in remarks prepared for an Oct. 19 speech at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation dinner in New York. In the remarks, posted on his website but not delivered in full, he said the United States must continue to support Israel and revitalize its role as a direct negotiator in the region, something he worked to establish after the 1973 war.

PHOTOS: With 'shuttle diplomacy,' step by step, Kissinger chased the possible in the Mideast

“The immediate question is whether the Jewish state can fulfill its aspirations for freedom in the face of these accumulated arms, both to the north and to the south,” Kissinger added, “and the seemingly implacable hostility to Israel of some Palestinians that produced this latest disaster.”

As he spoke, Israel was pounding the Gaza Strip with airstrikes in its hunt for Hamas militants even as they held scores of hostages. Israel’s campaign to wipe out Hamas has killed at least 13,000 people in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and displaced more than three-quarters of the enclave’s 2.3 million people.

Kissinger likely would have approached the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in the same way that he steered the aftermath of the 1973 war, according to his biographer: “Incrementally,” Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, wrote in a column Thursday.

Leaders throughout history, Kissinger recognized, have leaned toward putting their names on the conclusion of conflicts and peace accords.

“That instinct needed to be resisted, Kissinger believed, because giving in to it was more likely to lead to more war,” Indyk wrote. “He called this ‘the paradox of peace.’”

When Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 6, 1973, then-U.S. President Richard Nixon was distracted by the Watergate scandal that would lead to his resignation. Kissinger, his secretary of state, convened a group of trusted policy advisers. What followed was a Cold War-era drama that would serve American interests - a key component of Kissinger’s practice of realpolitik.

“The decision was to take advantage of the Egyptian attack to promote a political process,” Kissinger told The Jerusalem Post in September, describing the war that began on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. “We were determined from the beginning to prevent an Arab victory, which we looked at as a Soviet victory.”

Then as now, the fight raged over who controlled which pieces of land. Egypt and Syria fought to take back the Golan Heights and the Sinai peninsula, territory that Israel had claimed with east Jerusalem in the 1967 war.

Sixteen days after the surprise attack on Israel, Kissinger negotiated a cease-fire. He then embarked on a campaign that did not establish comprehensive peace but instead set a process that made the warring states feel protected. Kissinger communicated the process with a diplomatic shorthand that has since entered the lexicon of broader conflict resolution.

Via “shuttle diplomacy,” the gravelly-voiced diplomat traveled a relentless circuit between the countries in conflict to haggle in person with their leaders. He carried out the agenda step by step, rather than a lunge toward peace.

Such a process, Kissinger reasoned, “would ameliorate conflict and buy time for the warring parties to come to terms with one another, learn to live together and eventually, end their conflict,” Indyk wrote in a column Friday in The Washington Post.

“The greatest art of the activities in which we were engaged diplomatically was to induce (the Arab states) to accept a partial withdrawal in return for precise political conditions that for Israel represented an augmentation of its security,” Kissinger told The Jerusalem Post.

Over the next two years, Kissinger negotiated two disengagement agreements between Egypt and Israel and a third between Israel and Syria, which paved the way for some other Arab states to strike peace treaties with Israel - such as Egypt‘s in 1979 under President Jimmy Carter - and sign normalization agreements known as the Abraham Accords.

“He laid the cornerstone of the peace agreement, which was later signed with Egypt, and so many other processes around the world I admire,” said Israeli President Isaac Herzog, appearing this week with Kissinger’s modern-day counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Kissinger’s legacy, like the Mideast itself, remains a raw point of debate. Salim Yaqub, professor at the University of California Santa Barbara who specializes in U.S. foreign relations, said Kissinger’s work to subtract Egypt from the conflict was destructive to the prospects for other Arab states and Palestinians to gain traction in conflicts with Israel.

“You can’t blame everything on Henry Kissinger,” Yaqub said. Kissinger’s diplomacy “did reduce the likelihood of another full scale Arab-Israeli war. It also made it really difficult, and some would argue impossible, to address the underlying issue between Israel and its Arab neighbors,” he said.

“It’s not just weakening the remaining Arab countries, but also ensuring that the Palestinians would be sidelined from Arab-Israeli diplomacy,” he added.

Kissinger focused on established, formal entities - settling conflicts between states. Non-state actors, such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization at the time, and Hamas today, were to be neutralized, Indyk wrote.

Were he here to counsel on the Israel-Hamas war, Indyk said, Kissinger would look to Israel‘s neighboring states to reestablish order. Kissinger’s incremental process would give Palestinians the “attributes of statehood” as a path to a two-state solution - someday.

Brian Katulis, vice president of policy for the Middle East Institute in Washington, said Kissinger’s key misstep in the region was one that did not go away when his tenure as secretary of state ended in 1977.

“Kissinger not seeing the Palestinian people as part of the equation,” Katulis said, “is an error that almost very single one of his successors made.”