Commentary Magazine

The Arabs, Israelis, and Kissinger, by Edward R.F. Sheehan


The Arabs, Israelis, and Kissinger: A Secret History of American Diplomacy in the Middle East.
by Edward R. F. Sheehan.
Reader’s Digest Press. 287 pp. $8.95.

When parts of this book were published in Foreign Policy last March, they made a stir. Among other things, readers were informed that Nixon and Ford both told the Arabs in Henry Kissinger’s presence that Israel would get out of all the land captured in 1967, that Nixon promised Sadat the U.S. would see to it that the PLO entered the negotiating picture, and that Kissinger was in a rage about the nitpicking and less-than-trustworthy Israelis with whom he had been obliged to deal during his disengagement shuttling. The author of these revelations, Edward R. F. Sheehan, was presumed to know whereof he spoke, for besides being an old Middle East hand on the Arab side and a foreign-service operative, he had flown in the press pack during the shuttles, and afterward had talked with Sadat and Assad, and got special permission to roam the corridors of the State Department. Kissinger declared himself “thunderstruck” by the contents of Sheehan’s magazine piece, and publicly “reprimanded” two lieutenants, Alfred L. Atherton, Jr., and Harold Saunders, for “exceeding” his “instructions” in cooperating with Sheehan and making documents available to him. However, as Sheehan notes in the preface of his book, “Happily both Mr. Atherton and Mr. Saunders retained their posts, nor do their careers appear to have been damaged.”

Sheehan’s article and book, including his disclaimer and some criticisms aimed at Kissinger, amount more or less to an authorized version of the diplomatic happenings of October 1973 through September 1975, with leading suggestions of what the future should hold. Sheehan’s book calls for attention, not because of its revelations—they sounded too plausible to be alarming even when first published, and have an air of ancient history now—but because the mind-set Sheehan works from can safely be attributed, precisely as he claims, to a lot of people at State, Defense, and the CIA. Having come out with their “reassessment” of the Middle East only lately, they can be expected to think along the lines indicated and espoused here for a certain duration, no matter that the Middle East has been convulsed and altered at least as much in the half-year since Sheehan’s book went to the printer as it was while the Yom Kippur War was being fought and right after.

During those hectic months at the end of 1973, Henry Kissinger, in Sheehan’s words, fashioned America’s “first coherent Arab policy.” Until then, according to this view, U.S. Presidents had, in effect, been content to arm Israel and let the Soviets reap the benefits. Kissinger himself, until the war, was guilty in Sheehan’s eyes of going along with the conventional wisdom, encouraged by the Israel lobby, that said the Arabs were thin reeds to lean on, and that, in any event, Israel was so strong that a war which would endanger oil supplies could not break out. Sheehan lays most of the blame on Nixon, but Kissinger was also “clearly culpable of neglect, vapid promises, and dubious strategical conceptions.” Later, Kissinger would more than redeem himself, so far as the Israelis and their stateside lobby would let him. He realized quickly in October 1973, that—as Sheehan puts it—“the Arabs had grown up, learned how the world is run, limited their military objectives for the sake of their political purpose. . . . In bloodshed the Arabs leaped the abyss from backwardness to modernity.” Kissinger saw “an exquisite chance” here to correct American policy, by getting close to Anwar Sadat and detaching him, as he wanted to be detached, from the Soviets. The Israelis, however, had to be kept from winning the war decisively, so Kissinger delayed the arms lift. The Yom Kippur War “revealed Dr. Kissinger at the apogee of his skill.”

His enthusiasm aside, Sheehan’s account of Kissinger’s actions and reasoning is convincing, and adds little to previously published analyses. Sheehan is more interesting where he faults Kissinger: “Though his tactics of partial peace were brilliant . . . strategically [Kissinger] sinned on the side of caution.” Sheehan wishes in particular that Kissinger had been less cautious about the PLO: “In excluding the PLO . . . Kissinger excluded from the process of peacemaking the very essence of the Arab-Israeli quarrel. This lost opportunity was lamentable.” Sheehan’s criticism is not as severe as it sounds, and may even be an earnest of Kissinger’s own thinking, especially in the light of the Saunders Document. This, it will be recalled, was a paper presented by the State Department to Congress in November 1975, which said that the Palestinians are the “heart” of the Middle East problem; Sheehan confirms what everyone presumed, that it was really a feeler inspired by Kissinger: “[He] had carefully edited the declaration, investing it with his own co-authorship. The affair represented the first stumbling step toward eventual American recognition of the PLO.”

Now that relations among Arab states have reverted to normal, with every border from Morocco to Iraq potentially a front, and now that the PLO has been slapped into line, if not actually phased out, by the Syrians and its other erstwhile Arab patrons in an unusually horrible war that wrecked Lebanon, one may hope that a new administration will reassess reassessments. But a change from the Kissinger approach is not certain by any means. Step-by-Step may have become an institution; besides, whoever is President or Secretary of State, and whatever the condition of inter-Arab relations, twice as much Arab oil is being burned in the U.S. now than three years ago, and there is no more important consideration in making policy than this fact.

The PLO may yet be revived, wearing a more presentable face, with the approval of Cyrus Vance in tandem with the Soviets, so that a supposedly unbeholden and representative Palestinian delegation may sit at a reconvened Geneva conference. Israel can be expected to resist, and again be charged with “intransigence,” or that other code-word, favored by Sheehan, “recalcitrance.” In that case, Sheehan proposes that the President go on TV and explain why, for the sake of world peace and Israel’s own good, the U.S. is making Israel drink from this cup. Sheehan says that just such a speech was urged on Ford and Kissinger by various people in the State Department in 1975, but Kissinger thought domestic politics made it untimely. Again Sheehan raises the specter of the Israel lobby and says it constrained Kissinger; nevertheless, he gives him high marks for innovation and courage.



Although Kissinger is the towering personality, Sheehan’s book is not really an addition to the biographies and psychohistories of the Secretary, the third or fourth generation of which are currently appearing. Sheehan “admires” Kissinger and says he acted “heroically” in the period under scrutiny, but he only involves himself in the Kissingerian psyche so far as he feels he must to make sense of the ups and downs, the perils and last-minute rescues, that came to be the much-publicized hallmarks of step-by-step diplomacy. More than getting a fix on his man, Sheehan is concerned with justifying Kissinger’s methods and especially his policy, and urging the speedy implementation, with or without Kissinger, of all that this policy entails, as Sheehan sees it. Thus he writes, having made it fairly clear that Kissinger let the Arabs and Israelis understand different stories about where the final borders would have to be:

There emerges from all this yet another demonstration of Kissingerian ambiguity. But duplicity, as well? In the topography of step-by-step, Kissinger obviously emphasized different phenomena to each party. To the Israelis, he stressed the hills, to the Arabs, the valleys. But duplicity?

The answer to this rhetorical ploy is, of course, No. Actually, having broached the moral issue, Sheehan begs it. But then, everyone except a very great philosopher has to do the same if asked to address himself to the place, if any, of normative standards of truthfulness in the daily practice of politics and diplomacy. Instead of arguing about Kissinger’s integrity, one would merely expect and hope that the first look-out of any American Secretary of State is to secure and increase the power and glory of his country abroad. Toward this end, it seems that Henry Kissinger was very energetic and inventive and not overly scrupulous in his choice of means. It is possible that many, not least the Israelis, may yet suffer because of his interventions—but perhaps not. Perhaps he will be known as the peacemaker. The point is that by itself a moral criticism of Kissinger’s methods is not necessarily damaging, for as he was playing his role of broker between Arabs and Israelis, all sides factored the element of “ambiguity” into their calculations. If some quiet descended on the Middle East—forgetting Lebanon—it was not because the American Secretary of State could not tell a lie, but because the time had come when threats and promises made in the name of the U.S. could impose more than a temporary cease-fire.

Sheehan, who tries to take a hard-headed approach in general, brings up and then drops the ill-defined question of morality because he knows that some of Kissinger’s critics taxed him with an underdeveloped moral sense, or a moral sense too readily subordinated to the tactical requirements of the moment. Kissinger may have been the most worldly and effective formulator and executor of foreign policy the U.S. has had since it became a superpower; but while Kissinger may have rendered an idealistic cold warrior like Dulles old-fashioned, there are probably many Americans—reactionaries, liberals, radicals—who had trouble accepting Machiavellianism in a hero, however brilliant and temporarily successful. Sheehan must also assert that, all in all, Kissinger dealt straight and honestly with Arabs and Israelis, or else his accusation that the Israelis intentionally misled Kissinger would not be credible or important.

This deception is supposed to have occurred in March 1975, when negotiations for a second Sinai disengagement were in the works. The new Israeli team of Rabin, Peres, and Allon insisted on a formal declaration of “non-belligerency” as the price for returning the Sinai passes and oil fields to Egypt, a deal Sadat was unwilling or unable to make. As a result, it is said, Kissinger went back to Washington empty-handed. This was followed immediately by the “reassessment” of American military and economic aid to Israel. Concerning non-belligerency, Sheehan writes that Kissinger had “assumed this was a negotiating position; subsequently he said that the Israelis softened on non-belligerency, then hardened again when he reached Jerusalem—that they brought him back to the Middle East with premeditated deception” for the purpose of sabotaging shuttle diplomacy and jeopardizing his job.

Sheehan believes this. He simultaneously credits the Israelis and their American lobby with great cunning, and deplores the weakness, timidity, and near-sightedness of Israeli politicians, especially the successors of Golda Meir and Dayan. The Sinai disengagement of September 1975, whereby the Israelis accepted pretty much the same terms they had rejected in March (“non-use of force” for the duration of the agreement being substituted for “non-belligerency”), is described by Sheehan as “a major tactical triumph for Israel,” because the Palestinians and Syrians were shut out of it and Israel received a cornucopia of American arms and money. The Israeli politicians who had won it, however, were in his view quibblers and pedants, insecure in their jobs, fearful of domestic rivals, always ready to make the gesture, however reckless in its international implications, that would please the crowd at home.

Complaints of the sort Sheehan makes, and quotes an angry and frustrated Kissinger as having made, will be heard as long as Israel is roughly democratic, the Arab states are not, there is no peace or direct negotiations between them, and any third person or agency is trying to mediate. There are both generic and peculiar reasons for this. Diplomats have always known that it is easier to negotiate with dictators than with politicians elected in parliamentary democracies, who are constantly feeling various kinds of pressures and worrying about votes of confidence—so naturally most diplomats prefer to deal with dictators, because they can “deliver.” Can they? A dictator may represent a national consensus that will survive him, or simply a mirage of power deriving from a transient monopoly of violence. If he passes away peacefully or otherwise, in ten years’ time or the day after tomorrow, what becomes of the agreements, secret or public, he has signed? To be sure, there are precious few democracies, and it would be quixotic not to negotiate with dictatorships; but to compare the trustworthiness and vision of Sadat and Assad with the petty “legalism” of Rabin and his associates, the harmony and conducive tranquility of Alexandria with the uproar of street demonstrations in Jerusalem, is innocent at best. Sheehan, however, is no neutral novice. When he observes, “In Israel, Kissinger did not enjoy Egyptian secrecy; at times he must have felt that he was negotiating with the whole country,” he does not mean to praise the give-and-take of Israeli life, but rather to express frustration and regret, and move his reader to feel the same, in retrospect and in advance of what may well be happening again soon.

Without a doubt, it was frustrating now and then for Kissinger to deal with the Israelis, doubly so because the Rabin government was freshly installed with a precarious majority in parliament, and Israelis, still stunned and fretful in the wake of Yom Kippur, tended to perceive the disengagement agreements as stratagems whereby the Arabs got through American leverage what they had failed to win by war.

In a useful companion volume to Sheehan’s book, The Secret Conversations of Henry Kissinger by Matti Golan, the erratic performance of the Israeli negotiators comes in for harsh comment (furthermore, their American lobby is said to have been dilatory). Diplomacy waged by democratically elected leaders is necessarily somewhat different from the dictatorial variety, but there is no law that says it always has to be improvising, reacting, and procrastinating instead of seizing the initiative, or, if no initiative exists to be seized, making a show of it. When and if the drums start beating again for an imposed solution—complete withdrawal to the ’67 lines, a Palestinian state run by a reincarnation of the PLO, superpower “guarantees,” no direct negotiations or formal peace treaties—Israel and its friends will need to be every bit as stubborn as Sheehan complains they were, but more ingenious.

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