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Scuttle Diplomacy: Henry Kissinger and Arab-Israeli Peacemaking

Salim Yaqub, Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow

Date & Time

Apr. 22, 2008
4:00pm – 5:00pm ET


On Tuesday, April 22, 2008, Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow Salim Yaqub discussed his ongoing research at the Woodrow Wilson Center during a talk entitled Scuttle Diplomacy: Henry Kissinger and Arab-Israeli Peacemaking. The presentation focused upon the diplomatic history portion of his work which concerns the relationship between US-Arab domestic relations and US foreign policy in the Middle East during the 1960s and 1970s.

The domestic and international environment which prevailed following the 1973 Arab-Israeli War gave then Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger the opportunity to simultaneously pursue his two primary goals in the Middle East: supporting Israel's claim to the land it gained following the June 1967 Six-Day War, and decreasing Soviet influence in the region, Dr. Yaqub argued.

In the aftermath of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the ensuing Arab oil embargo, finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict became a high-priority in the international arena, but the Watergate Scandal prevented President Richard Nixon from playing any major role in guiding U.S. foreign policy.

According to Dr. Yaqub, these two factors gave Kissinger the mandate and the freedom of action that he needed to pursue his own vision. Kissinger understood that following its defeat by Israel, Egypt was a weak link in the loose Arab coalition against Israel. Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat hoped to continue to distance himself from the Soviet Union, while simultaneously seeking a rapprochement with Israel which he hoped would prevent a future war.

Taking advantage of Egypt's position, Kissinger initiated his strategy of ‘shuttle diplomacy' by meeting directly with Middle Eastern and Israeli leaders, and acting as an intermediary and peace broker between the two sides. His plan was to divorce Egyptian policy from that of Syria (which maintained an aggressively hostile stance with respect to Israel), obtain Egyptian recognition for Israel's June1967 borders, and in the process isolate Syria from Egypt and the rest of the international community.

Dr. Yaqub argued that Kissinger's pivotal role as the intermediary allowed him to feign neutrality while secretly supporting the Israelis, and to turn the peace negotiations into a long series of small confidence building steps which would give the appearance of progress that Egypt required to come to an agreement with Israel, but which would allow Israel to keep most of the Syrian and Palestinian land gained after the 1967 Six-Day War.

Yaqub cited several examples of Kissinger's duplicity during the course of his shuttle negotiations, however the starkest contrast exists between Kissinger's early May 1974 statements to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and Saudi Arabian King Faisal:

-To Golda Meir on May 6, 1974: "It was almost unanimous in our group [i.e., U.S. negotiating team] that the Israelis should not be asked to give up Golan. That will not be a contentious issue between Israel and the United States."

-To King Faisal of Saudi Arabia on May 9, 1974: "The United States supports no claim by Israel to the Golan Heights."

This strategy was successful in the short term insofar as Kissinger was able to accomplish his two primary goals with respect to Israel's borders and Soviet influence in the Middle East. Moreover, the fact that the Golan Heights were being discussed at the negotiating table was enough to cause the Arab states to call off their oil embargo.

Though Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy did not immediately result in a peace agreement between the Egyptians and the Israelis, his incremental approach to diplomacy did lay much of the groundwork for the settlement between Egypt and Israel embodied in the 1978 Camp David Accords. On the other hand, the manner in which Kissinger manipulated the step-by-step negotiations undermined the Arab World's trust in this strategy, causing them to insist upon an overall package settlement which has, thus far, remained impossible to achieve.

Christian Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program,
Drafted by Tim McDonnell


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The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs.  Read more

Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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