For a long time, the late US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who passed away on November 29, was portrayed as a man of peace. Indeed, he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, along with North Vietnam’s chief negotiator Le Duc Tho, for having negotiated a ceasefire during the Vietnam War. Le Duc Tho alone had the decency to refuse it.
Anyone familiar with Mr Kissinger’s actions during the 1968 peace talks in Paris on ending the war in Vietnam would have known that his commitment to peace was far less pronounced than his commitment to his own personal advancement. At the time, as a participant, he had leaked information to the Nixon campaign that helped torpedo the talks. President Richard Nixon later rewarded Mr Kissinger by appointing him national security adviser.
A similar attitude could be detected in Mr Kissinger’s approach to Arab-Israeli peace after 1969, when he took office. In 1973, as secretary of state, he honed his image as a peace-maker by shuttling between Arab capitals to negotiate an end to the October 1973 Arab-Israel War. Yet his actions in the years before then showed that this was a sham.
To put this in context, we have to go back to 1969 and Mr Kissinger’s first year in office. The June 1967 Arab-Israel War had ended two years earlier and the UN Security Council had passed Resolution 242 to frame future efforts to reach a comprehensive settlement. The resolution was foundational in establishing a “land for peace” formula, where Israel would give up the land it occupied in 1967 in exchange for peace agreements with the Arab states.
The resolution affirmed “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” It also called for the “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” This was one of the conditions defined by the resolution as necessary for “the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
The matter of withdrawals has long been a source of dispute, largely because Israel managed to slip an ambiguity into the wording. By inserting the somewhat vague clause “from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” rather than “the territories” the Israelis left the scope of withdrawals indefinite, allowing them to say they could retain at least part of the occupied Arab lands. That this equivocality exists only in the English version of the resolution showed the Israelis had foresight in realising this would be the version that prevailed.
However, less well-known is how the Nixon administration steadily emptied Resolution 242 of its content in a series of bilateral understandings with Israel. In December 1969, Washington announced what became known as the Rogers Plan, for William Rogers, the secretary of state at the time. The plan was an effort to bring about a settlement between the Arabs and Israel, and it greatly angered the Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.
The Rogers Plan reaffirmed Resolution 242, though Mr Rogers, in a speech in December 1969, inserted a caveat that there might have to be border adjustments, as the borders prevailing before the 1967 war were defined by the Armistice Agreements of 1949, therefore were not necessarily final. But the secretary saw these adjustments as minor, underlining the US did not support expansionism.
However, Mr Rogers was not the real foreign policy powerhouse in the administration. Mr Kissinger and the president were, and took steps to erode the Rogers Plan, because they regarded Israel as a valuable ally in the cold war. As a consequence of this, in July 1970 Mr Nixon sent a letter to Ms Meir, stating that the administration would not insist on Israel’s accepting the Arab definition of Resolution 242.
The letter read: “I want to assure you that we will not press Israel to accept the aforementioned positions of [Egypt, on a total withdrawal from the occupied territories]. Our position on withdrawal is that the final borders must be agreed between the parties …”
The bland phrasing meant the Americans did not consider Resolution 242 as mandating a full withdrawal from the lands occupied in 1967. This bolstered the Israeli interpretation and potentially weakened Mr Rogers’s assurances that the US sought only minor border changes.
In February 1972, the administration went further, affirming that Israel need not commit to a full withdrawal from the occupied territories as part of any interim agreement with the Arabs. In other words, it could enter into negotiations without their ultimate outcome being set beforehand, leaving the Israelis with a wide margin of diplomatic manoeuvre.
Most important, because Israel felt blindsided by the Rogers Plan, the Americans and Israelis agreed in 1972 that Washington would not make any moves on Middle East peace without first discussing them with Israel. In other words, Israel was provided with implicit veto power, even if the Americans always avoided representing it as such.
By undermining Resolution 242, successive US administrations gave Israel great latitude to continue its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (not to mention the Golan Heights). The conflict in Gaza today and tensions in the West Bank descend directly from this myopic policy and US guarantees given to Israel that discounted the international consensus.
Mr Kissinger was at the heart of this process, and his moves in no way advanced a broad peace settlement. Instead, they reinforced Israel’s control over Arab lands, which the Trump administration furthered in 2019 when it recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as well as Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. Never an impartial mediator, the US had bluntly chosen its side. Mr Kissinger was crucial in taking it in that direction.