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Master of the Game review: Henry Kissinger as hero, villain … and neither | Books

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As secretary of state, Henry Kissinger nursed the 1973 Arab-Israeli war to a close. The disengagement agreements between Egypt and Israel ultimately yielded a peace treaty. The Syrian border remains tensely quiet. Unlike Vietnam, in the Middle East Kissinger’s handiwork holds.

The Sunni Arab world has gradually come to terms with the existence of the Jewish state. Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have diplomatic ties with Jerusalem. Relations with Saudi Arabia are possible.

For Kissinger, student and preacher of realpolitik, peace was seldom an end in itself. His pivot to China was about boxing in the USSR. To him, the cold war and existing nation states were what mattered most. The Viet Cong earned a seat at the table because US troops were bogged down. The Palestinians were not so high on Kissinger’s agenda.

Now comes Martin Indyk with a 688-page, well-woven history fittingly subtitled “Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy”. The book reflects the author’s admiration for and access to his subject.

Kissinger last granted Indyk an interview at the age of 97. Now he’s 98. Indyk’s wife, Gahl Burt, once worked on Kissinger’s staff. Indyk himself is a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations. His gigs included ambassador to Israel and Middle East envoy. A former Australian national, he volunteered on a kibbutz. He checks many boxes.

Master of the Game does convey a sense that Indyk wishes his own attainments equaled those of his subject. The Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1998 Wye River Memorandum between the Israelis and Palestinians quickly degenerated into the second intifada, flareups in Gaza and Hamas vying with the Palestinian Authority for power on the ground.

In the Obama years, Israel emerged as a partisan flashpoint in the US, like abortion and taxes, to the chagrin of the Democratic establishment and Israel’s diplomatic corps but to the delight of the Republicans and Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s now former prime minister.

In Master of the Game, Indyk lays out the run-up to the October war of 1973, the responses of the US and the USSR, and Kissinger’s nearly two-year hopscotch between Jerusalem, Cairo and Damascus.

Indyk confirms what is widely known, that while Kissinger did not explicitly give Egypt the green light to attack Israeli-occupied Sinai, he was pleased with the outcome. The war and its aftermath presented the US with the opportunity to lure Egypt out of the Soviet orbit, even if Israel had to pay a price.

The war Kissinger “had not expected at the moment”, writes Indyk, “would provide him with the opportunity to manipulate antagonisms”. Those, in turn, would help “begin the construction of what he intended to be a new, more stable American-led order in the Middle East”.

Israeli combat deaths topped 2,600 – reportedly more than 1,000 in the war’s first five days. At the time, Kissinger noted that the latter figure would be proportionally equal to twice the number of US deaths in eight years in Vietnam. As a result, Kissinger coldly “assumed that when he needed Israel to accept a ceasefire it would have no choice but to do so”.

Kissinger saw that a ceasefire would yield territorial concessions. He got that right but the pace was not necessarily to his liking. Disengagement arrived too quickly and then too slowly for him.

In spring 1975, Gerald Ford announced the reassessment of America’s relationship with Israel. Months later, in early September, Egypt and Israel entered a second disengagement agreement, a precursor to the 1978 Camp David Accords hashed out by Jimmy Carter.

Kissinger and his wife, Nancy Kissinger, arrive for a State Dinner at the White House in 2019.
Kissinger and his wife, Nancy Kissinger, arrive for a State Dinner at the White House in 2019. Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

While “Start-up Nation” has emerged as durable military power, Indyk yearns for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

After noting the Abraham Accords, agreements between Israel and Gulf states, Indyk contends that the “Trump administration actually made matters worse” by proposing a Palestinian entity “as a heavily circumscribed enclave within Israeli territory”. He also acknowledges that the accords took Israeli annexation of the West Bank off the table.

As a Talmudic dictum goes, “avar zemano, batel korbano”. Loosely translated, the train has left the station. What applies to a sacrificial rite may pertain to politics. Even the peace process came with a sell-by date. Indyk admits that “the three presidents who succeeded Clinton” tried but failed to reach a lasting agreement, but while Jared Kushner failed to snag the deal of the century, his diplomatic achievement is tangible.

Indyk also explores the competing tugs on Kissinger, a refugee, of loyalty, religion and ethnicity. Richard Nixon told Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador, Kissinger was prone to “indulge Israel’s nationalist sentiments”. On the other hand, Israeli protestors outside Kissinger’s hotel once bellowed: “Jew boy go home.” The Jackson-Vanik amendment, which linked preferred trade status for the USSR to its performance on emigration, infuriated Kissinger.

Kissinger has plenty of detractors. Against the backdrop of Nixon’s Vietnam policy, the overthrow and assassination of Salvador Allende in Chile, genocide in Bangladesh and East Timor and a coup and invasion in Cyprus, he has been called a war criminal.

On the right, the late Phyllis Schlafly dangled Kissinger’s otherness in the face of Ford’s bid for the nomination in 1976. She said Kissinger did not understand “typical American values” and claimed that the loyalty of the German-born and accented diplomat rested with a “supranational” order.

Indyk writes: “When it came to managing violent middle eastern passions and preserving peace, history’s judgment should surely be that Henry Kissinger did well.”

Reasonable people will freely differ.

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