Henry A. Kissinger, now 90 years old and anything but retired, sat in the Manhattan offices of Kissinger Associates one morning in the summer of 2012, facing cameras and making sure his version of history came just right. He was reluctantly submitting himself to a rare interview for an Israeli television documentary called “The Avoidable War,” on the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. (The four-part series, produced by Amit Goren, aired last month on Channels 1 and 8.) Whether the war could have been avoided or not may be arguable, but the grandmaster of global diplomacy and perhaps its best practitioner in the second half of the 20th century tried to avoid the interview. His friends said that he wanted neither to revisit old wounds stemming from his relationships with the Jewish-American community, nor to rehash ancient claims and counter-claims regarding credit for the American airlift that helped Israel regain its military composure after initial setbacks in the war. Let bygones be bygones indeed, he is now even on amicable terms with the person whose subordinates tried to delay the airlift: then-Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger.
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Even when he finally relented and set aside a room in his Park Avenue-at-52nd-Street suite for filming the conversation, Kissinger put his interviewer on notice, essentially reading him an improved version of his Miranda rights warning him that anything he, Kissinger, said, could later be used against the interviewer, should the latter dare to change the meaning of any of his remarks by way of shortening or editing quotes. Kissinger also demanded to know in advance what topics would be discussed.
“In nine cases out of 10,” he said, “I have had very bad experiences” with interviews. While Kissinger was promised that this would be the 10th case, statistics notwithstanding, he set a condition quite similar to what parents used to tell their kids at the dinner table and what was said in army mess halls during more frugal times: Take all you want, but eat all you take. Film all you want, he said, but you must commit in writing to using my answers in full, or not at all.
Taking control of the conversation, as if still negotiating with the Chinese, the Vietnamese or those stubborn Arabs and Israelis, he wryly observes, regarding “The Avoidable War”: “It’s important to do something objective, but whatever you do, leave room for the possibility that your government acted in good faith, in the Israeli interest, at various instances.” He admits that decades ago, especially during the clashes over what the Gerald Ford administration referred to as its “reassessment” of his country’s relationship with Israel, “you can very well argue that we were hard on Israel,” but without missing a beat or pulling a punch he reminds those who would rather forget, “there was this slight problem that we saved you in ’73, right?”
Kissinger seems to have lost none of his wit, but he is now willing to reveal a more sentimental side, too. This globetrotter, who today focuses his attention on China, seems amazed at the effort one former Israel Air Force fighter pilot and prisoner-of-war in Syria made last year to express his personal gratitude for being released in 1974. “He came all the way down from Tiberias to Jerusalem to thank me.”
He speaks fondly of his late friends Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Simcha Dinitz the latter two having been in constant contact with him as ambassadors to Washington when Kissinger served as national security advisor to President Richard Nixon and then as his and President Ford’s secretary of state (as well as with Rabin after he succeeded Meir as prime minister). Kissinger was unaware of the code names associated with him in Israeli internal cables and reports on conversations: “Cardinal,” then “Shaul” and finally “Naftali.”
This interview followed one with the man who was his loyal deputy at the time, retired U.S. Air Force General Brent Scowcroft (“He’s less passionate than I am, but we were a good team,” Kissinger said approvingly), and preceded another one with former White House counsel Leonard Garment, several months before Garment’s death. Dinitz used Garment as another channel to Nixon, in order not to be totally dependent on Kissinger, but the record shows that though Kissinger faithfully executed his oath of office to serve the United States’ best interests, and was not above some devious tactics there was also no better friend in Washington for Israel, regardless of the sincerity of its other supporters on Capitol Hill.
Due to space constraints, the following is only a partial list of the points touched on in “The Avoidable War” by one of the two world-class strategists involved in the 1973 crisis (the other one being Egyptian President Anwar Sadat) but with the answers virtually intact, for fear of Kissingerian wrath.
It was in that eventful year, 1973, between the start of the U.S. withdraw from Vietnam and the slippery slope of Watergate, that the Nixon administration decided it would launch an Egypt-Israel peace initiative, but only after the Knesset election scheduled for October 30 in Israel.
“For those of us who conducted foreign policy, we had a Vietnamese problem, we had a Chinese challenge, we had a cold war with Russia, and then, on top of this, the Arab-Israeli war at a moment when the president was getting under the beginning of an impeachment proceeding,” Kissinger says.
“The Watergate crisis put limitations on presidential maneuverability. But we were probably also affected by the realization that it was better to wait with the peace initiative until after the Israeli election [originally scheduled for October ’73 but postponed until December 31 because of the war]. We took preliminary steps toward the peace initiative in two meetings with the Egyptian national security advisor [Hafez Ismail]. It’s crucial to remember that we [did not have full] diplomatic relations or contact with some Arab states.”
Could war have been averted by an agreement by Israel to withdrawal to all of the 1967 borders, as Sadat had demanded?
“We had no way of knowing whether this was a genuine proposal. We had no indication that it was shared by Syria, and we were certain that Israel would not consider this under the circumstances that then existed, with a Soviet deployment along the Suez Canal, and an invasion by Syria of Jordan. So this was just a general proposition, which we intended to turn into a counter-proposal of seeking a stage-by-stage approach, in the course of which the definition of withdrawal was still open for discussion.”
Was Nixon also waiting for the September 1973 installation of Kissinger as his secretary of state, succeeding William Rogers, who along with career State Department officers was not trusted by Golda Meir?
“Whenever Nixon wanted to act in that field, he would assign it to me, whatever the formal bureaucratic position was. [The preference for dealing with the White House and bypassing State] is not a rare Israeli position. That is something that has occurred in many administrations, and it had nothing to do with the decisions that Nixon made.”
Were Sadat’s threats not taken seriously enough?
“Sadat had made many threats over an extended period of time. It was our judgment that he did not have the military capability to execute it. It was also the judgment of Israeli intelligence, repeatedly given to us. And we had a firm plan to begin peace negotiations, which we conveyed through the national security advisor of Egypt, which the Israelis were well aware of. So, whether the timing of the peace initiative could have been advanced that’s one of these great questions journalists can ask 40 years later.”
Several days after Kissinger added the State Department portfolio to his National Security Council job, and just as the United Nations General Assembly, which he had to attend, was about to deal with the Middle East he was alarmed by unusual activities near the fronts.
“In the week that we began to inquire into the tactical situation [in late September and early October], it was caused by the fact that I received an intelligence report that spoke of concentration of Egyptian and Syrian forces along the dividing lines. It was natural to inquire of the CIA and Mossad what their assessment of the situation was. Their initial assessment was that these were normal maneuvers, and therefore did not represent an additional threat of war. I asked that these assessments be repeated, or that a new assessment be made, every two days, in order to be sure that we were not surprised.
“On the Friday, October 5, we were informed of an increasing concern but not of any specific new danger but of an increasing concern that these mobilizations which we had noticed might be something more serious. And we were asked to convey to the Arab side that Israel had no intention of launching a preemptive attack, and that therefore any military move that they might be contemplating should not be placed on the fear of an Israeli attack, and this we did. I was notified at 6:30 Saturday morning, [12:30 P.M.] Israel time. I was awakened by assistant Secretary of State Joe Sisco, [who said] that a war was imminent. We were in New York for the General Assembly, and he woke me up and said, if I started acting immediately, I probably could still avert the outbreak.”
Kissinger’s urgent calls to the Soviets and the Egyptians did not do the trick. Kissinger agrees with Meir’s belief that an Israeli attempt at preemption at this late stage would not be cost-effective.
“The Israeli decision, taken on its own volition and not at our request, not to preempt was that a wise decision, with the [Arab attack] only a few hours away? So the first question is how effective would a preemptive attack have been at that point, on Yom Kippur, without a mobilized Israeli Air Force, and against the Soviet missile defense system along the canal, which proved later in the war as fairly effective until the canal was crossed. So I can see that it was a reasonable judgment of Golda’s, balancing the risk she had of Israel looking like the aggressor, against the real option she had, and against the actual capabilities of Israel on Yom Kippur, to launch a significant attack in the very limited time that was left.”
One of Israel’s lowest points came on October 9, when Meir asked Kissinger through Dinitz to arrange a brief, desperate secret meeting with Nixon: “My strong advice was not to have the Israeli prime minister leave Israel in the middle of a battle and come to America with a plea for help, since that would be construed by the other side as a sign of enormous weakness.”
Meir’s request brought home the urgency of fulfilling Israel’s requests for replacements for the heavy loss of weaponry on the battlefield. As for Israel’s alleged nuclear capability, Kissinger refuses to talk about the September 1969 deal Meir reportedly had in his presence struck with Nixon, regarding an American promise to overlook whatever was being done at Dimona in return for a pledge to keep its products out of sight. He does refer to reports that some Israelis considered breaching this understanding in this hour of peril.
“Did the Israelis on October 9 become so desperate that they threatened to employ or display ultimate weapons? If they did, it never came to my attention, and I never received, nor did Nixon receive, and I suppose anybody in our government received, any indication that this was being contemplated or that it was shown, and we would not have, we would have been very opposed to it. But that issue never arose and was never discussed with us. Wouldn’t such a display have been contrary to understandings Israel had with the United States? It certainly would have been contrary to what Israel understood our view to be on this matter. But the issue never arose. It was never discussed directly or indirectly.”
On October 12, against Kissinger’s recommendation, Israel essentially gave up, reversed its week-long opposition to a cease-fire and asked for one to be implemented. Kissinger wanted a postwar agreement, but not one achieved at the price of an obvious Israeli position of weakness. Egypt was entrenched in a strip along the east bank of the Suez Canal, in Sinai. Israel was yet to launch a counter-offensive there. It would have been a clear-cut Egyptian touchdown, had Sadat not dropped the ball.
Kissinger: “Moderation in apparent victory is the hardest thing for a statesman. And he became over-confident.”
After the Israel Defense Forces pushed westward, crossing the canal, and the tide seemed to turn, Kissinger was hastily summoned to Moscow to negotiate the political context for a cease-fire. In order to stall and give Israel more time to advance in Egypt, he wished to be perceived as a mere emissary in need of presidential approval, but, periodically, Nixon undercut the secretary of state by delegating him too much power.
“The basic difficulty during all of Watergate was how to preserve American credibility when executive authority was under unremitting assault. But we were helped by the fact that the Soviet leaders could not imagine the decline of authority within the system, what was really going on. Now, while I was on the way to Moscow, Nixon sent a message to [Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev, giving me full authority to settle all issues. He might not have done that in normal circumstances, but he was under enormous pressure to demonstrate his active conduct of the diplomacy, very understandably. And one has to give Nixon enormous credit for the fortitude he displayed during all phases of that crisis. As the record shows, it was one of that few occasions when I resisted being given additional authority and called Washington to complain about it.”
In summing up, there is the sentimental Dr. Kissinger and there is the razor-sharp Mr. Decision Maker.
“Now, what lessons can one learn from that crisis? Well, one should understand that whatever one has to do ultimately, one should do when one still has a margin of decision, and one should have a clear long range of objectives. But again, I want to say, it’s a problem when you have a country with a very narrow margin of survival. There are some experiments you cannot try. I knew all these people, I knew Rabin and Golda. They had a horrible task, and it’s easy, years later, to beat up on them and say they might have done it better. It’s easy for people to say, if you go back to the ’67 borders and then they have a country which is eight miles wide, we will give you some unspecified peace when one of the parties [Assad] isn’t even speaking to Americans, and the other one [Sadat], for all we knew, was a character out of ‘Aida.’”