For decades, the international community has sought to maintain stability in the very turbulent Middle East through a policy approach forged by US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. However, under the leadership of US President Donald Trump, we are now witnessing the demise of “Kissingerism.”
In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Kissinger brought the world back from the brink of nuclear war. Once Israeli forces had recovered from the surprise Arab invasion and started advancing on Cairo and Damascus, the Soviet Union threatened to intervene militarily, even with nukes. Some historians say it was the closest the world has ever come to an actual thermonuclear exchange. Alarmed, Kissinger rushed to resolve the deepening crisis.
Shuttling between the various capitals, Kissinger managed to halt the IDF advance on Cairo at Kilometer 101 and 20 miles short of Damascus. His intervention positioned Washington as the primary mediator between Israel and the Arabs going forward. Kissinger’s model for Middle East diplomacy was built on the premise that America is the only country that can bring Israel to heel, and thus the Arabs were wise to accept Washington as the main broker of peace between them.
Largely a product of the Cold War, this approach strengthened the West’s relations with the Arab world and ensured the free flow of Mideast oil to thirsty global markets for decades to come. Yet it required that the US (and its allies) adopt an even-handed approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This eventually meant that Israel’s historic rights and claims to its ancient homeland had to be put on a par with the much more novel Palestinian nationalist claims.
This contrived ‘neutrality’ required that everything had to be balanced. So for every condemnation of Palestinian terrorism or incitement, there had to be an equal denunciation of Israeli settlements. Every foreign leader who visited Jerusalem and laid a traditional wreath at Yad Vashem was also obliged to visit Ramallah and lay a wreath at Yasser Arafat’s grave.
Today, however, the Kissinger paradigm is collapsing. We saw this evidenced already when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a historic visit to Israel and Jerusalem in summer 2017 and very pointedly skipped Ramallah and the Palestinian Authority.
The waning of Kissingerism has become particularly obvious under the leadership of US President Donald Trump, who has not been afraid to take sides. For starters, he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without making any parallel concessions to the Palestinians. Trump has also:
- Distanced himself from the two-state solution,
- Refrained from openly criticizing settlement activity,
- Threatened to shut down the PLO office in Washington,
- Cut off major US funding to UNRWA and even questioned its mandate, and
- Supported the Taylor Force Act, which freezes US funding to the Palestinians so long as their “pay-to-slay” policy continues.
Some are hoping Trump will also recognize Israeli sovereignty on the Golan or Israel’s annexation of parts of Judea/Samaria.
The current move away from the Kissinger model is due to a unique combination of Trump’s unconventional approach to diplomacy, certain regional shifts caused by the Arab Spring and the growing threat of Iranian hegemony. The ancient Sunni-Shi’ite rivalry has flared, especially in Syria, and Trump has sided with the Sunni Arab powers, whose interests in containing Iran mesh well with Israel’s interests. Israel also has managed to establish a cooperative relationship with Russia without undermining its close ties to Washington. The overall shift is so discernible that even Saudi officials are warning that unless the Palestinians learn to compromise, history is about to pass them by.
David R. Parsons is an author, attorney, journalist, ordained minister and Middle East specialist who serves as vice president and senior spokesman for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.