Kissinger’s legacy and the Gaza conflict – opinion

‘Do something to prove that you love me,” a nameless narrator bitterly quotes his girlfriend in Etgar Keret’s short story “Missing Kissinger” as the frustrated boyfriend struggles to understand why he is being dumped.

Just what Henry Kissinger has to do with that anti-romantic tale is not clear – he is not even mentioned in it; but as the world mourns the fabled statesman who died last week at age 100, his departure underscores a war-torn world’s thirst for diplomatic greatness.

Having led three major odysseys from war to peace, Kissinger’s legendary statesmanship – many now say – would be priceless in a world beset by bloody conflicts from the Middle East to Ukraine. Well, they are wrong. 

Kissinger’s achievements 

KISSINGER’S CONTRIBUTION to the Vietnam War’s conclusion was about pragmatism. America, he concluded, could not win that war and thus had to cut its losses in that theater. There was little glory in that choice, but it was better than the alternative, as the USSR proved the following decade by its failure to quit Afghanistan when retreat was still affordable.

U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger waves to the press as he arrives for follow-up talks after the Paris Peace Accords on Vietnam with North Vietnamese Politburo member Le Duc Tho, in Saint-Nom-la-Breteche, near Paris, France, June 12, 1973 in this screengrab taken from a video. (credit: REUTERS TV via REUTERS)

Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize for his Vietnam feat, but the greatness of his statesmanship emerged in what began two years earlier, in a secret trip to China that triggered one of the most breathtaking breakthroughs in diplomatic history.

The Sino-American thaw that Kissinger helped deliver deepened the gaps between Beijing and Moscow, fueled China’s journey to capitalism, and helped end the Cold War, even if its formal death took another two decades to arrive. That move was not pragmatism. It was genius.

Kissinger’s Vietnamese and Chinese achievements represented his ability to distinguish between historic futility and opportunity. Vietnam was futility. China was an opportunity.

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Historically, the Chinese achievement was much larger than Kissinger’s third imprint, in the Middle East. Here, after all, the conflict was about one country’s place within its one region, while the Cold War was about the entire world’s peace and indeed its very survival.

Then again, in the Middle East Kissinger managed to lead the region from its biggest war to its first peace. And yet, even Henry Kissinger would not help if faced with the Gaza conflict at its current stage. Why?

DIPLOMATIC GENIUS has done wonders over the centuries – from Austrian foreign minister Klemens von Metternich’s engineering of post-Napoleonic Europe to president Harry Truman’s construction of the post-Nazi world – but all that great statecraft followed rather than preceded clear military results.

The same also happened in Vietnam. First came Hanoi’s military achievements, and only then came peace. The same thing happened in the Yom Kippur War. First Israel’s invaders were counter-invaded, and when the IDF was on its way to Cairo the road to peace could be paved.

It was in that setting that Kissinger emerged with the inventive idea of hammering out the military disengagement deals that three years later – and 10 months after Kissinger’s departure – resulted in the Egyptian president’s arrival in Jerusalem.

The current war, at its current stage, offers no such analogy.

The Egypt that Kissinger faced in 1973 was a real country with a real government and a real leader, a modern man intent on modernizing his nation.

That leader, Anwar Sadat, was a secular nationalist. War in his view was not a value but a tool, an instrument for restoring his nation’s honor and leading it to better times. That’s why he could, mentally, realize war’s futility and the promise of peace.

None of this applies to Hamas. No Henry Kissinger would somehow undo this organization’s religious fanaticism, hatred of other faiths, glorification of violence, and disinterest in its own people’s prosperity, security, and very life.That is why it is premature for America to pressure Israel to produce, at this stage of the fighting, a plan for the day after the fighting ends. Yes, Kissinger accommodated communist China, but even he would have achieved nothing had he engaged China while Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution was raging in its streets.

The same, by the way, goes for the war in Ukraine. Kissinger effectively said as much himself, when he told German TV last year that talks with Russia can begin only based on a flat and nonnegotiable Western refusal to concede even one inch of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.

If that is true of Russia, it is doubly so in Gaza, whose current leaders feel religiously commanded to destroy us, educate their children to kill our children, and have just unleashed a horde of rapists on our women.That is why statesmanship, no matter how ingenious, is irrelevant in Gaza as long as Hamas is intact. Metternich could not redesign Europe before Napoleon’s trouncing at Waterloo; Truman could not rebuild Europe before Hitler’s death; and whoever redeems Gaza from its misery will first have to see Hamas dislodged.

This is not to say that Kissinger’s legacy is irrelevant to the Gaza conflict.

It sure is relevant, but its time will only arrive the morning after Hamas. Just when that day arrives is anyone’s guess – it might take years – but what Kissinger would do once that day arrives actually can be broadly guessed.

Faced with a devastated, post-Hamas Gaza, Kissinger would have used the vacuum to create a new political energy and international alignment, the way he did when he sensed the vacuum that the aging Mao’s approaching departure created in China. It was then that futility made way for opportunity. Kissinger’s genius was in detecting that moment’s arrival and using it to rearrange the world. 

Gaza’s journey from futility to opportunity is finally underway, but making believe the voyage has ended when it has hardly begun would be futile, reckless, and absurd – as futile as talking to Hitler, reckless as ceasing fire between Normandy and Berlin, and absurd as telling Hamas: “Do something to prove that you love me.”

 www.MiddleIsrael.netThe writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.