Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of the Middle East Diplomacy may be a book about U.S.-backed Israel-Arab diplomacy in the mid-1970s, but it does not shy away from the contemporary political context that inspired it. Its author, Martin Indyk, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel (1995-1997 and 2000-2001) and Special Envoy for Middle East Peace (2013-2014), was intimately involved in U.S. diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. As ambassador, Indyk witnessed first-hand the unraveling of the peace process and spearheaded the most recent unsuccessful effort to restart it under Secretary of State John Kerry. The failure of this latest push for Israeli-Palestinian peace inspired Indyk to revisit where the U.S. role in promoting Israel-Arab diplomacy began: Henry Kissinger, who served as national security advisor and secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

From Indyk’s comprehensive account of Kissinger’s diplomatic efforts, it is clear that the absence of a U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and the lack of a political appetite for one today is not a defeat of Kissinger’s approach, but rather a vindication of it. 

Indyk argues that order, rather than peace, was the ultimate goal of Kissinger’s game. Kissinger believed that the Arab states would only accept peace once they had reached the point of exhaustion and could no longer tolerate war. Indeed, Kissinger was so skeptical of peace that he failed to recognize that Sadat had reached the point of exhaustion following the two disengagement agreements and was prepared to make peace with Israel. Kissinger’s disengagement process set the stage for Israel’s 1979 peace agreement with Egypt, brokered by President Jimmy Carter after Kissinger was out of office, which saw a full Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai in exchange for normalization. As Indyk points out, that the UAE and Bahrain cited their fatigue of the conflict as justification for the Abraham Accords affirms Kissinger’s methodology.

Kissinger himself did not pay much attention to the Palestinian issue; the strategic importance of the West Bank (and Jordan, who at the time still laid claim to the territory) was insignificant compared to that of Egypt and Syria, and thus did not factor into his designs to build a U.S.-led regional order. But the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, which established a step-by-step process under which Israel would gradually cede West Bank and Gaza territory to Palestinian self-rule, mirrored Kissinger’s approach. Recognizing that the Palestinians were not yet prepared to accept Israel and that Israel could not yet take on the risk of allowing a Palestinian state, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin deliberately left final status issues, including borders and Jerusalem, undefined to buy time and build trust. 

Four U.S. presidential administrations have passed since the start of the Oslo process, and the only thing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that anyone seems to agree on is that it is far from being resolved. After years of Israeli and Palestinian policies that have diminished prospects for a two-state outcome and severely damaged trust between the two sides, even many of those who believe in a two-state solution acknowledge that pushing for final-status negotiations would be counterproductive, including the largest party in Israel’s governing coalition (Yesh Atid), the Biden administration, and Israel Policy Forum. Most policy experts and Israeli supporters of the two-state solution have adopted an incrementalist view—that Israel and the PA should take steps that maintain the political horizon for two states while building trust, in the absence of a political process that can guarantee Israelis and Palestinians both security and self-determination. 

This incrementalism with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a new phenomenon, but rather served as a centerpiece of Kissinger’s approach as he pioneered the unique role the U.S. plays in Israel-Arab diplomacy. In Master of the Game, Indyk gives an in-depth portrayal of Henry Kissinger’s efforts to broker ceasefire agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. 

Indyk identifies several objectives that Kissinger sought to balance from the outbreak of the war in October 1973, including facilitating peace negotiations brokered solely by the U.S., sidelining the Soviet Union while maintaining détente, bringing Egypt into the American camp despite U.S. support for Israel, and securing an Israeli victory while preventing an Egyptian humiliation. 

This last point was key: by ensuring the survival of the Egyptian Third Army in the Sinai at the end of the war, Kissinger made sure that Egypt and Israel each had enough leverage to negotiate. Israel sought to secure assurance that Egypt would no longer pose a military threat, while Egypt wanted to reassert control over the Sinai, which it had lost to Israel in 1967. Resisting pressure from Nixon and the international community to impose a solution that would see Israel return to the pre-1967 lines, Kissinger embraced a more gradual approach based on two disengagement agreements under which Israel ceded smaller slices of Sinai territory in order to build trust and buy Israel time, while safeguarding Israeli security. He took a similar approach with Syria, where he brokered a Golan disengagement agreement under which Israel withdrew from a small strip in the eastern Golan that included the city of Quneitra.

Shuttling back and forth between Egypt and Israel to meet with President Anwar al-Sadat and Prime Minister Golda Meir, Kissinger was the architect of a diplomatic process to which the United States was integral, as the guarantor of Israel’s security and the sole actor that could manifest an Israeli territorial withdrawal. Despite Meir’s aversion to withdrawing from territory won from an enemy state, and despite the level of hostility and distrust that existed between Israel and Egypt, Kissinger managed to facilitate the first ever Arab-Israeli agreement. This, in turn, served as the basis for bringing Egypt into the U.S. regional order, strengthening the U.S.-Israel partnership, and de-escalating the Arab-Israeli conflict. In many ways, the modern Middle East is a product of this initial Egypt-Israel disengagement agreement, signed in January 1974.

Following Rabin’s assassination in 1995, the gradualist approach fell by the wayside. After the process stalled under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel damaged trust by continuing to build settlements in the West Bank, Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a push in 2000 for a final-status agreement under the auspices of President Clinton. This effort, of course, ended in failure and was followed by the deadly Second Intifada, eliminating any trust that remained. 

Subsequent U.S. administrations—Bush, Obama, and Trump—all made similar ill-fated attempts at brokering a final-status agreement, none of which brought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict any closer to resolution. Kissinger’s aversion to all-or-none diplomacy, particularly in the absence of mutual trust, has proven warranted. The repeated failure of these negotiations has eliminated confidence in the peace process and severely jeopardized the political horizon for a two-state solution. It has also undermined U.S. legitimacy as a peace broker and devalued the reliability of American commitments. In 2014, for example, during the Obama-Kerry push to resolve the conflict, Obama tried to earn Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ support by declaring that East Jerusalem would be a future Palestinian capital—a shift in U.S. policy designed to appease the Palestinian leader. Indyk reflects that Abbas shunned Obama’s efforts despite this concession, due to his distrust of American promises and disillusionment with the U.S.-led peace process.

Ultimately, it is no surprise that many who still believe in the vision of the Oslo Accords recognize the futility of final-status negotiations under the current conditions, given the two sides’ distrust of the other, disillusionment with the process, and lack of urgency. Many who openly oppose the two-state solution, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, have also adopted the language of incrementalism; Bennett has famously adopted the framing of “shrinking the conflict”, conceived by Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman. While carrying out economic policies that rebuild confidence in the Palestinian Authority and reset Israel-Palestinian relations, the Bennett government has no intention to carry out any territorial compromise, however minuscule, that would imply a two-state process. For Bennett, shrinking the conflict is a means of avoiding, not furthering, its resolution.

Today’s Israeli and Palestinian leaders have no appetite for anything that resembles a  peace process, incremental or otherwise. But regardless of the current political circumstances, Master of the Game confirms what many policy experts have already determined—that high-profile, comprehensive diplomatic initiatives will likely never bring about Israeli-Palestinian peace, due to the nature of the conflict itself. Only gradual steps, encouraged under the right circumstances, when the two sides feel that they have no other option, can bring two states closer to reality. Martin Indyk’s book shows what successful American-led Middle East diplomacy looks like, and its lessons provide an essential blueprint for future leaders who aspire not to lose sight of the two-state horizon.


Note: Martin S. Indyk is a member of Israel Policy Forum’s Board of Directors and Convener of the Advisory Council.