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5. Step by Step: Kissinger and the Disengagement Agreements, 1974-76
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130 the nixon and ford presidencies Step by Step: Kissinger and the Disengagement Agreements, 1974–76 130 The eight months that followed the October 1973 war witnessed an unprecedented American involvement in the search for a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Henry Kissinger, before becoming secretary of state, had devoted little energy to the seemingly intractable issues dividing Israel and its Arab neighbors. Nor had he progressed far in his understanding of the “energy crisis” and the part played by Middle East oil in the international economy. Only the danger of confrontation between the superpowers growing out of tensions in the Middle East seemed capable of arousing in him a sustained interest in the affairs of the region. Now, with the October war a vivid example of the volatility of the ArabIsraeli conflict, Kissinger, with Nixon’s full backing, set out to become the peacemaker, orchestrator, mediator, and catalyst in a new diplomatic initiative that would take him repeatedly to countries he had never before visited to deal with statesmen he had previously not taken seriously. Although President Nixon was eager for the United States to play an active part in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, he was also increasingly preoccupied with his crumbling domestic base of support as the Watergate scandal continued to unfold.1 Kissinger was therefore allowed extraordinary latitude in shaping the details of American diplomacy, calling on Nixon to invoke presidential authority as necessary, keeping the president informed at each stage, and on occasion ignoring his directions. Above all, Nixon wanted results. Internationally, he worried about the consequences of other nations’ concluding that the American domestic chapter 5 Chap5.p65 2/9/05, 8:41 PM 130 the disengagement agreements, 1974–76 131 crisis had weakened the president’s ability to act in foreign affairs. Domestically , he hoped that foreign-policy successes would help him through the crisis of confidence in his judgment and leadership stemming from his handling of Watergate. Shaping an American Strategy During the October 1973 hostilities Kissinger and Nixon had both promised an active American diplomatic initiative aimed at “implementing Resolution 242” after the war ended, but they steadfastly refused to promise any specific results, despite Sadat’s pleas. The United States, they repeated, was committed to a process, not an outcome. The administration could guarantee that it would make a major effort, but it could not guarantee that Israel would withdraw from all Arab territory or that Palestinian rights would be restored. To do so would be to invite severe domestic criticism and to raise Arab hopes to an unrealistic level. Kissinger frequently mentioned that he feared the Arabs’ “romanticism,” their impatience , their desire for quick results.2 These initial perceptions, shaped by the October war, became the foundations of postwar policy. With the achievement of the shaky cease-fire of October 25, Nixon and Kissinger began to define what the contours of that policy would be. Two key elements quickly emerged. First, the United States would play an active role in trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict . Unlike Johnson after 1967, and they themselves after 1970, Nixon and Kissinger now felt the situation in the Middle East was too threatening to American interests to be ignored; perhaps even more important, an opportunity for a successful American initiative existed.3 As Kissinger had sensed during the war, everyone was looking to the United States. He held the cards, or at least so the principal actors believed , which was what mattered. The Israelis, more isolated internationally than ever before, were in the awkward position of being heavily dependent on Washington for arms, economic aid, and diplomatic support . The Arabs, realizing the potential for U.S. influence with Israel, were anxious to turn that potential to their own advantage. As Kissinger and others had hinted, the Soviets could provide arms to the Arabs, but only the United States could produce Israeli territorial concessions through negotiations.4 Second, the new American strategy would try to avoid linking initial diplomatic steps with the nature of a final peace agreement. Kissinger had disliked the Rogers Plan of 1969 and was not even particularly keen on Chap5.p65 2/9/05, 8:41 PM 131 132 the nixon and ford presidencies UN Resolution 242. Such public statements of principles might provide psychic gratification to one side or the other, but in his view they did little to advance the diplomatic process. Instead they allowed each side to focus on what it rejected in the abstract...