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Israel Studies 7.1 (2002) 195-217

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Kissinger and the American Jewish Leadership after the 1973 War

Introduction by Zaki Shalom


The attacks on Israel on October 6, 1973 caught her by surprise. Building on this advantage the Egyptian and Syrian armies made significant advances into the Sinai and the Golan Heights. After absorbing punishing assaults for several days, Israel was able to assimilate its reserves and launch counter-attacks. After hard fighting on both fronts, Israel recovered lost ground and advanced even further into Egypt and Syria stopping 100 kilometers from Cairo and on the approaches to Damascus. Nevertheless, the cost had been very high with about three thousand dead and enormous material losses. The reasons for this conflict, the magnitude of the loss versus the gains, and the prospects for the future became the central issues of discussion and debate after the war within Israel as well as among its friends, including American Jews.

The two related documents presented here capture that evaluation among Israel's supporters. Both are incomplete but suggestive memoranda from meetings in December 1973 of American Jewish leaders with the Jewish Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. The first memorandum is a discussion with leading American intellectuals including Norman Podhoretz (Editor of Commentary), Irving Howe (Editor of Dissent), and a group of academics from Harvard and M.I.T., the area where Kissenger had spent much of his academic career. These included Henry Rosovsky, Michael Walzer, David Landes, Kenneth Arrow, Seymour M. Lipset and Rita Hauser. The second meeting was conducted with prominent activists in the Jewish community including the philanthropist Max Fisher, prominent rabbis and heads of leading Jewish organizations. While the meeting with the intellectuals was an ad hoc gathering it was not exceptional in a time of crisis. Meetings with the heads of the organized Jewish community over issues concerning Israel and other matters vital to Jews had become institutionalized. Indeed, such gatherings were often intended to play the role of a two-way conduit. They [End Page 195] brought Israel's positions and perceptions to the American Government even as they brought official American views to Israel.

The meetings were not confrontations of opposing sides. Rather, sympathy for Israel is apparent even as is devotion to American interests. Kissinger's feelings are framed within objective judgments divorced from personal sympathies. In this context, his observations are particularly poignant. While the Jewish leadership call on Kissinger to recall his Jewish origins at this "anguishing period," Kissinger calls on them to be "unsentimental" and appreciate that United States policy towards Israel must be based on a "realistic assessment of the situation" rather than "slogans."

Kissinger understands that even as the participants hope to influence him, he has an opportunity to shape their views and those of Israel's leaders. Despite the importance and the power of his interlocutors, he and they are always aware that there is another audience for these conversations. His critical remarks of Israeli behavior prior to the conflict, comments on the conduct of the war and what opportunities may be in the future are intended to persuade and pressure Israel to fall in line with an American perception of events. Israel's decision-makers are clearly an essential audience to these discussions.

The Secretary of State has a variety of hard messages to convey. He takes issue with the belief of Israelis that they "never had it so good." He believes that Israel was mistaken in making the preservation of the status quo the main strategic objective. There were "lost opportunities" in expecting that the devastating victory of the 1967 Six Day War would "forever" deter the Arabs from another military engagement with Israel. He faults Israel with overconfidence and reluctance to make concessions in attempting to reach a settlement. In Kissinger's assessment, Arab frustration with the political process leads them to adopt the military option with the Yom Kippur War as the consequence.

He also presents his views on popular perceptions, indeed accusations, of the American role in the war. He rejects as "a great myth...