Jonathan Ernst/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Antony Blinken Is Hardly the Next Kissinger

The American secretary of state may think he is borrowing a page from his late predecessor’s Middle East playbook in Gaza. He’s doing the opposite.

Gadi Taub
December 08, 2023

Jonathan Ernst/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
See the full collection →︎

Comparisons between the October 7 massacre and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 naturally abound. First there’s the date: Hamas committed its massacre exactly 50 years and one day after that fateful day of atonement in 1973. The new trauma was intended to echo the old.

Then there is the astounding intelligence failure. Fifty years ago, Israel failed to understand the enemy’s rational calculations. Now it failed to see the enemy’s irrational devotion to genocidal antisemitism. In both cases, Israeli intelligence was beholden to a mistaken preconception: since it can’t be in the enemy’s interest to attack, any information that suggested otherwise must be unreliable.

There is also, in both cases, Israel’s over-dependence on American materiel, which gives the U.S. powerful leverage over our policy at a time of mortal peril. And this similarity naturally leads to a comparison between the roles played by two American Jewish secretaries of state—the late Henry Kissinger in 1973, and Antony Blinken in the present.

According to a report in The Times of Israel, Blinken told Israel during his most recent visit that “it cannot operate in southern Gaza in the way it has done in the north.” He also warned that the U.S. would frown upon further displacement of Gaza’s population: “You need to evacuate fewer people from their homes, be more accurate in the attacks, not hit U.N. facilities, and ensure that there are enough protected areas [for civilians]. And if not? Then not to attack where there is a civilian population.”

Kissinger’s policy was focused on pushing America’s great power rivals out. American policy today is inviting them in.

Given the fact that Hamas is using non-combatants, including children, as human shields, and that it stores its weapons and hides its combatants in residential neighborhoods, under hospitals, and in U.N.-sponsored schools, operating within Blinken’s restrictions makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Israel to achieve the goal it set for itself, and which the U.S. is supposedly backing: destroying Hamas. Blinken also imposed a time constraint: According to the leak, when Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant told Blinken that “The entire Israeli society is united behind the goal of dismantling Hamas, even if it takes months,” the U.S. Secretary of State replied, “I don’t think you have the credit for that.”

Kissinger, too, angered many Israelis when he intervened to prevent the crushing of the Egyptian army. He wanted to allow Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to save face, so as to make him and his people more amenable to compromise and even a peace accord further down the road.

Blinken likewise appears bent on saving Hamas from a crushing defeat, though the leaders of that genocidal terrorist organization hardly seem like natural successors to the Egyptian peacemaker—who was murdered by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ parent organization. This is where the picture gets fuzzier. The declared American position is that the Palestinian Authority (PA), not Hamas, will take power after the war ends—uniting the Palestinians in Judea, Samaria and Gaza under a single "revitalized" PA, as the administration is now putting it, so that Israel will once again have a partner theoretically able to deliver a two-state peace deal.

On the face of it, saving Hamas from destruction seems unlikely to serve the cause of peace with Israel. Perhaps Secretary Blinken believes that a weakened Hamas would accept the PA’s authority, or maybe he fears the humiliation that greater destruction in Gaza must engender would kill the good will that he imagines some Palestinians still have for Israel. (In reality, polls show that over 75% of Palestinians support Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack and a single Palestinian state “from the river to the sea.”)

So, if Blinken thinks he is walking in Kissinger’s footsteps, he is mistaken. Kissinger’s calculations were based on a clear-eyed understanding of the balance of power and of Sadat’s disenchantment with his Soviet patrons. Kissinger helped Sadat forge a path that the Egyptian leader was already trying to find.

Blinken’s calculations, by contrast, appear to be completely out of touch with reality. There is no Palestinian Sadat. The PA, many of whose leaders expressed support for the Oct. 7 massacre, has never agreed to any concrete plan for a two-state solution, except under conditions that would, in practice, ensure two Arab-majority states. It has never given up on the so-called “right of return,” which is a plan to naturalize the Palestinian diaspora inside Israel. No Israeli leader will ever agree to such an idea because it amounts to national suicide.

Furthermore, whereas Kissinger’s reading of the larger strategic map was subtle and accurate, Blinken’s is obviously incorrect. Kissinger aimed at cutting the noose that Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, Sadat’s predecessor, had been trying to tie around Israel’s neck. Nasser, the radical Arab nationalist leader of the time, sought to unite the Arab world under his leadership, and then use that power in order to annihilate Israel. After Nasser’s death in 1970, Kissinger sought to help Sadat extract himself from commitment to this plan, and thereby kill both Nasser’s vision and the Soviet influence that backed it. Kissinger’s aim was to flip Egypt from the Soviet camp into the Western alliance system, breaking the spine of Soviet regional power and in the process freeing Israel from the specter of encirclement.

It was a masterstroke. Kissinger rightly saw that clumsy Soviet diplomacy would bring the Arabs nothing. In supporting the most extreme Arab demands, the Soviets excluded themselves from the position of possible deal-brokers. In the end, Kissinger thought, Arab leaders would understand that only the U.S. could deliver Israeli concessions, and that the price—peace with Israel and breaking with the Soviet orbit—would be worth it. It worked.

Now, once again, Israel is facing the specter of encirclement—this time led by Iran. But Blinken’s attempt to broker a deal between Israel and the Palestinians will hardly block Tehran’s bid for hegemony. Quite the opposite. Iran is at war with the old American regional alliance system—which includes Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. But Secretary Blinken and President Biden are appeasing the new radicals, not containing them. Restraining Israel is part of that appeasement policy, which began with Barack Obama’s Iran deal.

What Blinken and Biden have been trying to do since Oct. 7, is to rescue that policy from the possible consequences of the current war. For the administration, that means preventing the war from flaring into a regional conflict between Israel and Iran’s other proxies.

The U.S. therefore sent an aircraft carrier to the region along with a televised presidential warning: “To any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of the situation,” President Biden said, “I have one word: don’t!” Israel breathed a sigh of relief. U.S. policy seemed geared toward deterring Hezbollah from fully joining the war, which was crucial in those first days when Israel was gathering its forces in the south, and could not yet afford a full-fledged second front in the north. But it soon became apparent that the American protective umbrella extended to the other side as well. Washington explicitly warned Jerusalem not to preemptively strike Hezbollah.

This made clear that the assumption of a convergence of interests between Israel and the U.S. was an illusion. The dictates of appeasement, which required limiting the war to Gaza, are at odds with Israel’s vital interests. Israel will have to take out Hezbollah, and the sooner the better. So long as that Iranian proxy, which is far stronger and better equipped than Hamas, is allowed to retain its military capabilities right on our border, Israel will not be able to repopulate its northern region, where towns and villages have been evacuated in the wake of Oct. 7. Leaving that region deserted is simply not an option.

As the war continued, the divergence of interests became more pronounced. While Israel fights Hamas, the Biden administration has continued to loosen the sanctions regime against its patrons in Tehran, providing the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance”—which includes Hamas, Hezbollah and a host of proxies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen—with an accelerating supply of economic oxygen. At the same time, the U.S. has steadfastly refused to acknowledge Iran’s involvement in the lead-up to the Oct. 7 massacre, and its aftermath, even as Tehran has intensified its attacks on American forces.

If Kissinger’s policy loosened the noose around Israel’s neck, Blinken’s policy of appeasement will only tighten it. Restraining Israel would save Iran’s proxies from defeat and strengthen the Islamic Republic’s position. And if Tehran is playing Cairo’s former role in this drama, then China and Russia are playing the role of the Soviets. By empowering the Iranians, Blinken’s policy will inevitably also further the penetration of the region by Iran’s patrons, the Russians and the Chinese, at America’s expense. Kissinger’s policy was focused on pushing America’s great power rivals out. American policy today is inviting them in.

Far from being a new Kissinger, Blinken is more like a new Neville Chamberlain with an iPad instead of an umbrella. The former British Prime Minister’s policy of appeasement toward German aggression in 1930s set the stage for World War II. The current misguided American policy of "realignment" with Iran, as Michael Doran and Tony Badran have called it, is what set the stage for the Hamas attack, and is likely to lead to larger disruptions of the regional and international order.

Appeasement is not an offhand mistake the Democratic Party drifted into carelessly, or stumbled upon out of weakness. It is a premeditated strategy designed to strengthen Iran at the expense of America’s traditional allies, based on the misguided idea that “integrating” the Mullahs of Tehran into a regional system, and giving them a stake in the game, will make them responsible players. Its long-term goal is a new equilibrium between Iran and America’s allies, who will learn, in Obama’s terms, to “share the neighborhood.”

The Biden administration is clearly unable to change direction. The raw savagery of the Oct. 7 slaughter sponsored by Iran, which is now a nuclear threshold state, may have shocked many around the world, but it has not forced any serious rethinking in Washington. Instead, the Biden team continues to offer Iran sanctions relief. This is an increasingly dangerous game, and not just on the regional level. On the global stage, it signals the potential for a violent dissolution of the American-led security system that has kept the West safe since the end of the Second World War.

For Israel, the danger is clear and present. It is an urgent question of national survival, which will require us to devise a new long-term strategy. Such a strategy cannot rely on the good will of the current U.S. administration, which has demonstrated it will protect its Iran policy at Israel’s expense. The short time frame and increasingly suffocating restraints that Blinken is trying to impose on Israel’s Gaza offensive reveal a serious misunderstanding of our situation, or worse, a fundamental betrayal of Israel’s vital interests.

It took Israel almost a quarter of a century and four wars to break Nasser’s stranglehold. We are now in a war to remove Iran’s. Completing this task will take time. It will also require Israel to shed its defensive strategy and go on the offensive. Such a shift in policy will likely require taking out Hezbollah next.

But even a victory over Hezbollah would not be enough. Israel must prepare for a multifaceted struggle against Iran over its drive for regional hegemony and its nuclear weapons program. This fight will call for stronger exercises of national will and greater sacrifices than Israelis have so far been forced to make.

There is no cause for despair, however. Israel has proven its resilience when great sacrifices were needed before. The mood here is that we are back in 1948. Israel won that war, and the ones that followed. It can win this war, too. Moreover, given the views of most Americans, and their representatives in Congress, Israel may have more wiggle room vis-à-vis the White House than it usually assumes. Hanukkah is an appropriate occasion for Israel’s leadership to remember that the people of Israel can stand firm to defend their sovereignty.

Gadi Taub is an author, historian, and op-ed columnist. He is co-host of Tablet’s Israel Update podcast.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.