American and Israeli Intransigence Prevented Peace in the Middle East

During the Cold War, the United States blocked the path for a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East. Global power competition with the Soviet Union played a crucial role — but so did the Israel lobby.

Israeli soldiers celebrate the capture of Old Jerusalem from the Jordanians, 1967. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

In September 1971, while meeting in the Oval Office with President Richard M. Nixon, Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko conveyed an extraordinary personal pledge from Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev. If Israel withdrew from the Arab lands it had seized in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Moscow would remove all its military forces from the Middle East, including the thousands of troops and advisers stationed in Egypt since 1970. The exchange would be part of a broader process involving Arab recognition of Israel and superpower guarantees of the resulting peace settlement. Though noncommittal during the meeting, Nixon was impressed by the Soviet offer. The next day, he told his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, that it was a “hell of a concession” and instructed him to follow up on it.

Nothing, however, came of the promised deal. The 1972 presidential campaign season was fast approaching, and Nixon proved unwilling to jeopardize his reelection prospects by incurring the wrath of Israel and its American supporters, the certain outcome of any US effort to achieve a full Israeli withdrawal from Arab territory.

The Gromyko gambit is one of several missed opportunities that Galen Jackson details in his insightful and richly researched new book, A Lost Peace: Great Power Politics and the Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1967–1979. Why, the author asks, did the United States and the Soviet Union fail to cooperate with each other to resolve the geopolitical crisis resulting from Israel’s occupation of Arab territory in 1967? The question becomes all the more pressing in light of the ample evidence that both Washington and Moscow had powerful incentives to pursue a comprehensive Middle East settlement. Indeed, Jackson shows, the superpowers’ formulas for resolving the dispute were, at least on paper, broadly similar.

Jackson’s answer to the conundrum is simple and forceful: the United States was mainly at fault. “US decision makers — although they were tempted at points to respond favorably to Moscow’s proposals — were not interested in working with the Soviets, and instead sought to expel them from the Middle East, with the aim of making unilateral Cold War gains at their expense.” While Jackson also blames domestic politics for stymying US peace efforts, he cautions the reader not to make too much of this dimension. The political clout of pro-Israel Americans was a significant constraint on policymakers, but ultimately “the domestic factor was not decisive.” The real culprit was Americans’ propensity for zero-sum Cold War thinking.

Initially, Jackson notes, the Soviets were less inclined to compromise over the Middle East. In 1969–1970, they supported Egypt’s rejection of the Rogers Plan (named for Secretary of State William Rogers), the Nixon administration’s proposed land-for-peace deal, showing little stomach for urging flexibility on Egypt or other Arab countries.

But from mid-1971 on, Jackson writes, “the Soviets . . . were interested in working with the Americans on a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement” and repeatedly pressured their Arab clients, principally Egypt and Syria, to seek diplomatic rather than military options. Prior to the October War of 1973, which began when those two nations attacked Israeli positions in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, respectively, “the Soviets tried hard to dissuade the Arabs from taking military action,” agreeing to accelerate arms supplies to them only after the Nixon administration failed to reciprocate Cairo’s peace overtures and rebuffed Moscow’s warnings that the Arabs could no longer abide the status quo. Once the war ended, the Soviets attempted, futilely, to join the United States in brokering a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement. They tried and failed again in 1977. Meanwhile, Moscow firmly opposed any Arab talk of “liberating” all of Palestine, insisting that Israel’s creation was irreversible. When, in the aftermath of the October War, the Palestine Liberation Organization began inching toward acceptance of a two-state solution, the Soviet Union enthusiastically endorsed that vision.

Officially, the US State Department favored a comprehensive settlement involving Israel’s withdrawal from nearly all occupied territory in exchange for recognition by and peace with the Arab states. Starting in the late 1970s, the United States also contemplated a measure of political autonomy (though not statehood) for West Bank and Gaza Palestinians. In practice, however, Washington never pushed Israel to conduct the full-scale withdrawals necessary to enact this vision. Instead, Henry Kissinger, who replaced Rogers as secretary of state shortly before the 1973 war, launched a step-by-step peace process after the war that prioritized bilateral accords between Israel and Egypt. These efforts culminated in the Sinai II Agreement of September 1975, whereby Israel relinquished a fraction of the Sinai, and Egypt foreswore future military action against Israel. According to Jackson, Kissinger opted for the bilateral strategy “to prevent the Soviet Union from playing a meaningful role in the peace process,” as probably would have occurred had the United States sought a comprehensive settlement.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter actively pursued the comprehensive strategy that Kissinger had disdained. But a cascade of mishaps at home and abroad upended Carter’s scheme, and his administration was obliged to resume Kissinger’s old bilateral process, ultimately brokering a formal peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979. Egypt regained the rest of the Sinai, but Israel continued to hold the Golan Heights, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and parts of South Lebanon (these last areas occupied after 1978). The conclusion is less obvious in Carter’s case, but here, too, the author sees the triumph of Cold War thinking on the US side.

Jackson recognizes the salience of domestic politics to US Middle East policymaking but ultimately regards them as less decisive than Cold War attitudes. This is a curious stance, for the decisive impact of domestic politics — particularly the ability of pro-Israel Americans to punish US politicians deemed insufficiently supportive of Israel — is something A Lost Peace repeatedly affirms.

Time and again, Jackson inquires into Washington’s failure to pursue a comprehensive settlement that would have served its geopolitical interests, only to arrive at the same answer. Why didn’t the Nixon administration take advantage of Gromyko’s dramatic offer in September 1971? “The main reason that the White House did not move energetically to work out an agreement with Moscow had to do with domestic politics.” Why did the administration of Gerald Ford (who succeeded Nixon in 1974) press on with the step-by-step peace process even though a wide swath of the US foreign policy elite had lost confidence in that approach and wished to seek a comprehensive settlement despite Israel’s bitter opposition to such a course? “Ultimately, the White House chose to back away from a confrontation with Israel and to pursue instead a second Egyptian-Israeli interim deal — which would come to be called Sinai II — primarily for domestic political reasons.” Why did President Carter’s own hopes for a comprehensive settlement come to naught? “In this case, the domestic political argument is persuasive.” In each successive instance, the Nixon, Ford, and Carter White Houses geared up for a dramatic “showdown” with Israel and its American supporters but backed down after considering the political pain that would inevitably ensue.

Jackson acknowledges all this but nonetheless insists that the domestic factor was not as formidable as many assume. “Although it was certainly a significant variable and, as such, merits careful attention in any fair analysis,” he writes, “the domestic political constraint was not insuperable.” The very fact that US leaders contemplated these “showdowns” demonstrates that they realized the situation was not hopeless. Indeed, “the evidence suggests that if the problem [had been] handled the right way — that is, if US officials [had] employed effective tactics and timed their initiatives appropriately — there was a good chance that such a campaign might have succeeded.” In the end, however, the leaders either lacked the necessary political skill, were thrown off course by unforeseen events, or simply chose not to try their luck.

Jackson is surely right to stress the contingent nature of the domestic factor. But shouldn’t this caveat also apply to his other, more favored explanation? It was not inevitable that US leaders would, at all times, ruthlessly press their Cold War advantage. Jackson himself cites several instances in which Nixon, Ford, and especially Carter chose to downplay their nation’s direct rivalry with Moscow for the sake of diplomatic progress in the Middle East. On these occasions, the three leaders perceived that the unresolved nature of the Arab-Israeli dispute was destabilizing the region in ways that imperiled pro–United States Arab regimes and Western access to Middle Eastern oil. They thus concluded (at least for a time) that their nation’s interests were best served by a moderate settlement sponsored and guaranteed by the superpowers. The narrative of A Lost Peace details how US leaders repeatedly gravitated toward, and retreated from, such a scenario. Yet the contingent character of their Cold War thinking is far less prominent in the book’s explanatory framework.

To be sure, there was one US policymaker whose pursuit of direct Cold War advantage actually was fairly relentless: Henry Kissinger. His role reveals the decisive impact of pro-Israel sentiment at home and of Cold War obstreperousness abroad; it also shows how those two qualities could be mutually reinforcing. In early 1973, Nixon was poised to launch a fresh Middle East peace initiative. He had been overwhelmingly reelected the previous November and finally felt free to press the Israelis to be more reasonable. “Every other year,” he told British prime minister Edward Heath in February, “the United States Government were inhibited, by one or [an]other of their Elections, from taking any action in relation to the Middle East which would be unacceptable to Israeli opinion. 1973, however, was a year in which they were free from this particular inhibition.”

Within weeks, though, Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate affair, which quickly depleted his authority at home. Gravely weakened by the scandal, he was in no position to withstand the ferocious domestic outcry that would surely greet any White House effort to put the squeeze on Israel. At the same time, Watergate’s consuming nature made it much harder for Nixon to focus on foreign policy, granting greater leeway to Kissinger’s more thoroughly anti-Soviet inclinations. Although Jackson treats this latter development as the more consequential result of Watergate, the thwarting of Nixon’s planned Middle East initiative also merits special attention. Working together, domestic politics and reflexive anti-Sovietism delivered a “one-two punch” to diplomatic prospects in the region.

Jackson chronicles other instances in which those two factors reinforced each other. After the October War, he writes, a significant obstacle to any US drive for a comprehensive peace agreement was an incipient “domestic backlash against détente. . . . Israel’s supporters — who feared that the development of more cooperative US-USSR relations might lead to the sort of imposed settlement that Nixon favored — became especially critical of the White House’s Soviet policy.” They joined forces with other domestic critics to anathemize the Nixon administration’s dealings with the Soviets. The resulting “decline in détente’s popularity gave US officials a political incentive not to cooperate with Moscow” in the Middle East. Similarly, Jackson notes that one of the most crippling setbacks to Carter’s pursuit of a comprehensive settlement was the “explosive domestic reaction” to the issuing, in October 1977, of a US-Soviet joint statement calling for the reconvening of the Geneva Peace Conference on the Middle East. The outrage emanated “from both Israel’s supporters and Cold War hawks who opposed the reintroduction of the Soviets into the negotiations.” In the overall framing of his argument, Jackson presents domestic politics and Cold War preoccupations as competing explanations. Yet his more detailed treatment suggests that they were often enmeshed with one another.

There is another way in which such either-or framing is not fully satisfying. Frequently, a given policy approach would emerge to the fore less because it was the favored option in an absolute sense than because alternative approaches had lost viability. The best evidence for the claim that the Carter administration succumbed to Cold War thinking comes from the period after Carter tried and failed to launch a comprehensive peace process. The separate Egyptian-Israeli agreement he pursued in its place was antithetical to the Soviets’ own commitment to a comprehensive settlement (and deeply unpopular in the Arab world to boot), and so Moscow felt compelled to denounce it. Consequently, Jackson writes, by 1978, “the United States was again formulating its policy in the Middle East with the Cold War in mind.”

A version of this dynamic had unfolded in the Kissinger years. Kissinger was fixated on thwarting the Soviets at every turn, to a degree that even Nixon sometimes found excessive. Yet this hard-line approach had a self-perpetuating quality. Although the Soviets tried for as long as they could to secure for themselves a role in post–October War diplomacy, Kissinger’s unflagging drive to exclude them eventually drew their opposition — and thus vindicated American narratives about Moscow’s obstructionism.

The upshot of all this was a bilateral Egyptian-Israeli peace process that came to fruition in the Camp David agreements of 1978 and 1979. Carter’s diplomatic triumph not only delayed the quest for a comprehensive settlement but made such a peace immeasurably harder to achieve. Egypt’s neutralization sharply reduced the military pressure on Israel, enabling it to tighten its grip on Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese territories and to ignore international calls for an end to the occupation. It’s a grim legacy that few scholars of US foreign relations, even ones who specialize in Carter’s presidency, appear to grasp. Galen Jackson brings it out with unflinching acuity.

About the Author

Salim Yaqub is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and director of UCSB's Center for Cold War Studies and International History.