Henry Kissinger was angry. He had spent months of shuttle diplomacy trying to persuade Israel’s then–prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, to pull back from the Golan Heights territory the Jewish state had won from Syria in an epic tank battle two years earlier, during the 1973 war. But in the end, Rabin told Kissinger that although he saw the logic, he could not agree so soon to a move that everyone in Israel would see as a risk to their security. The most Rabin said he could accept was an interim deal postponing the hard questions. And so, after delivering the bad news in person to Anwar Sadat at the Egyptian president’s summer residence in Alexandria, Kissinger retreated for an hour to let off steam.
In the privacy of a shaded veranda on that blistering August afternoon, at a chalet on Alexandria’s poshest beach, the American secretary of state expressed himself bluntly. “Israel is a nation so traumatized by war that its leaders have lost the capacity to make sound judgments about their country’s long-term strategic interests,” he told the beach house’s owner, Mohamed Heikal, as the three of us shared an elegant and off-the-record meal. (The food was catered by Heikal’s personal chef at the veteran Egyptian journalist’s Alexandria apartment and chauffeured to the chalet.) Kissinger’s memoirs, written years after the fact, would offer a more emollient assessment of why the Golan Heights effort failed, but the memory of his exasperation comes back vividly as the U.S. and Israel brace themselves for the imminent U.N. showdown on Palestinian statehood.
For the past 60 years, the West has been operating on borrowed time in its dealings with the Arab world. With the arrival of the Arab Spring, that era may now be ending. As always the pressing issue is how Israel coexists with its neighbors. The Palestinians’ decision to request full U.N. membership from the Security Council might look like a doomed gamble—after all, President Obama has warned that the United States will use its veto power to block any such bid. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his advisers are not fools. Abbas is seeking a Security Council vote precisely because he wants to force the U.S. to confront a broader question: as the Arab world tries to reinvent itself, where does America stand—will it cling to past policies, or will it dare to foster that still fragile hope of reform and freedom? The repercussions of the Security Council vote will extend far beyond the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
We’ve been here before. Sixty years ago an earlier Arab Spring just might have flowered, but the British and Americans played an inglorious role in its withering. After the defeat of the Arab onslaught against infant Israel in 1947–48, rotten old regimes throughout the region began toppling. In Egypt an able colonel, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was persuaded by the Egyptian Army’s humiliations in the Negev to assemble a group of plotters known as the Free Officers, who overthrew King Farouk’s corrupt monarchy in 1952.
Egypt seemed to be on the verge of great changes. The country had a vibrant parliamentary system, an educated urban middle class, and a lively press that all but defied censorship. Egypt could have become a democracy and a Western partner. Instead, the country became a military dictatorship—and, for close to 20 years, a client state of the Soviet Union.
The Arab world sees Palestine as the test: the U.S. vote in the Security Council will be taken as proof of where America really stands.
Those were Nasser’s choices, but abysmally short-sighted U.S. and British policies helped propel him into that tragic dead end. Then as now, it was a conflict between new hopes and old interests. The dominant Western powers viewed Nasser through the prisms of colonialism and the Cold War. Britain was aghast at the loss of its near-viceregal sway in Egypt. At the same time, the Eisenhower administration feared that Nasser’s opposition to the Baghdad Pact—an organization of primarily Muslim nations cobbled together ostensibly as a regional equivalent of NATO—posed a threat to Western defenses in the Cold War. (Nasser, a convert to the Non-Aligned Movement, saw no Arab stake in the Cold War. “Why should I worry about a man with a tommy gun 2,000 miles away?” he asked.)