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Silent Shuttle

If John Kerry wants to make peace in the Middle East, he's going to need some Kissinger mojo.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Pick up most any newspaper or magazine these days, and you wouldn’t know that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been a busy, busy man. His peace offensive in the Middle East has been remarkably subdued. In fact, one of the most newsworthy aspects of his present push to revive negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians is the sheer lack of news it has generated. This could not be more different from the approach taken by Henry Kissinger, arguably Kerry’s most storied predecessor, in his "shuttle" diplomacy in the Middle East between 1973 and 1976.

As one of the handful of journalists who traveled with Kissinger for those three years, I’ve found myself reflecting on the secrets of his successes as Kerry’s version of the shuttle takes shape. Kissinger began his back-and-forth negotiations under enormous pressure, while Egypt and Israel fought a bloody war in the Sinai Peninsula. At present, there is no shooting war in Israel or Palestine, but that doesn’t make Kerry’s quest any less crucial for both countries — and the region.

Nearly four decades later, Kerry is resuming efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict begun by Kissinger after the successful 1975 Separation of Forces agreement that halted hostilities between Israel and Egypt. But Kissinger produced no further movement on the Palestinian front. The promising Oslo Accord of 1993, which provided a framework for resolving all final status issues within five years of implementing Palestinian autonomy, was scuttled by the Israelis.

Since then, the conflict has remained frozen in time. The issues are exactly as they were: Israel steadfastly refuses to return to the 1967 borders, withdraw settlers from the West Bank or halt settlement construction — all points at the top of the Palestinians’ list of demands. But if the parameters of the conflict are the same, the negotiating style of the U.S. secretary of state is not. The question is: Are Kerry’s backroom tactics as effective as Kissinger’s media friendly approach?

My most powerful memories of those days involve the tremendous attention generated by Kissinger, both at home and abroad. The negotiators on both sides couldn’t ignore his public drive for success. In stark contrast, Kerry chooses to operate behind the scenes, maintaining a tight lid on the press. As a result, his shuttles have generated sparse media attention, little public interest, and almost no pressure on the negotiators. Kissinger realized that public relations was a central battlefield in diplomacy, and he manipulated his "winning" image through a mastery of the media and Congress.

To his credit, Kerry’s approach has achieved a couple of tactical goals: The Israelis have apparently agreed to release some prisoners from their jails and the Palestinians signaled their willingness to hold off on a critical issue for them — applying for full U.N. membership — for six months. Kerry also persuaded the Arab League to accept mutually agreed land swaps in determining the final borders of a Palestinian state, so long as Israel accepts the 1967 borders as the starting point for negotiations. Talks between the two parties are expected to begin as early as next week, though, of course, this promises nothing.

But one wonders how much more could be accomplished with a savvy media campaign. Kissinger’s shrewdest move was taking along 14 veteran international correspondents from major U.S. media outlets — each determined for his or her own reasons to get into print or on the air every day. In so doing, Kissinger not only created his very own "leak machine" but guaranteed unprecedented 24-hour media coverage in the United States and around the world. In negotiations, where leaks are the chief currency, Kissinger positioned himself as paymaster.

Like Kissinger, Kerry has taken a cadre of journalists on his six trips to the Middle East since he was sworn in as secretary of state in February, but somehow he has failed to convert this into a Kissinger-like road show. As a result, he hasn’t generated anything like Kissinger’s public persona. Some days, he gets no coverage at all. Kissinger, in contrast, would get on the evening news simply for visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing or taking correspondents to the Western Wall in Jerusalem — something totally unrelated to negotiations.

Of course, some of the public’s disinterest can be explained by ennui and cynicism after all these years of negotiations and conferences. The Israeli mood has turned against yielding any territory at all, and many in Israel doubt there is a negotiating partner in the divided Palestinian leadership. For their part, the Palestinians simply don’t believe the Israelis are negotiating seriously. Still, Kerry would be well advised to change his tactics. Aggressively drumming up media coverage would raise public expectations and, in turn, place pressure on the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to make progress.

To be sure, Kissinger and Kerry are two very different personalities, and Kerry — though more than competent — can’t be expected to match the flair of the Kissinger road show. Kissinger is often described as "devious" and "manipulative" — which he is — but his real strength is personality and a strategic grasp of the situation. While in office (and indeed, after) he was known for manipulating diplomatic jargon. He could be crystal clear or speak, as we correspondents learned, in triple negatives. "Kissinger is about as conspiratorial as the people he was dealing with," an Israeli diplomat once told me with sly wink. "They found him a kindred spirit."

Despite his awkward appearance and distinct German accent, Kissinger presented himself to foreign leaders as if he were a head of state. He was, in fact, with both Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, able to carve out authority to act virtually on his own. Foreign leaders recognized this and treated him accordingly. When Kissinger spoke, it was the United States speaking.

Kerry, for his part, enjoys close relations with President Barack Obama but it’s no secret the president is not fully invested in the latest bid to revive peace talks. Nevertheless, Kerry would do well to present a more dynamic and outgoing image, to look more, well, statesmanlike.

Likewise, Kerry might learn from Kissinger’s willingness to play hardball, even with friends.

In 1975, for example, when he was frustrated by Israel’s lack of flexibility over borders, Kissinger abruptly called off talks in Jerusalem and returned to Washington, leaking to reporters that a "reassessment" was underway. He was also more sensitive to the despair of Palestinians than Kerry has been. Midway through the shuttle, Kissinger remarked that the "Middle East will not know peace until a way is found to accommodate the uprooted Palestinians."  

Although Kissinger was forced to contend with numerous other world crises during his shuttle diplomacy — Vietnam, Soviet efforts to enter the Middle East, the 1973 oil crisis — he enjoyed one primary advantage: relatively stable governments in both Jerusalem and Cairo led by leaders able to make decisions. In contrast, Kerry — who also has his hands full with various crises, from Syria to North Korea — faces dysfunctional governments in both Jerusalem and Ramallah, not to mention in the Gaza Strip. In Israel, Kerry’s efforts thus far have exposed deep divisions on issues of peace and security, occupation, settlements, and whether the Palestinians can ever be trusted. Netanyahu, meanwhile, is a man without a party who is being constantly pushed to the right by growing conservative forces opposed to any flexibility on territorial issues.

The Palestinians, too, have arrived at a strategic fork. Kerry’s efforts may mark the last chance for Palestinian moderates like President Mahmoud Abbas to reach a two-state deal through diplomatic means. If Kerry fails, Palestinians will almost certainly try again to achieve full membership in the United Nations on their own, a move which might force the United States to painfully reassess its traditional opposition to unilateral measures. Kerry will then have to overcome the overwhelming international forces building in support of a Palestinian state and U.N. membership.

The two-state solution may well be on the line as well. As former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin warned recently, Israel is "approaching a point of no return." Against this backdrop, Kerry’s great challenge is to apply some Kissinger muscle. Putting the full-court press on the Israeli and Palestinian leadership, however, is going to require a little more media savvy.

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