Kissinger, Kant, and the Syrians in Lebanon

In June 1976, a few months after being appointed director general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I traveled to the United States. The main purpose of my trip was to stand in for Foreign Minister Yigal Allon at the annual conference of AIPAC in Washington. During that visit I was also scheduled to meet Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. I had encountered him on a number of previous occasions, but only within the confines of the academic world. This was the first time I was going to meet him in my new official capacity.

A few days before I left for the U.S., one of my former teachers, the philosopher Nathan Rotenstreich, read in the press about my planned visit and asked me for an academic favor. Rotenstreich and another illustrious Jerusalem philosopher, Shmuel Hugo Bergmann, had just published a new Hebrew translation of Immanuel Kant’s On Eternal Peace. Would I be willing, he asked, to present a copy to Kissinger when I met him? Of course I agreed.

Together with Ambassador Simcha Dinitz, Deputy Chief of Mission Hanan Bar-On, and the embassy’s counselor Eytan Bentsur, I went to meet Kissinger, as well as Deputy Secretary of State Philip Habib and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Roy Atherton. One of the issues that dominated our discussions was the recent incursions of Syrian forces into Lebanon. In the ever-changing Byzantine politics of his country’s western neighbor, President Hafez al-Assad was playing a complex game of balancing his ideological support for the Palestinians with a tilt toward the Christian Maronites. In line with these aims, the Syrians were slipping into southern Lebanon and were about to overrun the strategically-located village of Aishieh, not far from Israel’s northern tip.

Israel had to make the difficult choice between a PLO presence on its northern border and the proximity of Syrian forces. As far as Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was concerned, the PLO presence was an unpleasant headache, but a new Syrian presence on the northern frontier with Lebanon was a real strategic threat. Our goal was to persuade the Americans to signal to the Syrians that their presence in Aishieh could destabilize the tenuous Israeli-Syrian standoff that had been in place since 1973.

Kissinger accepted Rabin’s reading of the complex situation and promised to contact the Syrians. The message was conveyed to Damascus, and the Syrians eventually withdrew from Aishieh. All this was done through back-channel diplomacy, with no public threats and no loss of face for the Syrians. In later years, this kind of quiet diplomacy failed to maintain the internal equilibrium in Lebanon, and the ensuing turmoil eventually led to Israel’s disastrous involvement in Lebanese politics and its invasion of Lebanon in 1982. But these storm clouds were not yet visible.

However, before we turned to the subject of the Syrians in Lebanon, I presented Kissinger with the Hebrew translation of Kant’s On Eternal Peace, which Rotenstreich had inscribed with a graceful dedication: “To Dr Kissinger, who in the absence of a Kantian eternal peace, tries his best to achieve a less lofty, but more realistic peace in the Middle East.” Kissinger seemed pleasantly surprised, a bit moved, and slightly perplexed. I explained that Kant’s seminal essay had been translated into Hebrew in the 1920s, but over the ensuing fifty years Hebrew had developed rapidly and that version already sounded quite archaic. Rotenstreich and Bergmann believed that something more up-to-date was required.

After looking at the Hebrew volume with some wonder, Kissinger proceeded to give his assessment of Kant, and, as one might imagine from the great exponent of realpolitik, it was not flattering: Kant’s vision was mere wishful thinking, beclouding, and sometimes even hindering more realistic attempts by statesmen to minimize friction and achieve pragmatic results. The conversation then turned to the differences between Hegel’s and Kant’s views on war. Kissinger made sure to tell me that he had read and disagreed with my interpretation of this issue in my then fairly recent book Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State; my interpretation, Kissinger maintained, was a bit too generous to Hegel. For about ten minutes, the two of us moved from Kant to Hegel and back—to the bemused consternation of the assorted diplomats, some of whom (including, I think, Dinitz) were beginning to look with great curiosity and concentration at the ceiling, perhaps trying to find nonexistent flies hovering there. Then, without having come to agreement, we turned to the Syrians and Aishieh.

In the evening, Bar-On, who was taking notes, showed me a draft of the cable about the meeting that was to be sent to Jerusalem. To my surprise I found that the cable—five or six pages long—started with a detailed report on the Hegel-Kant discussion, bringing out in some detail our disagreement on Hegel’s theory of war. (The German-born Bar-On was helped here by his good German gymnasium education.) Only after clearing this out of the way did Bar-On proceed to report on the role to be played by the Americans in the complexities in the triangular Syrian-Palestinian-Israeli relationship in Lebanon, which, of course, was the main topic of our meeting.

I was a bit uneasy. This was, after all, a top-secret diplomatic cable about a routine, yet not unimportant meeting that might have some strategic consequences. It was going, like all reports of this sort, not only to the foreign minister, but also to Prime Minister Rabin, Defense Minister Shimon Peres, as well as to the heads of the Mossad and military intelligence. What would they make of all this? What would they think about me, their professor-cum-director-general? Had I wasted taxpayers’ money talking philosophy?

In particular, I could imagine Rabin’s lack of patience with such antics, knowing that, with the exception of Kissinger, he held professors in low regard. What would he think of my first foray into high-level diplomacy in Washington, a place he considered in any case his bailiwick since his very successful tenure there as ambassador after the Six-Day War. Kant and Hegel?

“Is all this really necessary?” I uneasily asked Bar-On. His answer was memorable: “First, this is part of the record, and one thing I learned is that a report about a diplomatic meeting should reflect as much as possible what really was said. Second,” and here he gave me one of his shy but sly smiles, “this goes out in our top secret code. Our security people have been worried for some time that the Soviets may be trying to access our communication system. If they ever lay their hands on this cable and decipher it, they will never, ever, believe that Kissinger and you were really discussing Kant and Hegel. They will be sure this must be a deep super-code within the code and will rack their brains trying to figure out what it might mean. Why shouldn’t we keep them busy?”

I relented. So this discussion about Kant and Hegel between the U.S. secretary of state and the director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs found its way into the diplomatic cable traffic and resides now in the Israeli archives. Needless to say, I have no idea whether the Soviets ever intercepted the cable and what they made out of it if they did. When I returned to Jerusalem, Foreign Minister Allon, with a twinkle in his eyes, remarked to me: “You two professors had the time of your life with Kant and Hegel, eh?”but gentleman that he was, he offered no further comment. Rotenstreich was, of course, deeply amused by this incongruous encounter between the ideal and the real. What Rabin thought about all of this I never found out.

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