When Kissinger Threatened Rabin: A Lesson to Current Israeli Decision Makers?

Forty-three years ago a farcical version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion played out at a diplomatic meeting in Washington. As the President of United States, Richard M. Nixon, announced (April 1970) to the nation that American forces were beginning a “Cambodian Incursion”, his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, met the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Yitzhak Rabin. An official memorandum of that meeting details a direct threat by Kissinger:

“Dr. Kissinger emphasized that while he was not familiar with the Israeli embassy’s capabilities, he wanted them to understand that the current critical situation in Cambodia makes attacks against the Administration’s policy from the Jewish community a most unfortunate situation which cannot but have concomitant effects on our attitude with respect to the Middle East.”[1]


The linkage made by Kissinger was clear: Israel was to use its “capability” to restrain the Jewish detractors of the administration’s policy in Southeast Asia, or pay a political price during its war of attrition against Egypt. Rabin responded that the Israeli government “was fully aware” of the relationship between the two issues.

That conversation would have surely piqued the interest of people such as David Duke, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Patrick Buchanan, or lehavdil, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who published (2007) the controversial book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy: those who believe that Jews wield (too) much power in America. The memorandum does not really tell whether Kissinger sensed that his threat sounded almost like a parody of the Protocols, a Tsarist government’s forgery that describes an alleged global Jewish cabal which scheme to rule the world: one of the most senior government officials, a Jewish national security advisor, was trying to force the Jewish state (a foreign government) to influence domestic American politics by restraining its coreligionists’ opposition to the policy of the United States President (who happened to have an anti-Jewish streak).

One may see Kissinger’s warning in the context of the charged “dual loyalty” accusation: whether Jews in the Diaspora are loyal not only to their country of birth/residence, but also to Israel (or that their first loyalty is to the Jewish state). Some Israelis misguidedly assume that American Jewish officials would be friendlier toward Israel, while others assume the exact opposite: that Jewish officials are prone to prove their loyalty to their country by betraying Israel. In Kissinger’s case, by early 1974 Israeli protesters already used one of Nixon’s phrases that was revealed in the Watergate tapes when they shouted outside Kissinger’s hotel in Jerusalem, “Jew boy! Jew boy, go home!”

Yet there is a more important theme in Kissinger’s threat which is still quite relevant for Israeli decision makers. The political, military, and economic support that the United States has given Israel in the last four decades has been crucial to Israel’s survival, and that strategic alliance is and will continue to be an important pillar in Israel’s security in the foreseeable future. At the same time, that level of support and cooperation makes it easy to forget that the two countries’ interests are not always similar. The “Reassessment” phase of 1975 (in which Kissinger halted arms shipments to Israel to pressure it into making more concessions in its disengagement negotiations with Egypt), and the Reagan administration’s decision (1981) to suspend the delivery of F-16 aircrafts to Israel in the wake of the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor are merely two examples out of many.

Kissinger’s threat and other examples of American diplomatic pressure on Israel occurred in situations where the United States demanded of Israel to acquiesce in matters involving the latter’s essential national security interests. While those cases are not common, they demonstrate (once again lest anyone forgets) that when it comes to the Jewish state’s existential security dilemmas, Israel must rely solely upon itself in determining a course of action. That principle should guide Israeli decision makers whether dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, the so-called “Peace Process” with the Palestinians, or recent developments in the Syrian civil war. It does not mean that Israel should act unilaterally and alone on every matter, or that we should expect the U.S. to throw Israel under the bus at any given moment. But Israeli decision makers must have firm red lines regarding Israel’s core security concerns and willingness to say “no” even to our best and closest ally.

[1] The memo (April 30, 1970) appears in the Digital National Security Archive Document Database. The memo and a full discussion of Kissinger’s Jewishness are in my article “A Jew for All Seasons: Henry Kissinger, Jewish Expectations, and the Yom Kippur War”, Israel Studies Forum 25 (Fall 2010): 1-25.

About the Author
Dr. Gil Ribak is an Associate Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona. Born and raised in Israel, Dr. Ribak served as an analyst in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office before earning a Fulbright Fellowship that sent him to pursue his doctoral studies in the U.S. In 2021-2022, he serves as the European Union's Marie Curie Senior Fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies in Freiburg, Germany. I am a scholar and public educator of Modern Jewish history, whose scholarship has always been interdisciplinary in nature, bringing together history, sociology, folklore, ethnic studies, and literature. My scholarly interests and expertise span various fields of Jewish history – American Jewish history, Eastern European Jewish history, and histories of Modern Israel.