A Very Special Relationship

The alliance between the US and Israel, which has been tighter than ever under the Bush administration, is often thought to have started under President Johnson following the 1967 war. Johnson was pleased with Israel’s success in defeating two Soviet clients, Syria and Egypt, in only six days and he proceeded to grant Israel unprecedented political, economic, and military support. The closing of the Suez Canal, which forced Soviet supplies to North Vietnam to take the long route around Africa, was another bonus in Johnson’s eyes.

It is true that Johnson officially disapproved of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and of the other measures it took in violation of international law. But US protests were perfunctory and soon ceased altogether. The US became Israel’s major supplier of the latest sophisticated weapons. Israeli generals were predicting one hundred years of peace. In Jerusalem in 1971, I heard the foreign minister, Abba Eban, entertain his guests with the story of his visit to the White House during the Johnson administration. “Mister Eeeban,” Johnson said, “aa’m sure glad to see you! Just the other day ah was sittin’ in the Oval Room scratchin’ my balls thinkin’ about Israel!” Johnson promised Eban to supply Israel with the most up-to-date fighter planes, air-to-air missiles, and tanks, all of them otherwise available only to NATO members.

In the two books under review, Warren Bass, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, and Avner Cohen, an expatriate Israeli working at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, show that Johnson was not the first to break the US embargo—imposed by Harry Truman in 1948—on supplying major weapons to Israel. It was Kennedy who did so, although he had at first opposed deliveries of major weapons. At the same time, and even though nuclear proliferation was one of Kennedy’s principal concerns throughout his brief presidency, he failed to prevent Israel from going nuclear. Both books are well documented from material recently released by Israeli and American archives, and tell stories that should be read.

Some claim that had he lived longer, Kennedy would have again tried to slow down the arms race. Lyndon Johnson felt less strongly about nuclear proliferation. “The Kennedy administration, we can now see,” Bass writes with the benefit of hindsight, “constitutes the pivotal presidency in US–Israel relations.” Already in his inaugural address, Kennedy had promised—rashly some would claim later—“to support any friend…to assure the survival and success of liberty.” In Israel’s case this meant that Kennedy eventually authorized the sale to Israel of Hawk surface-to-air missiles and other sophisticated weapons. Kennedy, according to Bass, did not take this step out of altruism or because of pressure from the Israeli lobby. I was Ha’aretz‘s Washington correspondent through much of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations and I think Bass is right in saying that in 1962, AIPAC, the Israeli lobby, was not the powerful force it is today …

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