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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—it was still a small organization. It had some influence on Congress but little in the White House.

Dean Rusk’s well-known opposition to recognizing Israel in 1948 and Douglas Dillon’s opposition in 1960 to arming Israel did not prevent Kennedy from naming Rusk his secretary of state and Dillon secretary of the treasury. Myer (Mike) Feldman, Kennedy’s legislative assistant in the Senate, became his staff envoy to the Jews; but Feldman was not given an intelligence clearance, and had no part in making policy. His job was to read all outgoing State Department cables regarding Israel and make sure that Kennedy knew where American Jews stood on any issue. But Kennedy, Bass insists, “made his own calls from there.” Bass also cites an exchange between Kennedy and Phillips Talbot, his assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, who urged Kennedy not to subject the national interest to domestic political considerations. “The trouble with you, Phil,” Kennedy replied, “is that you never had to collect votes to get yourself elected to anything.”

Today, few remember how relatively chilly and reserved US relations with Israel had been before Kennedy. The interests of oil companies and the concerns of State Department “Arabists” made those relations awkward during the 1950s. The CIA was more friendly since the agency made use of Israel’s intelligence sources in Eastern Europe and the USSR. Mossad agents, for example, had been the first outsiders to get the full text of Khrushchev’s secret speech on Stalin’s crimes. Jerusalem is possibly the only foreign capital with a public monument honoring James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s controversial chief of counterintelligence. (It is behind the King David Hotel.) But Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles were angry with Israel for its collusion with England and France in the 1956 Suez war. When the Israeli government expressed concerns about its security, the response remained cool. At a time of heavy Soviet arms shipments to Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, the administration continued Truman’s arms embargo. It rejected all Israeli requests for aircraft and tanks. Though Israel was, perhaps, the only UN member state whose immediate neighbors openly threatened to dismantle it, the administration rejected Israeli requests to join NATO or receive a US security guarantee. “I am sorry. We know Israel is a friend. But we don’t want it to become our only friend in the region,” Eisenhower’s then secretary of state, Christian Herter, told me in 1960. All this seemed to be changing under Kennedy.

For no clear reason, Bass’s book is dedicated “to the memory of Yitzhak Rabin, O Captain! my Captain!” Six pages later, however, there is an epigraph that reflects the book’s main thesis:

Oh, well, just think of what we’ll pass on to the poor fellow who comes after me.

—John F. Kennedy


Kennedy came into office determined to make a fresh start in US relations with the new, revoltionary Arab regimes, particularly Nasser’s Egypt. He inherited many troubles in the Middle East. The Baghdad Pact, in which several Muslim nations supported the US in the cold war, was breaking down. Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were increasingly looking like Soviet satellites. The conservative Arab monarchs felt they were dangerously exposed to the threat of Nasser’s socialist pan-Arab nationalism. The US had opposed the 1956 Suez war, but this gave it little additional influence in Cairo. Kennedy came into office convinced that Eisenhower’s “eight years of drugged and fitful sleep” had needlessly opened major rifts with both Israel and Egypt. Under Eisenhower, third-world nationalists like Sukarno, Nehru, and Nasser had been regarded as Communists in disguise. Kennedy hoped to be more creative and to give himself a wider range of choices in the Middle East. “JFK was playing chess in the Middle East, not checkers,” says Bass. He wanted to bring Egypt into the Western orbit.

The beginning seemed promising—but only in Washington. Kennedy’s opening gestures to the Arab countries had the support not only of longtime Arabists but also of liberals like Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles and advocates of economic “development” like Walt Rostow and Senator William Fulbright. Kennedy also played with the idea of doing something about the Arab–Israeli conflict. Mike Feldman was skeptical that King Ibn Saud would be helpful, but he also thought that Kennedy had a real opportunity to change Nasser’s position. Kennedy began with personal letters to the main Arab leaders, asking for their cooperation in making peace. Their replies were so acerbic that Kennedy sent a testy note to his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, asking whose idea it had been “for me to send the letters.”

The most acrid response came from King Ibn Saud, which Rusk described as venomous and downright insulting. There was something unrealistic—even naive—in all this, reminiscent of FDR’s comment during a meeting with the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann in 1940: “What about the Arabs?” he asked. “Can’t that be settled with a little baksheesh?”1 or his view after the Tehran conference of 1943 that a friendly chat with Ibn Saud about the Jews on board a warship in the Red Sea would resolve the issue.

Kennedy wanted to be friends with them all, with Nasser but also with his nemesis, the king of Saudi Arabia, as well as with Israel’s David Ben-Gurion. He also wanted to please the American Jews who had overwhelmingly voted for him. What is clear is that Nasser did not respond to his friendly approaches, perhaps because he was trapped in his own feuds with the Arab monarchists and his dream of uniting the Arab world in a socialist republic under his rule. King Hussein of Jordan and King Saud of Saudi Arabia tried to counter Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism by claiming he was soft on Israel.

Like FDR two decades earlier, Kennedy was overconfident about his abilities to conduct personal diplomacy. He used flattery as well as offers of economic assistance. His Middle East advisers assured him that this was the way business was done in the region. During the nearly three years of the Kennedy administration, US aid to Egypt amounted to $500 million, double what it had been during the previous thirteen years under Truman and Eisenhower. But, Bass writes, nothing came of it, “not because the New Frontier had failed to offer Nasser a tempting opportunity, but because Nasser would prove incapable of taking full advantage of it.”

Kennedy, however, was the first US president who realized that the Palestinians were a major element if not the root cause of the Arab–Israeli conflict. Yet he never thought about them as people with national aspirations. He spoke, as Israeli leaders did, about dealing with the “refugee” problem. It was not to be the first or the last time that an American president underestimated the depth of the Palestinians’ resentment over their displacement as well as Israel’s determination to hold on to the territory it had seized.

On the Palestinian issue, Kennedy was no more realistic than the Israelis were. He put Ben-Gurion on notice that America was resolved to deal with the “refugee” problem, but the discussions in Washington of how to do so were sometimes frivolous. At one session in the White House reported by Bass, Rusk asked Feldman whether it was possible to go ahead with a plan—proposed by Joseph E. Johnson of the Carnegie Endowment—to resolve the refugee problem. Could the plan be pursued “without getting into numbers,” i.e., how many Palestinian refugees would be repatriated to Israel and how many would be resettled in the Arab countries?

Oh, yes, yes,” Feldman replied…. Based on Johnson’s regional soundings, “it’s our best guess that not more than one in ten would take repatriation.” The Israelis accepted that, he added.

What did they figure?” Kennedy asked. “It’s like a Negro wanting to go back to Mississippi, isn’t it?”

The room filled with chuckles. “It’s different,” Feldman replied with a laugh, “because it’s as if the dominant doctrine [among Palestinians] were Black Muslim doctrine in a sense….”

  1. 1

    Peter Grose, Israel in the Mind of America (Knopf, 1983), p. 139.

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