David Ben-Gurion
David Ben-Gurion; drawing by David Levine


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….”

One of Ben-Gurion’s biographers has described his first meeting with John F. Kennedy as equally superficial in tone. Kennedy said to him: “I was elected by the Jews of New York. I have to do something for them. I will do something for you.” Ben-Gurion did not appreciate being treated like a Brooklyn politician and answered testily, “You must do whatever is good for the free world.”

Nevertheless, Bass is convinced that Phillips Talbot’s fears of antagonizing Arabs were overstated. He shows that Kennedy’s opening to Israel came only after an intensive attempt to court Nasser was rebuffed by the Egyptian leader himself. To the chagrin of many of his supporters in the State Department, Nasser launched a disastrous war on Yemen, which he himself soon called his “Vietnam.” At one point his forces used poison gas and threatened neighboring Saudi Arabia as well. The dramatic collapse of Nasser’s ambitious union of Egypt with Syria only made him adopt more radical policies. Egyptian agents tried to kill King Hussein of Jordan. Arab conservatives led by Saudi Arabia and the American oil lobby worked against Kennedy’s attempted rapprochement with Nasser and derailed it.

It was at this point that the US changed its previously cool relations with Israel and swung toward the close alliance that continues today. Relations with Egypt further worsened during the Cuban missile crisis when Khrushchev mistakenly calculated it would be profitable (as he had found during the Suez war) to use the threat of nuclear missiles. The Egyptian press sided with Cuba. Kennedy’s attempts at improving the situation of Palestinian refugees came to an end. He secretly taped the decisive meeting on this issue. Up to this point the sale of Hawk missiles had been tied to Israeli concessions on the repatria-tion or compensation of Palestinian refugees. On December 27, 1962, Golda Meir, Israel’s foreign minister, met Kennedy in Palm Beach. He told her that Joseph Johnson’s plan was dead. America, he said, “has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to that which it was with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.” To Meir’s delight, the President added: “I think it is quite clear that in case of an invasion the United States would come to the support of Israel.”

By expanding the limits of what State Department Arabists had considered “thinkable with Israel” and reaching the limits of what was “doable with Egypt,” Kennedy, Bass writes, “set the parameters for America’s Middle Eastern policy for decades to come.” No previous American president had ever spoken like this. The meeting with Meir took place more than a year after the discovery by the US of a secret French-built nuclear reactor near Dimona in southern Israel, which had aroused concern in Washington that Israel was trying to build an atom bomb. But according to Avner Cohen, who cites the American note-taker in his 1998 book Israel and the Bomb, Kennedy, at his meeting with Meir, only briefly alluded to America’s opposition to nuclear proliferation. “Mrs. Meir reassured the President that there would not be any difficulty between us on the Israeli nuclear reactor.”

Soon, however, Israel had its sharpest clash in years with the United States over the “delicate subject,” as the Israeli press continued to refer to the new nuclear reactor. Kennedy now seriously suspected that its purpose was to produce weapons, but Israel ultimately had its way. In retrospect, as Bass suggests, the negotiations over the secret Israeli reactor, which went on for years, seem only to have fur-ther cemented the growing US–Israeli alliance.


To understand how this happened, one must go back to Kennedy’s first day in the White House, when Christian Herter, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, warned him that the next two countries likely to develop nuclear weapons would be Israel and India. He advised Kennedy to insist on early inspection of the top-secret nuclear facility near Dimona, which had recently been spotted by a U2 overflight. Avner Cohen’s study, “a bombshell of a book,” as a reviewer in Ha’aretz called it, was the first to reconstruct the story of the Israeli nuclear project whose existence the Americans were slow to confirm. Cohen’s superb book is based on previously unpublished documents, and gives a detailed account of the motives of the Israeli officials who supported the project. Their reasoning, according to Ben-Gurion (whom Cohen quotes), was that in order to “ensure that another Holocaust would not be inflicted on the Jewish people, Israel must be able to threaten a potential perpetrator with annihilation.”

A Hebrew translation of Cohen’s book was published in Israel in 2000. If it had originally been submitted to an Israeli publisher, I doubt it would have passed military censorship. When he visited Israel soon after his book was published in the US, Cohen was interrogated for fifty hours by Israeli security agents, who, he told me, took no action against him but tried to discourage him from pursuing his nuclear inquiries further. The manuscript of his new book, Israel’s Last Taboo, written in Hebrew, in which he criticizes Israel’s failure to confront the nuclear question squarely, has been submitted to Israeli military censorship and remains under scrutiny after five months. The nuclear installation at Dimona is still largely a taboo subject that until recently was referred to only indirectly.

The Israeli writer Tom Segev, perhaps the most brilliant analyst of recent Israeli history, rightly stated that Cohen’s book “will necessitate the rewriting of Israel’s entire history.” It has become a source for works such as Idith Zertal’s recent The Nation and Death, a path-breaking analysis of how the memory of the Holocaust has been used in Israel not only to equate Palestinians with Nazis and justify the West Bank occupation and the building of settlements there but also to provide the rationale for nuclear weapons systems. After the Six-Day War, Zertal writes, Israel’s security problems were “experienced and conceptualized” not on the basis of the real balance of power between armies in the Middle East, but in the “context of the holocaust during the Second World War.”2

That it had taken the Americans so long to figure out what was happening at the Dimona installation two dozen miles south of Beer Sheba is astonishing in itself and a telling fact about the efficacy of several vaunted intelligence organizations. The secret was not well kept. Numerous Israeli academics and inhabitants of nearby towns, especially Beer Sheba, knew about the new nuclear project from its beginnings in the late 1950s. In Israel, according to Cohen, several rich businessmen were asked for contributions to the costs. So were a number of prominent American donors to Jewish and Israeli causes who were approached by Abe Feinberg, a Democratic activist from New York, chairman of the American Bank and Trust Company, and a trustee of the Weizmann Institute of Science.

On a French liner sailing from Haifa to Marseille an Austrian acquaintance of mine happened to share a table in the dining room with a French engineer who told him that he had spent a couple of years working on a large project at Dimona. Asked what he had been doing there, the Frenchman answered: “Qu’est-ce qu’on fait à Dimona? On fait la bombe!” On his next visit to Israel, the Austrian met Treasury Minister (later premier) Levi Eshkol and asked directly: “Does Israel have an atom bomb?” Eshkol, a man with an earthy sense of humor, said, “I can’t tell you if we have a bomb,” but passing into Yiddish, as he often did, he added, “ober wir sanen stark schwanger” (“but we are heavily pregnant”).

At about the same time, at the opening of Beer Sheba University in December 1960, Ben-Gurion himself hinted that a powerful new Israeli nuclear reactor would become operative within a year or two at Dimona. The Dimona site had first been seen from the air as early as 1958 but had not aroused the interest of the CIA; nor did the highly conspicuous presence of French scientists, engineers, technicians, and their families, employees of a well-known French engineering firm specializing in building large nuclear reactors. In 1960, a visiting American nuclear scientist told Ogden R. Reid, the Eisenhower administration’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, that the Israelis had succeeded in building at Dimona a reactor not dissimilar from those used to build De Gaulle’s bomb. For the first time, the embassy formally asked Israel about Dimona and apparently did not object to the answer that it was a textile plant. It took the CIA seven more months to realize that Israel was secretly building an enormous nuclear reactor.

In an interview with Kennedy in the White House, Reid, who had just left Israel, advised Kennedy to accept at face value the assurances of both Ben-Gurion’s and the French governments that the purpose of the Dimona plant was entirely peaceful. This was also the view of the CIA, although not of Dean Rusk. Kennedy tended to accept Rusk’s view. He spoke harshly about Israel with his aides. The size of the new reactor appeared to undermine Israel’s claim that it was intended only for peaceful purposes. In March 1961, when CIA agents estimated its actual power at forty megawatts, Kennedy told James Reston of The New York Times that Ben-Gurion was a “wild man”; he was not going to compromise with him on this matter. He had given an emissary from Ben-Gurion thirty days to allow a thorough inspection of the new nuclear plant. The thirty days passed but Ben-Gurion was still stalling. Reston told me the story but did not publish it. I cabled a veiled version of it to Ha’aretz, but the dispatch did not pass military censorship.

My publisher, no doubt influenced by the powerful, almost tribal, sense of national solidarity that dominated Israel at the time, asked me to concentrate on other subjects. The tension between the two governments became more acute. Abe Feinberg and Mike Feldman flew to Israel and told Ben-Gurion that if he agreed to inspection, a meeting with Kennedy could be arranged that might save the project. In April, Ben-Gurion still would not agree to an “inspection” but said he would allow two American scientists to “visit” the controversial site on a Sabbath when most of the employees of the reactor would be absent. Israeli officials, according to Cohen, made sure the “visitors”—two American nuclear physicists—would find nothing suspicious. They were not allowed to bring instruments or to take measurements or pictures. The two scientists gave Dimona a clean bill.

Not long after this, Kennedy met with Ben-Gurion in New York. Kennedy agreed to supply Israel with surface-to-air Hawk missiles. The Dimona reactor was mentioned only in passing. Kennedy did not condition the sale of Hawk missiles on any guarantee that the US could inspect the plant at Dimona. (At least two inspections a year were needed to make sure Dimona was not producing weapons-grade plutonium). I saw Ben-Gurion emerge from Kennedy’s suite at the Waldorf and he looked visibly relieved. The record, now available, shows that Kennedy was still very skeptical of Israeli assurances. But with the visitors’ report in hand he did little more than remind Ben-Gurion that it was not enough for a woman to be virtuous, she must also have the appearance of virtue. For this reason Kennedy asked that future inspections might include experts from “neutral” countries and that their reports might be passed on to Nasser.

Ben-Gurion consented to this in principle but no further details about future visits were discussed. The first Hawk missiles were installed around Dimona. Kennedy continued to wrangle with Israel over the installation there, pressuring the government to allow twice-yearly inspections. Israel never consented. Much of the relevant material in the US archives is still closed to scrutiny. Yet there seems enough to show that Kennedy was growing impatient with Israel’s evasiveness, and with Ben-Gurion’s stalling tactics. In the year before the 1964 presidential campaign started, Kennedy seems to have felt he could put domestic political considerations aside in his dealings with Israel. The tone of his letters to Ben-Gurion became more threatening. Not since Eisenhower had forced Ben-Gurion in 1957 to evacuate the occupied Sinai peninsula (which, in an emotional speech in Sharm el Sheik, Ben-Gurion had already rashly annexed) had an American president been so blunt with an Israeli leader. In Kennedy’s last letter, written in May 1963, he warned that

[this government’s] commitment and this support [of Israel] would be seriously jeopardized…if it should be thought that this Government was unable to obtain reliable information on a subject as vital to peace as the question of Israel’s effort in the nuclear field.

Until this point, Ben-Gurion had gone from evasion to evasion; upon receiving Kennedy’s threat, Ben-Gurion resigned. Some claimed that he knew well that Israel would have to give in to Kennedy’s pressure but preferred that his successor, the dovish, pliable Levi Eshkol, a man he disliked, do so. Others claim that the real reasons for his resignation were domestic, rooted in a longstanding struggle between Ben-Gurion and the old guard of the Labor party. The truth remains elusive to this day.

How Kennedy would have acted had he not been assassinated also remains unclear. But under Eshkol, a deal was struck that allowed both sides to save face. The foreign minister, Golda Meir, argued that Israel must tell Lyndon Johnson the truth about Dimona and explain why. Eshkol hesitated, apparently still intimidated by Ben-Gurion, who was ready to accuse Eshkol of endangering vital national security interests. Eshkol preferred to muddle through by never allowing more than one ineffectual “visit” a year to Dimona.

Lyndon Johnson felt less strongly about nuclear proliferation than Kennedy had. The inspections never became biannual, and after a few years they were suspended entirely. Johnson and his successors arrived at an agreement with Israel by which Israel announced that it would not be the “first” to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. In return Israel received a flow of US conventional weapons that would enable it to defend itself without using nuclear weapons. This policy would later be described in Israel as one of “ambiguity” or “opacity.” According to Cohen, “opacity” meant a state of affairs in which a government never officially announces that it has indeed gone nuclear but in which the evidence that it has done so is nevertheless strong enough to influence the perceptions and actions of potential enemies.

“Opacity” continues to this day. By 1967, according to Cohen, Israel possessed its first rudimentary nuclear weapons. The BBC, drawing on the analysis of the Federation of Atomic Scientists, recently reported that Israel may now possess as many as two hundred nuclear bombs. A report on the MSNBC Web site estimates that Israel has produced enough plutonium to construct between one hundred and two hundred nuclear bombs and that it could also have by now some thirty-five tactical and strategic thermonuclear devices, as well as the long- and short-range missiles to deliver them.3 The policy of “opacity” has so far prevented a serious public debate in Israel over what is still called obliquely the “nuclear option.” The issue has only once been raised in parliament—by an Arab deputy who addressed a near-empty house.

Israel never signed the non-proliferation treaty originally sponsored by the US. It continues to say only that it will not be the first country in the Middle East to introduce atomic weapons. Israel’s recent history vividly illustrates the limits of overwhelming power. “Opacity” did not prevent the 1967 war or the Arab surprise attack in 1973; nor did it prevent the two Palestinian uprisings since or the recent wave of suicide terrorists. On the other hand, when a former Dimona technician named Mordechai Vanunu revealed in the London Sunday Times what he claimed to have seen there, he was kidnapped in Rome, taken to Israel, and given an eighteen-year prison sentence, without parole. His term is nearly over by now. He spent more than eleven years in an isolation cell, an unusually harsh and heartless punishment, and I have seen reports that he nearly lost his mind.

On the eve of the Six-Day War, a few liberal and international-minded Knesset members, led by the Labor poli-tician Eliezer Livneh and the prominent conservative Salman Abramowitz, called for a general Middle Eastern nuclear disarmament agreement. After the war, Abramovitz joined Likud and Livneh became a militant of the Greater Israel Movement. The initiative died. Today, only Egypt advocates a nuclear-free Middle East. Israeli doves, precisely because they favor withdrawal from occupied territories to the less secure pre-1967 borders, are now among the most ardent advocates of the “nuclear option.”

This Issue

January 15, 2004