A Costly Friendship
Warren Bass seeks to establish that the foundations of the US-Israel alliance were laid by the Kennedy Administration. He even gives a precise date--August 19, 1962--for the start of the military relationship as we know it. On that day in Tel Aviv, Mike Feldman, the deputy White House counsel and Kennedy's indefatigable contact man with Israel and American Jews, met secretly with David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and told them that "the President had determined that the Hawk missile should be made available to Israel." The Israelis were ecstatic. The Kennedy decision destroyed the Eisenhower embargo on the sale of major weapons systems to Israel. "What began with the Hawk in 1962," Bass writes, "has become one of the most expensive and extensive military relationships of the postwar era, with a price tag in the billions of dollars and diplomatic consequences to match."
The Hawk sale is therefore the first pillar of Bass's case for saying that Kennedy was the father of the US-Israel alliance. The second is what he describes as Kennedy's "fudge" over America's inspections of Israel's secret nuclear weapons plant at Dimona in the Negev. Although ingeniously and entertainingly argued with a wealth of detail, the thesis is not conclusively proven. As a matter of fact, the Kennedy team, with the exception of Feldman and his friends, did not want a special military relationship with Israel, fearing that it would trigger a regional arms race. Kennedy was not taken in by Ben-Gurion's histrionic description of Nasser, the Egyptian leader, as a cruel aggressor bent on Hitlerian genocide. He knew Israel was strong enough to deal with any Arab threat. He didn't believe it needed the advanced weapons and the formal American security guarantee Ben-Gurion requested. He told Ben-Gurion firmly that he did not want to be the US President who brought the Middle East into the missile age. Kennedy was in fact attempting to reach out to Nasser, whom he recognized as a nationalist, not a Communist. He feared that giving Israel preferential treatment might push the Arabs into the arms of the Soviets. In turn, the State Department's Middle East experts saw no good reason for the United States to change its arms policy toward Israel. As an internal memo put it, "To undertake, in effect, a military alliance with Israel would destroy the delicate balance we seek to maintain in our Near East relations."
Nevertheless, Kennedy finally approved the Hawk sale, which Eisenhower had rejected two years earlier. But he seems to have done so against his better judgment. He was eventually worn down by Israel's persistent and systematic exaggeration of the Egyptian menace, and more particularly by Shimon Peres's ability, based on chillingly detailed knowledge of internal Administration debates, to play off the Pentagon and the NSC against the State Department.
Bass's case is also arguable regarding Dimona. Far from turning a blind eye to what was evidently going on there, JFK was totally opposed to Israel's getting the bomb and was prepared to disregard the views of the American Jewish community on the matter. In the spring of 1963 he warned Ben-Gurion that (in Bass's words) "an Israeli refusal to permit real Dimona inspections would have the gravest consequences for the budding US-Israel friendship." He wrote Ben-Gurion two scorching letters, on May 18 and June 15, threatening that "this Government's commitment to and support of Israel would be seriously jeopardized" if Israel did not permit thorough inspections to all areas of the Dimona site. Ben-Gurion and his successor, Levi Eshkol, lied through their teeth to Kennedy about Dimona but, as Bass writes, Kennedy was preparing to force a showdown. Had he not been assassinated on November 22, 1963, he was on course for a confrontation with Israel.
The fudge came later, with Lyndon Johnson, who was far less concerned than Kennedy with nuclear proliferation. Skirting the issue of Israel's nuclear ambitions, Johnson approved the sale to Israel of large numbers of American tanks and warplanes even before the 1967 war, which propelled the Jewish state to stardom, pumping a large segment of the American Jewish community full of confidence, ambition and even arrogance. Johnson was the true father of the US-Israel alliance. It was he, rather than Kennedy, who "set the precedent that ultimately created the US-Israel strategic relationship: a multimillion-dollar annual business in cutting-edge weaponry, supplemented by extensive military-to-military dialogues, security consultations, extensive joint training exercises, and cooperative research-and-development ventures."
Bass raises the intriguing possibility that the Hawks were never really intended, as Ben-Gurion pleaded, to defend Israel's air bases from a knockout blow by Nasser's MIGs, but rather as a perimeter defense to protect the Dimona nuclear weapons plant. Some indirect corroboration of this thesis was later to emerge. In delivering its own knockout blow to Egypt's air force on the first day of the 1967 war, Israel lost eight jets in the first wave of attack. One wounded plane came limping back to base in radio silence. It wandered into Dimona's air space, and was promptly shot down by an Israeli Hawk missile.