America's staunchest Mideast ally

When Kennedy sold Hawk missiles to Israel, a great friendship was born

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Today the relationship between the United States and Israel is so close that it is hard to believe things were ever otherwise. Administration officials sometimes bristle at what they judge to be Israeli intransigence - an exasperated Secretary of State James Baker once read the White House phone number aloud to reporters and asked Jerusalem to call - but on the whole, the two countries are common-law allies. US foreign aid flows to Israel like a fiscal River Jordan. US weapons are the backbone of Israeli defense.

Yet the situation was not always thus. One of the greatest strengths of Warren Bass's thorough and fascinating "Support Any Friend: Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the US-Israel Alliance" is that it reminds us this relationship was made, not born. The two countries may share cultural affinities, but at many points along the way a change of leadership, or of heart, might have made things turn out differently. "The US-Israel alliance we know today is the cumulative product of individual decisions that could have gone either way," writes Bass.

The author contends that the pivotal presidency for US-Israeli relations was that of John F. Kennedy. Other historians typically emphasize the importance of later administrations and events, particularly the aid and arms flows that followed the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War. Yet JFK was the first US chief executive to sell a major weapons system to the Israelis, Bass points out.

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True, the system in question was a defensive one - Hawk antiaircraft missiles. But the gates were open. As Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion had foreseen, the two nations began to move closer once the US policy debate focused on which armaments to sell Israel, as opposed to whether to sell any at all.

Indeed, before the end of Kennedy's 1,000-day administration Israel had begun asking for F-104 fighters, tanks, and ground-to-ground missiles. The founding generation of Israel's leaders was eager to lessen reliance on France and Britain for arms in favor of a Western power they judged would end up more powerful, and more reliable.

"The Hawk precedent remains perhaps the most under appreciated milestone in the US-Israel special relationship," writes Bass.

This does not mean Kennedy entered office planning to improve US-Israeli ties. Unlike, say, Lyndon Johnson, the studiedly cool JFK did not have a romantic attachment to Israel or its people. America was locked in a cold war with a Soviet adversary that seemed on the march, and the young US chief executive was trolling for allies.

He'd have been happy to sign up Egypt as well. Early in his term, Kennedy made overtures of aid and friendship to Egypt's charismatic nationalist ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser. But he was unwilling or unable to fully take Kennedy's hand. Moreover, Nasser became embroiled in a nasty civil war in Yemen - "my Vietnam," he later called it - which sapped his attention. Egyptian intervention in Yemen frightened Saudi Arabia, Yemen's neighbor on the Arabian Peninsula. This put the White House in what has since become a familiar spot: trying to manage a multidimensional conflict dealing with Egypt, Israel, and oil.

Kennedy had differences with Israel, to be sure. Primary among these was the Israeli drive to acquire nuclear weapons. JFK pushed hard to inspect Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor, to see if it was intended to produce bomb-grade fissile material. But he settled for an inspection regime that was less than ironclad, a move Bass judges a "fudge." Kennedy's assassination settled the matter, as nuclear nonproliferation ranked much lower on LBJ's list of concerns.

Did a yen for Jewish votes drive Kennedy's Middle East policies? As a former representative and senator, he must have had some idea of the political consequences of his moves in the region, but "there is scant evidence in the documentary record that the hunt for Jewish votes ever seriously drove Kennedy's Arab- Israeli diplomacy," writes Bass.

Nor did a powerful Jewish lobbying organization push through the Hawk sale, according to "Support Any Friend." The American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its brethren were infants at the time.

These assertions could well be true, but are worth further exploration. As Bass notes, as early as 1948, opponents of Harry Truman's recognition of Israel believed it was motivated by domestic politics.

The author, a former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations currently on the staff of the federal 9/11 commission, has done an impressive amount of documentary research. He cites documents from archives on three continents. His book contains vivid sketches of its dramatis personae, including Ben-Gurion and a young Shimon Peres.

Nor does Bass view JFK with the sort of misty sentimentalism that Kennedy himself would have abhorred. There are mercifully few references to "Camelot." Jackie and Caroline appear only as bit players.

Yet in the end the book may leave readers with two thoughts: the first, that enmities in the Middle East have cooled little 40 years hence; the second, that JFK, for the brevity of his time in office, really did make a tremendous difference in the world.

It was the middle of the night in the Middle East when the news came through that Kennedy had died. In Egypt, an aide relayed the news to Nasser. Writes Bass: "Nasser felt somehow compelled to go in to the office. 'My God, why have I dressed, why have I come here?' he asked when he arrived. 'There is nothing any of us can do about it.' "

Peter Grier is the Monitor's Washington bureau chief.

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