The Cool Zionist

It is the great merit of Warren Bass’s Support Any Friend to fix upon the Kennedy era as the fulcrum for U.S.-Israeli relations and their impact on the wider Middle East. A fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Bass offers what is surely the definitive account of John F. Kennedy’s Israel policy. To provide perspective on the decisions of the Kennedy administration, Bass has done a tremendous amount of legwork, consulting archives in the United States and Israel to produce a lively narrative of how different U.S. presidents have had different attitudes toward Israel. Some have had a romantic attachment to the idea of a Jewish homeland; others have kept a cool distance from it. Kennedy seems to have fallen into a third category of cool attachment.

As president, Woodrow Wilson was partial to the idea of a Jewish state because of his own messianic character. Louis Brandeis, America’s first Jewish Supreme Court justice (appointed by Wilson in 1916), convinced him to accept a British protectorate in Palestine and to back the Balfour Declaration, which called for the establishment of a homeland for Jews in Palestine. Wilson, Bass says, “followed his idealistic predilections, his chums, and his views of political prudence.” On the other hand, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s record was more equivocal: He granted no entrance to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism, while paying lip-service to the idea of a Jewish state.

Harry Truman recognized Israel in 1948–to the despair of the State Department and almost all his top advisers. The establishment types, who believed America’s role was not to boost the aspirations of the fledgling Jewish state, but to cozy up to the oil-rich Arab states, thought that Truman had committed a horrible blunder. Truman disagreed. A lifetime of historical reading instilled in him the conviction that the Jews deserved a homeland. When speaking at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York years later, he said, “I am Cyrus,” referring to the Persian King who liberated the Jews from exile in Babylon.

With Dwight Eisenhower, relations, such as they were, had a distinctly frosty edge. Eisenhower pulled the rug out from under Britain, France, and Israel in 1956, turning Suez into a crisis. A good case can be made that toppling Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser from power would have set the Middle East on a more democratic path. But it never happened. And Eisenhower had no patience for sentimental ideas of the importance of the Jewish state. He took the traditional realist view of Israel as an impediment to smooth relations with the Arab nations. “I gave strict orders to the State Department,” he said, “that they should inform Israel that we would handle our affairs exactly as though we didn’t have a Jew in America.” The admonition to the State Department was, of course, an act of supererogation.

Ever the clear-eyed historian, Bass indulges in no romance when it comes to Kennedy’s policies. Kennedy was not, he reports, initially captivated by the idea of closer relations with Israel. It was Nasser that he wanted to appease. Kennedy wooed Nasser, but for naught. Nasser’s invasion of Yemen in 1962 threatened American interests in Saudi stability, and the use of chemical weaponry and attacks on Saudi outposts by Nasser’s forces did not go down well at the White House. Bass reports that “with American pilots in harm’s way over the Arabian Peninsula, the United States had now directly interposed itself between an angry Egypt and an anxious Saudi Arabia–a glum terminus for the attempt to woo Nasser.”

As Kennedy saw it, arming Israel was his other option. In 1962, he began to supply Israel with Hawk missiles, which no non-NATO country had yet received. “What began with the Hawk in 1962 has become one of the most expensive and extensive military relationships of the postwar era,” Bass writes, “with a price tag in the trillions of dollars and diplomatic consequences to match.”

Yet, the United States harbored deep reservations about Israel’s ultimately successful attempt to produce a nuclear weapon, with French know-how in the Dimona project. By the time Lyndon Johnson was president, both sides managed to create a face-saving measure by allowing harmless inspection tours of the facility. While JFK had wanted at least a couple of unfettered inspections, LBJ settled for one daylong inspection per year. (By 1969, the Nixon administration concluded that Israel did in fact have nuclear capability and gave up the inspections altogether.) Whereas Kennedy supported Israel because he perceived it to be in America’s national interest, Johnson followed more in the romantic Wilson mold. After the Six Day War in 1967, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin asked why the United States had sided with Israel rather than the Arab states. “Because it’s right,” Johnson reportedly replied.

Where does George W. Bush fit in? Despite worries about his alleged evangelical fanaticism, his administration appears committed to creating a new round of peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. Bush, who previously appeared indifferent to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is now using the toppling of Saddam Hussein to push the two sides forward. Bush may represent something new, a combination of Lyndon Johnson’s romantic attachment to Israel leavened by an awareness of the hard geopolitical realities. Given his steadfast support for Ariel Sharon, Bush’s push for peace comes as something of a surprise. Perhaps Bass can make that unusual twist the subject of his next book.

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Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn, a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is the editor of the National Interest and the author of They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons.