- John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Arms Sales to Israel
In an era in which the United States is Israel's closest friend, ally, and military supplier, it is often hard to remember a time when that was not the case. But before 1967 Israel depended on arms from various European countries. Relations with the United States were good, but sometimes quite tense, such as during and after the Suez crisis in 1956 and 1957. During the challenging 1948-1967 period, the U.S. was extremely reluctant to make arms available to Israel. Since the Israeli government, and particularly Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, understood well (and presciently) that European suppliers might not prove dependable in the long run, efforts were made to develop sources in the American market. These efforts were stymied at first by various foreign policy considerations and the strong opposition of key elements in the U.S. security and foreign affairs establishment. Although President Dwight D. Eisenhower began to appreciate Israel's strategic significance during his second term, it was only with the advent of the presidency of John F. Kennedy that a serious opportunity arose.
It has been widely assumed that 1967 was a watershed in terms of arms sales. However, as Ben-Zvi points out, developments were taking place between 1958 and 1967, with the key initiative occurring under Kennedy in 1962. He links the thinking of Eisenhower, his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and Kennedy, asserting that all came to appreciate Israel's strategic significance, the eventual justification for the approval of arms sales. Despite the evolution of their ideas and Israel's realization that it needed the U.S. as an arms supplier, gaining approval from President Kennedy for the first deal, however limited in nature, was extremely difficult, with numerous obstacles to overcome. The eventual decision to sell Hawk missiles to Israel was a sharp and abrupt departure from longstanding U.S. positions.
Ben-Zvi artfully describes the decision making process, stressing the unflagging opposition of the State Department to any deal, surprising flexibility in the Pentagon, the critical role of presidential advisor Myer Feldman, and the ever-present "electoral considerations." Indeed a recurrent theme of the book is that JFK perceived that his moves would lead to electoral gains for him. As a result, when the chips were down, he was able to overrule Secretary of State Dean Rusk and push the deal through. The author carefully and persuasively documents his contentions, drawing heavily on newly available governmental archives in the United States and Israel.
Some of the author's findings are surprising and challenge received wisdom. For example, he demonstrates how Israel was transformed from a liability in the eyes of policy makers during the first Eisenhower term into a strategic asset during the second (as a counterweight to Egypt). That argument resembles the one advanced some years ago by A.F.K. Organski in The $36 Billion Bargain: Strategy and Politics in U.S. Assistance to Israel. Another finding was that Feldman, using his leverage as a White House insider, was able to outflank an array of heavyweight bureaucratic opponents, [End Page 186] including McGeorge Bundy, the president's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, Rusk, Assistant Secretary of State Phillips Talbot, and Robert Komer, a National Security Council staffer.
Ben-Zvi carefully limits his analysis to the period under consideration. Yet what is most remarkable about the book is the extent to which he cites attitudes and policies that have a great deal of contemporary relevance. Some 40 years later, many of the same concepts have reappeared in the discourse of American policy-makers and political leaders with respect to the conflict between Israel and the Arabs. Furthermore there are eerie similarities in terms of process. Thus the thorough reader will be rewarded with significant insights into American foreign policy regarding Israel.
The author shows how Feldman was able to persuade the president to approve the arms sale on the basis of expected reciprocity instead of the...