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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 154-156

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Decade of Transition: Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the Origins of the American- Israeli Alliance. By Abraham Ben-Zvi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. xii + 219 pp.

According to Abraham Ben-Zvi, director of Tel Aviv University's Morris E. Ruriel Center for International Studies, continuity, not new initiatives, characterized the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations in their policies towards Israel. Ben-Zvi argues that perceived national security interests, and not a special relationship with Israel, explain U.S. policy in the Middle East from 1953 to 1963. Jewish organizations and domestic political considerations played, at best, an extremely limited part, in defining those relations. Throughout this critical decade, Ben-Zvi [End Page 154] believes, Washington subordinated Israeli security interests in order to prevent Soviet penetration of the oil-rich Middle East. Only when those security interests converged with the State Department's conviction that Israel could serve as a bulwark against the spread of Communism was Israel transformed, in the minds of American diplomats, from a security liability to a strategic asset.

Ben-Zvi's carefully considered conclusions challenge those who argue that the centrality of Israel's "special relationship" with the United States drives Washington's tendency to tilt toward the Jewish state. Resting his argument on extensive use of U.S. State Department and Israeli State archives, Ben-Zvi mutes other sources which might have modified his views. Thus he largely ignores as irrelevant to the policy makers congressional efforts on behalf of Israel, spearheaded by some of the Senate's heaviest hitters, such as Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and California's William Knowland. He also passes over the work of the American Zionist Council (the coalition of all major U.S. Zionist organizations), the lobbying of the well-connected Republican, Abba Hillel Silver, and the efforts of other Jewish organizations. Nor does he mention Foggy Bottom's internal polling that gauged American public opinion and sought to shape it in the climate of the Cold War.

Ben-Zvi's otherwise meticulous summary of diplomatic exchanges between Washington and Tel-Aviv would have benefitted substantially from an analysis of the attitudes and values of the key players in his story. The author, for example, plunges into an April 1953 meeting between Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett and representatives of the Near East desk at the State Department where the United States pressed for territorial concessions. But Ben-Zvi does not situate the controversy. President Truman had had a long running battle with what he called "the striped pants conspirators" in the State Department. Were Eisenhower's relations cozier? George Marshall did not speak for President Truman when the secretary of state opposed U.S. recognition of Israel in May 1948. Did John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower's secretary of state, speak for the president when he worried that "saving Israel" might mean "losing Europe" (p. 31)?

The author sees Eisenhower and Dulles as Cold War warriors dedicated to a "zero-sum" game of keeping the Kremlin away from the oil supplies that greased the industrial might of the Western world (p. 26). Since Ben-Zvi does little to describe the careers of either man, it is unclear whether their views merely mimicked State Department careerists who had long been sympathetic to the Arabs rather than Israel. Christian Herter, who succeeded Dulles, wanted to end Washington's arms embargo to Israel in the spring of 1960, but he relented to Arabists on the [End Page 155] Near East desk. This is all the more reason to examine the role of State Department professionals in making or resisting policy shifts in U.S. relations with Israel. Richard Nixon thought Harry Truman subordinated American security interests to court the Jewish vote, but what role, if any, did the vice president have on Eisenhower's foreign policy? The reader is left to wonder.

The author makes a compelling case that the threat of Arab nationalism, instigated by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, led Eisenhower, before Kennedy, to recast the Israeli...


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