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Support Any Friend: Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance

By Warren Bass

(Oxford University Press, 336 pp., $30)

Imagine a fetching young president who takes office and tries to transform America's Middle East policies, tackling instead of sidestepping the Palestinian problem, not distancing but embracing the Israelis, wooing rather than resisting Arab radicals. And imagine a president who strives to achieve these goals at the very moment the Middle East becomes the focus of a vicious global struggle. The man who immediately comes to mind is Bill Clinton, but the image of an earlier president might also be conjured.

More than thirty years before Clinton sought to find a solution for Palestine, to thaw American-Israeli relations out of the deep freeze of the Bush years, and to make Yasir Arafat his most frequent foreign guest, John F. Kennedy wrestled with the refugee issue, reversed his predecessor's coolness toward Israel, and proffered friendship to Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt and the leading Arab revolutionary of his day. Moreover, just as Clinton aimed at accomplishing all of this while confronting the international threat of terrorism emanating from the Middle East, so, too, did Kennedy seek to bring peace and stability to the region just as it became a battlefield in the Cold War.

But in contrast to Clinton's sojourn into Middle East diplomacy, which has been extensively documented by the press and in the memoirs of those involved in it, Kennedy's record has remained obscure. Apart from fleeting references by Kennedy biographers and a few scholarly articles, the subject has been roundly ignored--until now. In his groundbreaking and engaging book, Warren Bass introduces us to a Kennedy whom few people in America and in the Middle East ever knew or even imagined existed.

Assuming the presidency in January 1961, Kennedy inherited a Middle East policy in shambles. Bass catalogues the failures wrought by the Eisenhower years: the disintegration of pro-Western Middle East defense organizations and the Soviets' successful entrenchment in the Arab heartland; undisguised strains in the American-Israeli relationship; America's inability to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Anglo-French power in the area--a collapse that Eisenhower himself helped to precipitate in the Suez crisis. Nasser, the most charismatic and influential figure in modern Arab history, who had seized control in Cairo with the CIA's assistance, had become America's most implacable foe. The same CIA was now reduced to monitoring Nasser's alliance with Moscow and to seeking what we now call "regime change" in Egypt by all means short of assassination.

Into this morass strode Kennedy, a man who, though short of foreign policy experience, had a relatively broad familiarity with the Middle East. "I have never seen two groups more unwilling to try and work out a solution that has some hope of success," he wrote home in 1939 after witnessing Arab-Jewish fighting in Palestine, and recommended partitioning the country into separate Arab and Jewish states. In 1951, on a second visit to the region, he described the soldiers of the newly created Jewish state as "tough, rugged, cocky," and praised the Israelis' "sense of dedication ... [their] willingness to endure hardship." Noting the Arabs' fear of Israeli expansionism, the future president nevertheless concluded that "the true enemy of the Arab world is poverty and want."

Sloughing off the anti-Semitism that cloaked his father's worldview, Kennedy had cultivated the Jewish vote as a young congressman, and supported economic aid for Israel (a "shield of democracy," he called it, and a "sword of freedom"), and denounced Eisenhower's supposedly pro-Arab policies. He often likened American Jewry's quest for acceptance in America with his own lot as an Irish Catholic. And Jewish ballots indeed proved pivotal in Kennedy's neck-and-neck presidential race with Nixon in 1960. Jews who had been all but boycotted by Eisenhower's administration were appointed to senior advisory and Cabinet positions in Kennedy's new government. The New Frontier was poised to become the ally that Israel had always sought in the United States: the supplier of advanced weaponry and a guaranteed defense against Arab attack.

Still, for all his sympathy for Jews and Israel, Kennedy was also sensitive to the Arabs' point of view, to their need for dignity and liberation. As a senator in the late 1950s, he backed Algeria's struggle for independence from France. When he entered the White House, he reached out to the Arab nationalist regimes formerly dismissed by Eisenhower as hostile. "More energy is released by the awakening of these new nations than by the fission of the atom itself," he declared on one occasion, and on another that "the Middle East needs water, not war--tractors, not tanks--bread, not bombs." Affection for Israel never deterred Kennedy from naming as his secretary of state Dean Rusk, an opponent of Israel's creation in 1948 and a subsequent critic of its policies, or working closely with the State Department, which was hardly a hotbed of Zionism. Kennedy came to office prepared, as Bass's title quotes him, to "support any friend," Arab or Jew.

Though it never articulated its Middle Eastern objectives explicitly, the Kennedy administration aspired to four goals in its policy. The first was to wean Nasser--known as "Mr. Big" in Camelot--from Soviet aid and to convince him to "forsake the microphone for the bulldozer," to focus on domestic rather than regional issues. While pampering Nasser, the United States would also shore up its major Arab allies, the Jordanians and the Saudis, and reassure the Israelis of America's steadfast, if understated, support. Next, the White House sought to curtail the arms race in the Middle East and to safeguard the area from nuclear proliferation. Finally--as if all the above were not ambitious enough--Kennedy wanted to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, beginning with what he regarded as its core: the Palestinian refugee issue.

A fine line always separates vision from hubris. Kennedy's hubris seems to have blinded him not only to the possibility that none of these goals was achievable in the Middle East of his time, but also that all of them together would prove mutually incompatible. That incompatibility was scarcely evident in 1961. No sooner was he installed in the Oval Office than Kennedy initiated an unprecedented and surprisingly warm correspondence with Nasser. "I want to be certain that you and other Arab leaders have no misunderstanding of our attitude towards the Arab people," the president wrote to Nasser in November, and praised his dedication and statesmanship. Egypt's leader in turn thanked Kennedy for his "appreciation of the problems of the countries aspiring to progress," and assured him that "mutual understanding will keep those differences between limits that will not be exceeded." Soon American economic aid to Egypt doubled to $500 million, much of it in the form of wheat that fed nearly half the country's population. A state visit for Nasser was planned, complete with White House banquets and a coast-to-coast helicopter tour. ("New York will be avoided," Rusk noted dourly.) Nasser's speeches, infamous for their anti-American invective, grew almost anodyne. "We've made a score on relations with the key guy in the Arab world," trumpeted an internal National Security Council memo. "Let's keep nurturing it."

The newfound friendship was evident at the end of 1961,when Syria seceded from its union with Egypt, leaving Nasser vulnerable to ridicule from his archrivals in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Washington pressured the monarchies to go easy on Nasser--to give him "a soft landing," in Bass's words--and not to compound his humiliation. The White House also warned the Israelis against exploiting the inter-Arab crisis to conquer the West Bank, at the same time working to establish a fresh rapport with the Jewish state. On May 30, Kennedy became the first American president to meet with an Israeli prime minister, the pugnacious David Ben-Gurion.

The meeting, which was not official, took place at the Waldorf-Astoria. The conversation dealt exclusively with state matters. "If they [the Arabs] should defeat us, they would do to the Jews what Hitler did," Ben-Gurion began, and stressed Egypt's centrality to issues of war and peace: "All questions in the Middle East depend on Nasser." To counter the Egyptian threat, the Israeli leader wanted American-made planes and tanks and especially Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, but Kennedy would only promise to keep the requests "under review." Instead of dwelling on Israel's security needs, Kennedy rapidly proceeded to express his personal concerns about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. American inspectors had recently concluded that Israel's reactor at Dimona was intended for peaceful purposes only, but the still-suspicious president demanded additional visits. "A woman should not only be virtuous but also have the appearance of virtue," Kennedy explained. "We must take away any excuse for the argument that what you are doing is connected with the proliferation of nuclear arms."

Ben-Gurion in the end agreed to more inspections, and also to Kennedy's idea of re-activating the efforts of the United Nations to rectify the Palestinian problem. Here was the president's furthest-reaching scheme, offering the refugees the choice between repatriation to Israel or compensation for lost property, with the understanding that the overwhelming majority would opt for the latter. Ben-Gurion was pessimistic about the plan's chances for success, but he conceded that it was "worth trying."

By the beginning of 1962, Kennedy and his advisers had every reason to celebrate a complete turnaround in America's Middle Eastern fortunes. Nasser had been mollified, the Saudis and the Jordanians curbed, the Israelis both comforted and contained. Its attachment to American Jews notwithstanding, the administration was establishing a reputation for evenhandedness in a conflict that it hoped soon to resolve. The region seemed to provide a rare interlude of relief from the Cold War, whose tensions stretched from Havana to Hanoi. But then, suddenly and inexorably, the policy fell apart.

Several factors contributed to its collapse, as Bass ably documents. Among them was Nasser's decision to develop surface-to-surface missiles--relatively primitive devices designed by former Nazi scientists, but, when combined with Soviet-supplied bombers, sufficient to tip the regional balance of power. Kennedy realized that he could not deny Israel its nuclear deterrent and withhold American guarantees for its security, because Israel would strike Egypt pre-emptively before Egypt reached its offensive potential. But he also knew that to leave Dimona unchecked was to invite an Arab first strike against Israel. The answer was to accede to Ben-Gurion's request for the Hawks, departing from long-standing American policy of selling Israel only small, defensive weapons. At $27 million per battery, the sale netted prodigious profits for the Hawks' manufacturer, but also Arab anger at Kennedy. The Egyptian press seethed, accusing the president of "shedding Arab blood."

To limit the damage, Kennedy launched a secret initiative to eliminate all missiles from the Middle East. "The arms race holds the seeds of disaster ... for all of us," he admonished Egypt's leader, and then prodded him: "Israel could have the capability to develop nuclear weapons in the next few years." But the logic of first selling Hawks to his enemy and then seeking to remove them eluded Nasser, who claimed that inspections of his missile sites would make Egypt look like an American protectorate. Ben-Gurion, for his part, thanked Kennedy for the Hawks, but went on to insist that "this defensive weapon alone cannot serve as a deterrent to our neighbors ... whose offensive potential cannot be reduced by the Hawk," and to renew his request for tanks and jets. "The Hawks," Bass concludes, "were harbingers."

A similar fate befell Kennedy's peace efforts. Ben-Gurion feared that the Arab states would insist on repatriating all of the refugees in order to undermine Israel's Jewish majority. "I can conceive of no practical plan which will bring about a settlement of the refugee problem in the near future as long as the Arab rulers are planning the destruction of Israel," he cabled Kennedy in August 1962. "There is only one way to resolve the refugee question, and that is for the Arab rulers ... to reconcile themselves both inwardly and publicly to the existence of the State of Israel." Nasser initially expressed guarded interest in any formula to replace "the basic Zionist concept" with a "binational state," but opposed putting a ceiling on the number of refugees repatriated. In August, citing Arab charges that he was already "too soft" on Palestine, he rejected the plan entirely.

Next to fail was Kennedy's attempt to scrutinize Israel's nuclear program, as the president's understanding of "inspections"--unannounced, unrestricted visits by foreign experts--scarcely accorded with Ben-Gurion's view of it. In demanding tight controls on the inspectors, the Israeli leader cited the "actual danger now confronting us ... destructive `conventional' weapons in the hands of neighboring governments which openly proclaim their intention to attempt the annihilation of Israel." Ben-Gurion's position infuriated Kennedy, who, Bass writes, "went nuclear (figuratively) to prevent Ben-Gurion from going nuclear (literally)." Twice in May 1963, the president warned Jerusalem that "this Government's commitment to and support of Israel could be seriously jeopardized if it should be thought that we were unable to obtain reliable information on a subject as vital to peace as the question of the character of Israel's effort in the nuclear field." Intended to twist BenGurion's arm, Kennedy's tactics actually helped to break it; buckling under domestic political pressures, the prime minister resigned. Levi Eshkol, his subtler successor, understood that Israel could assuage Kennedy and still conceal whatever it needed concealed. The inspections proceeded, but so did Israel's nuclearization.

Kennedy's hopes for a new beginning in the Middle East ended where they began, with Nasser. It started in Yemen, where, in the fall of 1962, a radical clique of officers seized power from the traditional imam. Nasser backed the junta while the Saudis upheld the imam, and soon Egyptian troops and planes were bombing Saudi bases, sometimes with poison gas. "I don't even know where it [Yemen] is," Kennedy admitted when told of the imbroglio; nor, preoccupied with the crisis in Cuba, could he effectively intervene to stop the fighting. Fearing an Egyptian victory in the Gulf, he approved a top-secret operation, code-named Hard Surface, that sent American fighter jets to defend Saudi airspace and, if required, to destroy any intruders. Kennedy warned Nasser of the "real risk that events might lead to a collision involving the interests of our two countries," and cautioned his staff, "Be sure no war starts that I'm not in control of."

War was indeed a possibility, but Kennedy remained loath to alienate Nasser entirely. In spite of Egypt's open support for Castro, and though his indulgence of Egypt's dictator drove America's Jordanian and Saudi allies--no less than the Israelis--to distraction, Kennedy sought any means of extricating Nasser from the Yemeni mess. In the spring of 1963, American mediation secured an agreement for a simultaneous withdrawal of Egyptian and Saudi forces. Riyadh complied; Cairo did not. At the same time pro-Nasserist riots broke out in Jordan, where Egypt's long-range radio called on all "free valiant men" to overthrow "the dwarf," King Hussein.

An increasingly despondent Kennedy again wielded Israel as a weapon with which to intimidate Nasser: "A major conflict might ensue [in the West Bank]--and one in which our assessment indicates that the Arab forces might not be at any advantage." But still the president strove to sound conciliatory: "We want to steer an even course with all of our friends, and we hope it will not be made unduly difficult for us." While considering additional aid for Egypt, the administration conditioned its entire package on Nasser's cooperation in the Gulf. "The carrot that Washington had originally offered to lure Egypt out of the Soviet camp," Bass observers, was now "a stick to drive Egypt out of Yemen."

By November 1963, Kennedy could see a Middle Eastern political landscape every bit as devastated as that of 1960. America's overtures to Nasser had backfired, the State Department believed, and his goals remained "the reduction of U.S. influence in the area, the elimination of the Jordanian and the Saudi regimes ... and, eventually, a reckoning with Israel." Reverting to his old rhetoric, the Egyptian leader again declared that "disarmament must be preceded by the liquidation of imperialism and the liquidation of all traces of imperialism." While Saudi Arabia embarked on a scurrilous campaign to forbid American Jewish soldiers from serving on its soil, Egyptian propaganda clamored about Jews--"enemies of God"--borne by American aircraft to Mecca. Meanwhile, the Senate, in a bold rebuke of Kennedy's policy, voted to withhold aid to Egypt as long as Egypt threatened America's allies. The president warned Nasser that his actions were "inevitably complicating, not least in the Congress, my own effort toward ... friendly collaboration." It was his last communication with Cairo.

Kennedy's Middle East policies had clearly failed. There is always the temptation to wonder whether, had he lived, he might still have benefited the region and helped it to avert more grievous catastrophes to come. The answer may lie in the few protocols of White House discussions supplied by Bass. These reveal a deeper, more nuanced Kennedy than his Middle Eastern record might reflect. At a meeting in the summer of 1962, Kennedy questions the prudence of his own peace initiative: "Why isn't the status quo more preferable for both the Israelis and the Arabs? We pay the bill [for the refugees], and there is no compromise of principle." The doubts resurface two weeks later, when the president again asks: "Isn't one group going to be horribly disappointed--either the Israelis by a lot more than one out of ten [refugees] coming back, or by the Arabs when only one out of ten wants to go back? Isn't it going to blow up...?" Here was a man who, awakening from an initial naivet?, could now confront Middle East realities--a man who, though still willing to "support any friend," had learned who his friends were.

But that knowledge would never be applied. News of Kennedy's assassination was greeted in the Arab world not only with expressions of sorrow, but also with rumors that the assassins were Zionists. Tellingly, the only lasting memorial to Kennedy in the Middle East, Yad Kennedy, was built in Israel in a forest outside Jerusalem. Kennedy's legacy in the region was all but forgotten by subsequent presidents, including Bill Clinton, a man who aspired to many of the same goals only to make many of the same mistakes.

Bass's book has its flaws. Arranged topically rather than chronologically--the Waldorf meeting is discussed several times, each under a different heading (peace, arms, Dimona)--the narrative downplays the degree to which Kennedy addressed all these issues simultaneously and often at cross-purposes. Bass also overstates the role of the Hawks' sale in the advent of the strategic relationship between the United States and Israel. Kennedy expressly opposed such an alliance ("A bilateral security relationship ... would, I fear, have a distinct contrary effect," he wrote to Eshkol), and the missiles proved to be of little strategic value. They were fired just once, accidentally, during the Six Day War, and they downed an Israeli jet. And I must confess to irritation at Bass's stubborn insistence on calling Kennedy officials "New Frontiersmen," which seems to confuse McGeorge Bundy with Fess Parker. But such complaints are minor about a fine and illuminating book that handsomely earns its place as a standard work for the study of America in the Middle East.

Michael B. Oren is a senior fellow at The Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author most recently of Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Oxford University Press).

By Michael B. Oren