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JFK and the US Defense of Israel

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avatar by Mitchell Bard


John F. Kennedy. Photo: Wiki Commons.

The uproar over the US decision to move our embassy to Jerusalem was based in part on the outdated and specious Arabist argument that American support for Israel threatens our relations with the Arab world. As many of us expected, the embassy decision had no impact on our ties with the Arab states, just as the strengthening of our alliance with Israel over the last 70 years did not prevent US-Arab ties from improving. The Arabists have, however, had a deleterious impact on US-Israel relations. One example is President Kennedy’s rejection of Israel’s request for a formal alliance.

On May 12, 1963, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wrote to the president asking for a mutual security agreement in which the United States would supply Israel with arms equivalent to those being acquired by Egypt and the Arab states. The context for the request was the danger at that time that King Hussein of Jordan would be deposed by Egypt, which had just signed a tripartite pact and was using Nazi German scientists to develop rockets for use against Israel.

Kennedy argued that the United States had to maintain the ability to talk to both Israel and the Arab leaders, and that a bilateral security relationship would have “a distinct contrary effect.” He was especially concerned — and this was a frequent argument made by Arabists during the Cold War — that the Arabs would respond to any US.-Israel agreement by seeking similar assurances from the Soviet Union. Kennedy was also resistant to providing Israel with additional arms for the same reason and concluded, “It is not so much Arab hostility as the hostility plus Soviet arms support which creates the threat to your security.”

Of course, several of the Arab states were already aligned with the Soviets, but Kennedy still hoped to lure Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser into the Western camp. He failed, as Eisenhower did before him.

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Although Kennedy refused to sign a formal agreement to defend Israel, he gave his personal assurances that the United States was committed to “deter or halt swiftly any aggression against Israel or its neighbors.” He added, “There is no doubt in Arab minds as to how we would respond to unprovoked aggression by them.” He then repeated his contention that making “special security arrangements with Israel … would contribute little to deterrence, while in fact provoking a hostile Arab reaction which might have consequences adverse to Israel’s security.”

Kennedy essentially was telling the Israelis that they had nothing to worry about because of the “constant and special United States concern for the security and independence of Israel.” He said, reassuringly: “We have the will and ability to carry out our stated determination to preserve it.”

While Kennedy was likely sincere, his pledge was no guarantee that his successors would have the same commitment. And, in fact, when Israel was threatened in 1967, the United States did not act to deter or halt the aggression of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Worse, Lyndon Johnson imposed an arms embargo on Israel and told the Israelis that they would be alone if they initiated hostilities.

Presidents have often made statements since that time about their commitment to Israel’s security and maintaining its qualitative edge in military equipment. Israel’s leaders have also frequently said that Israel does not expect anyone to fight its battles and is willing to continue to go it alone.

The threats have grown more serious, however, especially as Iran pursues its ambition to build nuclear weapons. The time may have come to reconsider the value of a formal defense pact, and the current occupant in the White House might be more amenable than Kennedy, given all the changes in the Middle East. I may take that argument up in a future column. In the meantime, the Kennedy letter is a reminder that without such an agreement, Israel cannot count on the United States to come to its defense should the need arise.

Dr. Mitchell Bard is Executive Director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise and author/editor of 23 books including The Arab Lobby and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.

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