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June 1999

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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. Pp. xxii, 219. $17.50 paper)

The Washington-Tel Aviv Axis

by Paul Sullivan

THE PURPOSE OF THIS WELL-WRITTEN AND highly readable book is to provide a new perspective on the formative years of the American -Israeli alliance. Abraham Ben-Zvi, a professor of political science and head of Tel Aviv University’s center for international studies, follows the development of this alliance through the presidencies of Eisenhower and Kennedy. While the author makes extensive use of recently declassified documents, including American and Israeli government reports, policy statements, and public speeches, he largely ignores sources from the Arab world.

This book will certainly be an eye-opener for those who think that the United States and Israel have been on good terms since 1948. It will also catch the attention of those who are convinced that the “Israeli Lobby” in the U.S. was largely responsible for the American-Israeli alliance. Ben-Zvi argues that there was a divergence between the “special relationship paradigm” and the “American national interest paradigm” during the first Eisenhower administration.

American national interests for that time period are defined by Ben-Zvi as:

    (1) stabilizing or mitigating the Arab-Israeli conflict;

    (2) retaining economic and political access to Arab oil; and

    (3) increasing U.S. influence in the region at the expense of the USSR.

Washington concentrated on ensuring the flow of oil to Western Europe and developing multilateral security pacts and other agreements with the Arab states in order to defend against “communist threats” in the region.

Eisenhower used coercive measures and extended deterrence, mostly through “negative cross-linkages,” in order to get the Israelis to cooperate, or at least acquiesce, to Washington’s game plan for the Middle East. For example, Ike would ask for concessions regarding territory and Palestinian refugees from Israel without guaranteeing anything in return. Washington feared that the Arabs would turn to Moscow if its policies seemed too pro-Israel. The pure bipolar confrontational view of the world allegedly held by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and other administration officials helped solidify this accommodationist approach to the Arab world, at the expense of Tel Aviv.

Ben-Zvi claims that the 1956 Suez War “proved” that coercion without accommodation only made a “desperate” Israel attack Egypt (albeit with British and French support). From that moment on, the “background images” of the U.S. government began to be contradicted by the “immediate images” of the realities of a dynamic and sometimes unpredictable Middle East. Nevertheless, Washington imposed post-war sanctions on an Israel that grew much stronger in the years ahead.

As the Arab states continued to move toward Moscow and away from Washington, these contradictions of the background images versus the immediate images became clearer. Egypt’s president Gamal Nasser became a focal point of these changing views. His recognition of the People’s Republic of China, arms purchases from Communist Czechoslovakia, and other pre-1957 movements toward the USSR seemed not enough, however, to push the U.S. towards a more accommodationist posture with Israel. While Washington’s cancellation of the Aswan Dam funding could have been considered part of its “bargaining strategy” with Cairo, its unsuccessful efforts to sell it (and not Israel) a substantial amount of weaponry had been sincere.

Once Nasser became more involved in attempts to change governments in the pro-Western Arab states, Eisenhower and his “foreign policy élite” slowly began to see things differently. They started to look at moving from coercion to bargaining and reciprocity with the Israelis. Negative cross-linkages started to turn to positive cross-linkages. According to Ben-Zvi, the decreasing economic and political vulnerability of Western Europe helped allow for a more flexible approach regarding Arab oil. But the behavior of certain Arab states seemed to make the foreign policy changes pushing America closer to Israel a necessity, rather than a choice.

The Syrian crises of 1957, the February 1958 merger of Egypt and Syria into the United Arab Republic, and the April 1957 crisis in Jordan were important events in the revision of the “background images.” These were not, however, “trigger events” that might substantially change policy. Nasser’s perceived instigation of troubles in Lebanon that prompted the U.S. to send in the marines also began to change Washington’s perspective of the Arab world. The July 1958 Iraqi Ba’athist revolution was another signal to Eisenhower. The few remaining pro-Western states in the Arab world appeared weak and unstable in 1958. The Eisenhower Doctrine of containment via multilateral and bilateral security pacts with the Arab states was failing.

The “trigger event” of July 1958 was British and U.S. (via Israeli airspace) intervention to save the Jordanian monarchy. The pro-Western Saudis’ refusal to allow American and British use of its airspace and the U.S. air base at Dahran during the airlift had an enormous effect on America’s security calculations. Washington began to realize that Israel might end up its strongest, most stable ally and anti-Communist bulwark in the Middle East.

As the Arab world splintered and more of its leaders turned to Moscow, the U.S. essentially abandoned its goal to establish multilateral, or even bilateral, security arrangements with the Arab states. Previous to the “trigger event” of 1958, the Eisenhower administration had feared losing the opportunity of building an Arab anti-Communist bulkhead by being too close to Israel. During Ike’s second term, however, it became clearer that the Arab security wall was not to be. Israel was beginning to look like a vital replacement part of the wall. The “special relationship paradigm” began to converge with the “American national interest paradigm.” Eisenhower’s second term was the “incubation period,” according to Ben-Zvi. Interestingly, what was to become the bedrock of the “Israeli Lobby,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was established in February 1959, soon after the Jordanian “trigger event.”

During the Kennedy administration, the convergence of the two paradigms picked up speed. The Jewish community in the U.S. became much stronger and better organized during the early 1960s. Ben-Zvi maintains that the Arabs “lost” the U.S. by not fully supporting Washington’s containment policy. While Israel took their place, Kennedy still pursued a policy of constructive engagement towards the Arabs. He increased aid to Egypt and even attempted rapprochement with radical leaders like Nasser. The seminal event in the American-Israeli relationship came in 1963, however, when the U.S. sold Hawk missiles to Israel. This “confidence building” measure was not contingent upon Israeli concessions on Palestinian refugees, territorial issues, or even the highly sensitive matter of the Dimona nuclear plant. Ben-Zvi argues that while this could not have taken place during Ike’s presidency, the seeds of this new policy had been laid during his administration.

Ben-Zvi’s most important hypothesis is that the efforts of the proponents of the “special relationship paradigm” are much less responsible for the switch in U.S. policy towards Israel than are the national interest calculations of American diplomats and politicians. This argument would have been much stronger if the author had included more on the concurrent developments and effectiveness of pro-Israel lobbying in the U.S. A discussion in the epilogue about the fate of Foggy Bottom’s “Arabists” might also have made his thesis more poignant and, oddly enough, more convincing.

Overall, this book could be of significant benefit to diplomats, scholars, and especially Arab leaders interested in the historical roots of an American-Israeli alliance that continues to influence their countries’ destiny. Ben-Zvi’s work could help diplomats understand why it is so vital to fully clarify what American national interests are. Moving towards Israel may have benefited the U.S. in the medium run during the Cold War, but as the author notes in his epilogue, with the death of the Soviet Union the American-Israeli relationship might find divergence again between the “special relationship paradigm” and the “American national interest paradigm.” Surely, America’s pro-Israel lobbying groups are stronger today than they were during the development stages of the convergence of these two paradigms. As international strategic and diplomatic concerns change, however, what might be the future of the relationship? Diplomats and others might be able to predict the future better if they had a clearer understanding of the past. This book is a good step in that direction. 


Paul Sullivan teaches in the Economics Department at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.

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