When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, the tragedy briefly united the war-torn Middle East — in grief.
For many it was the death of hope, an American president whose innovations in Middle East diplomacy, including the first U.S. commander-in-chief to sell major arms to Israel, brought him credibility “as a progressive with no grudge against Arab nationalism.”
So says Warren Bass in his new book “Support Any Friend: Kennedy’s Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance (Oxford).
On the 40th anniversary of Kennedy’s murder, Bass said Americans should be better educated about the significance of Kennedy’s Mideast policies. Kennedy “in some significant degree” is the architect of today’s strong military alliance between Israel and America, Bass said in an interview Tuesday.
“The Kennedy administration was the hinge between the chilly Eisenhower administration and the much warmer relations we know today.”
Kennedy, who visited the Holy Land in 1939 and as a young congressman in 1951, was the first president to approve military-to-military security consultations with Israel. JFK also tried unsuccessfully to forge better relations with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in a bid for Arab-Israeli peace.
Kennedy butted heads with Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion over the building of the Dimona nuclear weapons facility, Bass said. In a scenario seemingly ripped from today’s headlines, Kennedy, who sought to eliminate the global nuclear threat, insisted on total access and detailed weapons inspections by U.S. experts. Ben-Gurion, who denied Dimona was a nuclear facility, refused.
“Kennedy threatens to hold the entire U.S.-Israel relationship hostage unless he gets the type of inspections he wants,” said Bass, a senior fellow in Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Ultimately, new Prime Minister Levi Eshkol offered a compromise and Kennedy warily accepted. Had Kennedy lived, Dimona would have been a major obstacle in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, Bass said.
The Sabbath had already begun in Israel when Kennedy died. The Jerusalem Post broke the Sabbath for the first time in its history to publish a special edition.
Ben-Gurion heard the news on Kol Yisrael radio. “Where were his security forces?” he wrote over and over in his diary. “He was a brave man, sensible and so young.”
In Egypt, Nasser was stunned, as ordinary Egyptians lined up at the U.S. embassy to sign a condolence book, including Vice President Anwar Sadat. Arabs throughout the region mourned. Meanwhile, like America, conspiracy theories swept the region.
In Jordan, Bass wrote, Palestinian newspapers blamed the assassination on a Zionist conspiracy, noting that Lee Harvey Oswald was killed by the Jewish Jack Ruby to cover the plot. Some said Zionists killed Kennedy because of his opposition to Dimona. Some Saudis believed Vice President Lyndon Johnson had Kennedy killed on Zionist orders.
Bass notes that for them, since Zionism was the root of any evil in the world, “Zionism’s finger must have been on the Book Depository trigger.”
“Such squalid surmise — four decades before Gallup polls would reveal that millions of Arabs blamed the Mossad for [9-11] — remains a sobering reflection on the depths and distortions of anti-Israel animus in the Arab world.”