What Would Ben-Gurion Do?

By Elliot Jager
Thursday, May 19, 2011

How would David Ben-Gurion handle himself if he were the one scheduled to meet Barack Obama on May 20 and address a joint session of the U.S. Congress a few days later? That hypothetical question has been aired frequently by Israelis in the run-up to Benjamin Netanyahu's pending appointments in Washington.  

It was exactly 50 years ago that Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), a founding father of Israel and its first prime minister, met with President John F. Kennedy. The encounter provides some useful background on the limits of personal charisma and the constraints on Israel's freedom of action.

Even before he set out for America on May 24, 1961, Ben-Gurion found himself embroiled in a bitter and complicated public dispute with top American Jewish leaders over Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. After a stopover to see Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, he flew to New York where, in the late afternoon of May 30, he was ushered into the presidential suite at Manhattan's Waldorf Hotel.  The official explanation for the venue was that JFK would be leaving from New York for a summit in Vienna with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In fact, the administration did not want to antagonize Arab states by officially hosting Ben-Gurion at the White House. The meeting in New York was private.

The premier, accompanied by Israeli Ambassador Avraham Harman, was described as tense as he headed in to a conversation that included Myer Feldman, the President's liaison to the American Jewish community, and Phillips Talbot from the State Department.  JFK, in a remark that Ben-Gurion later told intimates he found uncouth, began by saying, "You know, I was elected by the Jews of New York"—he had in fact garnered 80 percent of the Jewish vote nationwide in his razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon—adding that he felt obliged to "do something" in return.  Taken aback, Ben-Gurion replied, "You must do whatever is good for the free world."

There were three main items on the President's agenda. As he knew, Ben-Gurion would be asking to purchase HAWK anti-aircraft missiles, a request to which the Pentagon was indifferent but the State Department decidedly opposed. For his part, Kennedy wanted Ben-Gurion's assurance that Israel would not use its Dimona nuclear reactor—recently visited and favorably reviewed by international inspectors—for military purposes. Finally, Kennedy wanted Ben-Gurion to make a gesture to the Arabs on the issue of Palestinian refugees.

Ben-Gurion, after first implying, ineffectually, that the Eisenhower administration had been inclined to sell Israel the HAWKS, switched to an argument based on the merits. The Soviets, he pointed out, were supplying Egypt with advanced MIG-19 warplanes, a threat that the purely defensive HAWKS would be used to counter.  Not wanting to leave Israel in a position that invited attack, but also averse to introducing missiles into the region, JFK stopped short of a yes but pledged to "continue to review the . . . situation." Indeed, in August 1962 the administration agreed to sell Israel the anti-aircraft system.

On Dimona, Kennedy talked in a friendly way about the recently completed inspection and stressed that there must not be even the appearance that Israel was pursuing nuclear weapons.  Ben-Gurion replied that for now the facility was indeed engaged in peaceful nuclear pursuits, but that were Israel faced with an existential threat it would keep its future options open. Much depended on the Soviet Union and Egypt. The threats coming from Egypt's president, Gamal Nasser, were more than discouraging. "If they should defeat us," Ben-Gurion said in describing those threats, "they would do to the Jews what Hitler did."

Kennedy then raised the issue of the Palestinian Arab refugees. The premier said that Nasser, despite his grandiloquent pronouncements on their behalf, did not really care what happened to them. The Israeli position all along was that the refugees should be resettled and absorbed in Egyptian-occupied Gaza, the Jordanian-occupied West Bank, and Lebanon.  JFK responded by requesting that Israel take back a token number of refugees, a move that would help the U.S. in its effort to mediate between the parties. Ben-Gurion predicted that the initiative would fail, to which Kennedy replied that Washington would rather see the onus of rejectionism rest on the Arabs. Agreeing then that the experiment was "worth trying," Ben-Gurion told the press afterward that he and JFK were in agreement on an initiative.  

An hour and a half after it began, the meeting had concluded.

Before leaving for London on his way home, Ben-Gurion met with the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. He also saw former President Harry S Truman, to thank him for his crucial support in 1948, as well as former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, and the labor leader George Meany.

Anticipating criticism of the meeting, the State Department had sent diplomatic notes in Kennedy's name to Arab countries, pledging that America would be an "honest broker" and continue to press Israel on the refugees. Secretary of State Dean Rusk insisted Washington wanted to remain impartial on the Arab-Israel conflict.  

None of this, however, placated the likes of Lebanese-born Ahmad Shukeiri, then serving as a Saudi diplomat to the UN and later to become the founding head of the Palestine Liberation Organization when it was established by the Arab League in 1964. And meanwhile, on the home front, the administration's unappreciated efforts at "impartiality" brought it into conflict with Congress, which sought to cut U.S. aid to Egypt. As for the initiative on the Palestinian Arab refugees, when Stevenson later detailed the specifics of the administration's proposal to Israeli officials, it became clear that an unbridgeable gulf lay between what Washington wanted and what Jerusalem could live with. 

On an Israeli television program grappling with the question, "What Would Ben-Gurion Do?," the journalist Amnon Lord lamented the sense, prevalent in Israel today, that the country's freedom of movement seems to be dissipating and its fate no longer in its hands. Who would have thought, he asked, that a government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, of all people, would be imposing a silent freeze on new housing construction in Jerusalem?

Actually, Netanyahu's position is not spectacularly different from Ben-Gurion's. Granted, Obama is more an Eisenhower than a JFK—Ben-Gurion reported finding Kennedy far more sympathetic than his predecessor—but the options available to an Israeli premier haven't changed all that much. On the matter of the HAWK missiles, Ben-Gurion employed suasion and succeeded; on existential questions of Israel's survival, which hinged in part on the future of Dimona, he exhibited a requisite toughness; and on the refugee issue he tried diplomatic accommodation before digging in his heels.

Fifty years on, Israel's standing with U.S. Jewry is no less complicated than in 1961; its security predicament no less threatened; its international standing no less tenuous. Israelis would be well served if Netanyahu managed to emulate "the Old Man" by employing the right combination of suasion, toughness, and diplomacy. 


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