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‘The Old Man and the New President’: Ben-Gurion and Kennedy at the Waldorf

The following is an excerpt from “Support Any Friend,” by Warren Bass.

When Kennedy met Ben-Gurion on May 30 [1961] at the Waldorf, the new president’s tone was different from his predecessor’s. Where Eisenhower had bluntly refused, Kennedy merely hesitated. The arguments about the Hawks were similar — indeed, sometimes identical — but the underlying firmness was gone.

As he had with Ike, Ben-Gurion centered his security pitch around the Egyptian menace. Ben-Gurion described Nasser to Kennedy in the bleakest terms, as a cruel aggressor bent on Hitlerian genocide. The Israeli leader then moved directly on to the Hawks, echoing the arguments he had made during his March 1960 visit to Washington. A year ago, Ben-Gurion had asked the United States for arms, especially defensive ones, since “the [United Arab Republic] has 26 air fields and Israel has only four.”… Nasser had 300 fighter planes, Ben-Gurion told Kennedy, as well as 200 more on hand from other Arab leaders. To keep pace, Israel had ordered 60 new Mirages from France, but it would take a year before all of them arrived. Until then, Nasser’s new Soviet MiG-19s were particularly worrisome. Washington could not “eliminate the hazard,” Kennedy pointed out, but it would not want Israel in “such a position of inferiority that an attack on it would be encouraged.” In that case, Ben-Gurion countered, sell us Hawks — the most elegant way to let Israel defend itself without threatening its neighbors.

Kennedy noted that only a handful of other countries had received Hawks and again warned of a missile race. “You don’t feel that this is a satisfactory answer to your request,” JFK said, “but you can be assured that we will continue to watch the situation.” When the meeting wound down — after moving on to the Cold War, the Palestinian problem, and Ben-Gurion’s admiration for the Peace Corps concept — Kennedy tried to summarize their discussion of the Hawk issue. “I expressed a desire to continually review the missile situation,” he told Ben-Gurion. “We are reluctant to give Israel missiles and you understand that, but we would be disturbed if Israel should get into a situation that would invite attack. We will keep the matter under continuing review in our Administration, I can assure you.”

Kennedy’s summation was significantly more encouraging than anything Eisenhower had said on the subject. JFK sounded considerably less pro forma about promising to take the matter under advisement than Eisenhower and his aides had a year ago. By telling Ben-Gurion that the United States was “reluctant” to sell Hawks, Kennedy was hardly telling the Israeli prime minister anything he had not already heard before. Nevertheless, the ratios had changed: Kennedy offered two parts review, one part reluctance, and one part sympathy for Israel’s security dilemma, whereas Eisenhower had offered one part review and three parts refusal.

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