According to conventional wisdom, American-Israeli relations reached a new low in the 1950s, with the Eisenhower administration continuously treating Israel as a strategic liability and as an obstacle to improved U.S.- Arab relations. Another widely held belief among scholars attributes the warming of the U.S. relationship with Israel in the early 1960s to John Kennedy's election and his responsiveness to Jewish voters and pro-Zionist lobbying organizations within the Democratic party's coalition.
In Decade of Transition, Abraham Ben-Zvi, professor in the Department of Political Science and a research fellow at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, challenges these accepted truths and offers a fresh and more nuanced interpretation of the evolving American-Israeli relationship from early 1953 until President Kennedy's decision in August 1962 to sell Hawk anti-aircraft missiles to Israel. On the basis of recently declassified documents in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library at Abilene, the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library at Princeton, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, the author shows that the thaw in American-Israeli diplomatic relations actually began during Eisenhower's second term, when the political foundations were laid for the American-Israeli strategic alliance that evolved more fully in the Kennedy years. Ben-Zvi further concludes that the policies that both Eisenhower and Kennedy pursued vis-a-vis Israel were not derived from domestic political calculations, but rather from each president's understanding of evolving strategic changes in the Middle East and their impact on American national interests in the region.
At the outset, the author draws several conceptual distinctions that are subsequently applied to the case-study at hand. He distinguishes between the "American national interest paradigm," according to which U.S. policy toward the Middle East is primarily determined by vital security interests and strategic preferences that American policy makers have sought to maintain and implement throughout the region (such as trying to resolve or stabilize the Arab-Israeli conflict, maintaining access to Arab oil, containing the Soviet Union), and the "special relationship" paradigm, according to which American policy toward Israel is mainly derived from "a broad cluster of predispositions, sentiments and attitudes toward Israel in American public opinion, which are permeated with sympathy, support and affection."
Further distinctions are drawn between threat-laden strategies of deterrence and coercive diplomacy, on the one hand, and more accommodative strategies of bargaining and reciprocity, on the other. While deterrence seeks to prevent an opponent from initiating adversarial action, coercive diplomacy is intended to induce a rival to stop harmful action that has already been undertaken or to undo an outcome deemed inimical to one's own interests. On the other side of the coin, a bargaining strategy involves an attempt to attain an explicit and concurrent exchange through negotiations, whereas the strategy of reciprocity is based on an expectation that the offering of an inducement will eventually encourage an opponent to reciprocate through a more accommodative response.
Applying these concepts to the American-Israeli relationship, Ben-Zvi argues that during his first term in office, President Eisenhower relied heavily on coercive diplomacy and deterrence strategies in an effort to obtain unilateral Israeli territorial concessions in the Negev, to induce Israel to stop retaliatory raids against Jordan and Egypt, and to secure Israeli agreement to repatriation of an unspecified number of Palestinian refugees. The quest for Israeli concessions was predicated on the calculation that as long as core issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict remained unresolved, the U.S. effort in the mid-1950s to enlist the Arab states into an anti-Soviet military alliance was bound to fail.
Unfortunately, Eisenhower's initial approach toward Israel did not yield the expected results for two major reasons. First, the strategy of coercion and deterrence was not linked to any American reciprocal policy, such as a commitment to sell American weapons to Israel or to provide U.S. guarantees to Israel's security. Second, Israel remained defiant in the face of American demands and threats because it was determined not to sacrifice or jeopardize what it regarded as its core security interests, regardless of the diplomatic costs. Ben-Zvi demonstrates in a rather convincing fashion that Washington's posture toward Israel in the early 1950s - which clearly runs counter to the "special relationship" paradigm - not only failed to bring about the desired change in Israel's behavior, but it also provoked the hawkish elements in the cabinet to adopt a more aggressive posture toward Egypt that culminated in the 1956 war.
The author argues that between 1957 and 1960, a gradual shift occurred in the American policy toward the Middle East in general, and toward Israel in particular. Seeking to create a series of bilateral security arrangements with individual Middle Eastern states in response to regional crises that took place between 1957 and 1959, the Eisenhower administration no longer deemed an Arab-Israeli peace as a sine qua non for attaining Arab unity and support in the struggle against Communist expansionism. As a direct result of these changes, "the perception of Israel as a potential strategic asset to the United States came to increasingly permeate the cognitive map of Washington's policy makers." This shift became most vividly evident in July 1958, when Israel was called upon and agreed to permit a British and American airlift of strategic materials through Israeli airspace to prop up the embattled Jordanian monarchy that was being challenged by a radical nationalist uprising fomented by Egypt's Nasser. Ben-Zvi claims that "the l958 Jordanian Crisis can be thought of as the 'trigger event,' which provided the impetus for completing the swing of the perceptual pendulum from Israel as a strategic liability and an impediment to American regional designs, to Israel as an indispensable asset to American and British strategic plans and objectives." These developments provide additional proof that the shift in the American strategy toward Israel in the late 1950s was due exclusively to external factors in the Middle East, and not to any lobbying activities by pro-Israeli organizations.
While the coercive and confrontational elements in the American relationship with Israel gradually receded into the background during Eisenhower's second term, the United States continued to refuse to sell advanced weapons systems to Israel for a number of reasons: the persistent fear that such transactions would harm America's relations with Arab states throughout the region or generate a costly arms race between Israel and its neighbors; the prevalent American belief that the Israel Defense Forces were militarily superior to the combined forces of the United Arab Republic, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia; and entrenched bureaucratic resistance to any policy change from the upper echelons of the State Department.
Ben-Zvi effectively refutes the widely-held belief that Kennedy's inauguration led to a drastic change in the American approach toward Israel by demonstrating that both administrations sought to promote similar policy objectives. These included a quest for a comprehensive settlement of the Palestinian-refugees issue, the intent to limit the influence of pro-Israeli lobbying organizations, strong objections to Israel's retaliatory raids against Syria and Jordan, and opposition to any unilateral Israeli actions designed to cement the status of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. The two administrations essentially differed in the means that they employed to promote American national interests, as President Kennedy abandoned deterrence and coercive diplomacy in favor of reciprocity as his main bargaining tool vis-á-vis Israel.
The author argues that by relying on the carrot rather than the stick, Kennedy sought to encourage Israel to help resolve the festering Palestinian refugee problem. Specifically, the White House expected that in return for the sale of Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, Israel would react favorably to the so-called Johnson Plan, a proposal that envisaged the repatriation by Israel of some 100,000 to 150,000 Palestinian refugees, with the United States underwriting the attendant financial costs.
As it turned out, Israel received the Hawk missiles in the fall of 1962 while it rejected the Johnson Plan. Unfortunately, Ben-Zvi offers two apparently contradictory explanations for this outcome. Initially, he attributes the disappointing result to Kennedy's reluctance to insist on prior Israeli acceptance of the Johnson Plan as a precondition for the Hawk sale. Here the blame for the outcome is placed on the absence of a tight linkage in the terms of exchange, a weakness that is inherent in the strategy of reciprocity. Yet a few pages later, the author points out that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Foreign Minister Golda Meir opposed the repatriation scheme out of conviction that it violated Israeli sovereignty and posed a serious threat to Israel's security. Hence, Ben-Zvi maintains that "[It] was therefore unlikely that, in the absence of a radical change in the basic structure of the Arab-Israeli conflict, any American compensation or inducement that entailed an Israeli acceptance of the Johnson Plan could have been of sufficient magnitude to lure Israel into acquiescence." Here, however, the failure to secure the quid quo pro that Kennedy had hoped for is attributed not to the absence of an automatic linkage between the terms of the anticipated exchange, but instead to the problematic substance of the specific policy to which Israel was expected to adhere.
The central conclusion that emerges from Ben-Zvi's analysis is that although the Hawk arms deal was consummated by the Kennedy administration, the basis for this historic decision had been laid during Eisenhower's second term, "as his administration, abandoning its earlier views, became increasingly predisposed to perceive Israel as a strategic asset." Reiterating another theme that runs throughout the book, the author also notes that Kennedy's decision to sell arms to Israel was based on his understanding of America's strategic and geopolitical interests in the Middle East, and it was not motivated by the need to be responsive to political pressures from pro-Israeli interest groups.
Unfortunately, the author was poorly served by the editorial staff at Columbia University Press, whose professional expertise is conspicuously absent throughout the manuscript. The narrative suffers from excessive repetition, turgid wording that is imbued with jargon (e.g., pro-Israeli lobbying groups are constantly referred to as "organizational representatives of the special relationship paradigm"), and an unacceptably high number of run-on sentences whose length exceeds ten lines (examples of which may be found on pages 47, 90, 103, 119, among others). All of these problems are most vividly encapsulated in the following sample (page 16):
Although the following analysis of American policy toward Israel, as it was shaped and delineated during the decade 1953-62, will be largely premised on the notion of change as an incremental, phased, and unobtrusive process, in the course of which certain 'background images' or preliminary perceptions of the environment progressively recede into the background in the face of mounting discrepant information which indicate, in the aggregate, that they have become outdated or divorced from the forces comprising the 'operational environment,' an effort will be made to identify more specific turning points or 'trigger events,' - those which precipitated immediate, and sometimes dramatic, frame changes.
This work is not intended for the general reader because it presupposes familiarity with the origins, substance and positions of the parties on several core issues that lie at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict (the Palestinian refugees, access to water sources, the status of Jerusalem). On the other hand, academic specialists with an interest in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy in general, and in the Middle East region in particular, will justifiably welcome Ben-Zvi's original analysis and the meticulous research on which it is based as a significant contribution to a richer understanding of the complex American-Israeli relationship.