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A Time to Fish

The New Frontier and the Middle East

On a cold January day, the young president took the inaugural podium without an overcoat, top hat cast aside, eyes squinting, puffs of vapor escaping from his mouth as his hand chopped the frigid air. “Let every nation know,” he declared in his clipped New England tones, “whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Among those taking note of John F. Kennedy’s first presidential performance was a wizened old man an ocean away, with a flat, shovel nose and a riot of white hair sprouting above cabbage ears. Despite his grandfatherly mien and diminutive stature, David Ben-Gurion towered over Israeli politics like a Jewish Gladstone. Israel’s founding father was humorless, visionary, indomitable, and ornery enough that even his own admiring biographer sometimes refers to him as “the fighting dwarf.” Ben-Gurion had been watching American presidents for decades, and not out of idle interest; Israel’s prime minister was determined to forge a strategic alliance with the leading nation of the democratic West. Kennedy spoke of offering support to friends, not allies, but Ben-Gurion was willing to start as the former in hopes of eventually becoming the latter. As Ben-Gurion saw things, the survival and the success of Israeli liberty depended on it. Even so, he did not hold out any particularly great expectations for Kennedy. “He looked to me like a twenty-five-year-old boy,” Ben-Gurion recalled. “I asked myself: how can a man so young be elected president? At first, I did not take him seriously.” For all his initial condescension, however, Ben-Gurion was glad to see a new occupant in the Oval Office—largely because Israel’s “Old Man” was eager see another old man, Dwight D. Eisenhower, leave office. Ben-Gurion had repeatedly butted heads with Ike, who had never been overly sympathetic to Ben-Gurion’s view of Israel’s security dilemmas. Perhaps the Jewish state could make more headway with the new president and the New Frontier.  

Also paying heed to JFK’s speech from afar in January 1961 was a man much closer to Kennedy’s age, himself also charismatic, handsome, and headstrong. With his flashing smile, ink-dark hair, and aquiline features, Jamal Abd al-Nasser too was an activist, gallant young president; but there the similarities with Kennedy ended. Under the leadership of Nasser’s Free Officers, Egypt was authoritarian, revolutionary, pledged to panArabism—the quest to unite the Arabs in a single state—and poised as a major neutral power between the Soviet Union and the United States.  

That meant Egypt might be in play in the Cold War. “To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far greater iron tyranny,” Kennedy said from the inaugural podium. “We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom—and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.” Nasser and his fellow neutralists paid attention as the new American president tried to avoid being identified with the forces of reaction. Hearing Kennedy’s pitch for friendship in the Third World, the most prominent nationalist in the Arab world could not help speculating on what the new season in Washington would bring. Nasser’s arsenal—the largest in the Arab world and the spine of the Arab challenge to Israel—came from Moscow, but perhaps he could now make more headway with Washington. Indeed, perhaps Kennedy’s definition of friendship could include the Arab world’s greatest nationalist.  

During Kennedy’s presidency, both Israel and Egypt—the main antagonists in one of the Cold War’s most dangerous conflicts—tested the limits of what American friendship meant. Of course, when we think of Kennedy’s inaugural and his administration, we tend not to think of Ben-Gurion, Nasser, and the other leaders of the Middle East. Indeed, Kennedy’s thousand days are remembered mostly for the terrors of the Cuban missile crisis, the parting waters of the civil rights movement, the makings of the Vietnam quagmire, the glitter of Camelot, and the shattering loss of that dreadful November day in Dallas. But while all these things remain central to the public and even the historical memory of the New Frontier, Kennedy’s often surprising Middle Eastern policy deserves its own place in U.S. diplomatic history.  

Books on U.S.–Israel relations often glide past the Kennedy period, treating it as a place-marker between Suez and the Six Day War, between the martial frostiness of Dwight Eisenhower and the Texan warmth of Lyndon Johnson. But the increasingly complete documentary record on America’s Middle East decisions from 1961 to 1963 tells a complicated tale that reveals much about both the Arab-Israeli conflict and American diplomacy at the height of the Cold War. The Kennedy administration, we can now see, constitutes the pivotal presidency in U.S.–Israel relations, the hinge that swung decisively away from the chilly association of the 1950s and toward the full-blown alliance we know today. Kennedy was the first president to break the arms embargo blocking U.S. sales of major weaponry to Israel; after his term, Washington was deciding which arms to sell the Jewish state, not whether to sell any arms in the first place. By expanding the limits of what was thinkable with Israel and reaching the limits of what was doable with Egypt, Kennedy set the parameters for America’s Middle Eastern policy for decades to come. The Kennedy administration marks not only the end of America’s last serious pre–Camp David attempt to court Egypt but also the true origin of America’s alliance with the Jewish state.  

JFK did not make such moves out of altruism. In his inaugural, he avoided the term “ally,” suggesting instead an association that was more than kind but less than kin. Kennedy was not seeking friendship for friendship’s sake; he sought compatriots to advance his wider Cold War strategy—ensuring, as he put it, “the survival and the success of liberty.” In the Middle East of 1961, such success seemed far from assured.  

Kennedy inherited a weakened, uncertain posture in one of the Cold War’s key theaters. After the high drama of the 1956 Suez crisis, in which Israel secretly joined forces with Britain and France in an ill-fated bid to topple Nasser, the United States was left off balance. America’s ties with Israel were strained by the Eisenhower administration’s lingering qualms about the reliability of an American friend that had chosen such a hairraising gamble as Suez; America’s ties with Egypt were strained by mounting U.S. suspicions that Nasser was a communist stalking horse. That left America with few regional friends except the increasingly besieged conservative Arab rulers in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Lebanon, who worried about both the Arab-Israeli crisis and Nasser’s calls for their overthrow.  

So by 1960, Eisenhower was still mending fences in the Middle East—to the voluble scorn of the Kennedy-Johnson campaign. It is important not to underestimate the Kennedy team’s contempt for its predecessors’ supposed lassitude and complacency. When JFK accepted his party’s nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles on July 15, 1960, he dismissed the entire Eisenhower administration as “eight years of drugged and fitful sleep.” Under Ike, America’s freedom of maneuver in the region had been dwindling; Kennedy was convinced that he could do better. The New Frontiersmen moved briskly to widen America’s range of options— actively pursuing a rapprochement with Nasser, the key revolutionary leader of the Arab world, and sealing America’s first major arms deal with the Jewish state.  

The innovations that the New Frontier brought to the Middle East remain inadequately appreciated, even though they have helped guide American policy for decades. JFK’s abortive attempt to establish friendly ties with Nasserite Egypt badly startled America’s traditional Arab friends— especially Saudi Arabia, which railed against the Nasser initiative with enough vehemence to both help scuttle the U.S.–Egyptian rapprochement and reinforce the centrality of the House of Saud to American diplomacy. JFK’s Israel decisions were even more historic. The August 1962 decision to sell Hawk surface-to-air missiles to the Jewish state, which told Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s advisers that it faced a dangerous arms imbalance against Nasser and its other Arab foes, marked the end of the embargo on major arms sales to Israel that had begun under Harry Truman. The Hawk sale constitutes an insufficiently acknowledged watershed in Middle Eastern history, and the U.S.–Israeli diplomacy that produced it sheds light on Israel’s strategic thinking in the run-up to the Six Day War of 1967.  

Inevitably, discussions of Arab-Israeli policy include consideration of U.S. domestic politics, and some readers will ask whether the Israel lobby had anything to do with the fact that, by the end of Kennedy’s life in 1963, U.S.–Israel relations were far warmer and U.S.–Egypt relations were far cooler. On balance, the evidence does not support such conclusions. There is little in the record to show that domestic politics forced Kennedy’s hand, and the events described herein are easier to explain through the prism of foreign policy than that of domestic shilling. Simply put, Israel was better able to take advantage of what Kennedy offered; Egypt was too much the captive of its regional constraints. JFK’s Nasser initiative foundered not over Israel but over the complicated politics of an ugly showdown in Yemen—the key symbol of inter-Arab political rivalry in the early 1960s and the site of a nasty civil and proxy war between the Arab kings and the radicals who hoped to topple them. Nasser was, in the end, the prisoner of his regional strategy.  

As Nasser missed his moment, however, Ben-Gurion seized his. Israel’s prime minister avidly sought ever-closer ties with the United States, which he ultimately considered a more suitable and reliable senior partner than Israel’s previous great-power patron, the fading imperialist metropole of France. Ben-Gurion had made the support of a great power the central pillar of Israeli foreign policy, and his first choice had virtually always been the United States. For Ben-Gurion, America was an aspiration, France a consolation. Unlike Nasser, the Israeli leader had far fewer local temptations to distract him from the pursuit of American patronage. Unlike Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, who urged the Zionist movement to rely on Great Britain, and unlike the leaders of the leftist Mapam Party, who put their trust in the Soviet Union, Ben-Gurion had long placed his bet on the United States. Ben-Gurion visited America almost annually and even lived there for nearly two years starting in 1940. The more he saw, the more he liked. “What he really wanted was America in his corner,” argues Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion’s leading biographer.  

Still, it was hardly foreordained that the U.S.–Israel friendship would strengthen so appreciably on Kennedy’s watch—especially since much of the presidential time spent on the Middle East was devoted to an often acrimonious struggle over what Kennedy, showing marked personal attention, correctly suspected was an Israeli quest to acquire nuclear weapons. Ultimately, however, Kennedy’s atomic diplomacy ameliorated the thorniest problem in U.S.–Israel relations—even though, at the time, both Israeli and American diplomats feared their countries were on a collision course over the bomb. In the event, the flexibility of Levi Eshkol, Israel’s unjustly underrated third prime minister, helped Washington and Jerusalem work out a regime of limited American inspections of Israel’s secretly built nuclear reactor near the unassuming Negev town of Dimona. Mollifying Washington—while not abandoning Dimona—cleared away the most immediate roadblock to an ever more special U.S.–Israel relationship.  

There was a larger obstacle to closer U.S.–Israel ties, of course: Arab hostility, and Washington’s Cold War fears that the Arab-Israeli dispute would deliver the Arab states to Moscow. However unintentionally, the New Frontier’s attempt to court Nasser also wound up doing much to clear these worries away; after all, Kennedy had tried to moderate the foremost Arab radical and failed, which meant that risking Nasser’s friendship over a deepening American special relationship with Israel was not risking much at all. Kennedy’s failure to dissuade Nasser from his provocative regional course—railing against both Israel and the Arab monarchs—meant that the costs to America of drawing closer to Israel dropped significantly. Kennedy had spoken of supporting any friend; in the Middle East, he found takers only in Israel and the Arab kingdoms and emirates. With the arms embargo on Israel broached, the irritant of Israel’s bomb cooled, and the regional landscape clarified, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and their successors could build upon the foundations laid by John Kennedy.  


Writing a study of this sort inevitably poses several problems. One has to contend not only with primary sources and secondary literature but with what we might call tertiary assumptions: with the widespread perception, particularly among American Jews, that the United States and Israel were inevitable and eternal friends and allies. They were not. To be sure, there was a natural affinity between the two republics, but one theme of this study is that the U.S.–Israel alliance we know today is the cumulative product of individual decisions that could have gone another way. Even as Washington and Jerusalem moved closer, sparks flew. In a February 1963 press conference, Kennedy approvingly quoted Churchill, saying, “‘The history of any alliance is the history of mutual recrimination among the various people.’” There is plenty of material here for partisans looking to fuel such recriminations; but the work’s larger point is that Kennedy helped forge that alliance in the first place.  

That said, many readers friendly to Kennedy, Israel, or both may be surprised by much of what they find herein—JFK’s insistence on sending U.S. inspectors to Israel’s Dimona reactor, the Pentagon’s willingness to exclude Jewish soldiers from the American mission to defend Saudi Arabia, the frequent exasperation of the White House with Ben-Gurion and Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir, the commitment by both Kennedy’s State Department and his National Security Council to trying to improve relations with Israel’s nemesis in Cairo, and so on. Kennedy himself is an unlikely father for America’s alliance with the Jewish state—the son of an anti-Semite, a youth who wrote approvingly of British restrictions to bar from Palestine Jews fleeing Nazi Europe, and as determined a foe of Israel’s nuclear arms program as has ever lived in the White House. We have grown used to the idea of eternal U.S.–Israeli friendship, even if historically speaking, it simply was not so.  

Indeed, the clout of the Israel lobby in U.S. Middle East policy-making today (“Pander, pander, pander,” one high-ranking White House official recently advised a speechwriter preparing an address to a pro-Israel group) may reasonably cause many readers to assume that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its siblings played a similar role in Kennedy’s day. They did not. The Israel lobby was far less of a force in the 1950s and early 1960s. It had some real influence in Congress, but it did not matter much in presidential decision making. To be sure, Israel considered American Jewry an important asset. “The Almighty placed massive oil deposits under Arab soil,” an Israeli diplomat once told a State Department official. “It is our good fortune that God placed five million Jews in America.” But both Eisenhower and Kennedy often considered the Israel lobby more nuisance than titan.  

Still, unlike Eisenhower, Kennedy was unapologetic about considering domestic political factors in his Middle East policy-making. He also appointed a staffer—Deputy White House Counsel Myer (“Mike”) Feldman—as de facto ambassador to the American Jewish community. Of course, Nasser would have killed for a Mike Feldman of his own. Moreover, as a product of Congress himself and a politician to his fingertips, Kennedy had internalized at least some tendency to weigh the political consequences of Middle East policy. Nevertheless, there is scant evidence in the documentary record that the hunt for Jewish votes ever seriously drove Kennedy’s Arab-Israeli diplomacy. That may simply be because the president did not believe American Jewry would truly desert the Democratic coalition that Franklin Delano Roosevelt so lovingly built, or because post-Holocaust, pre–Six Day War American Jews were not yet comfortable throwing their weight around, or because the Israel lobby was locked out of such key issues as Dimona and the Hawk sales, or because Kennedy knew he could appease pro-Israel sentiment with a few blandishments and make the real policy calls as he chose. In the event, domestic politics had a voice, not a veto.  

On a related front, the basic affinity between the two fellow democracies proved to be an important element in the deepening special relationship. One factory worker in Tel Aviv, who gave birth the day that John Glenn first orbited the earth, so identified with America that she excitedly named her son John. Moreover, in the early 1960s, progressive, democratic Israel was still widely popular in liberal circles. In a 1962 speech on international development at Rutgers University, Kennedy’s civil rights aide Harris Wofford called such Israeli institutions as the kibbutz, the Histadrut labor union, and the Jewish Agency “models and teachers for the peoples seeking freedom in the developing world.” Wofford added, “Pericles said that Athens was the school of Hellas. I have suggested that Israel and Gandhi’s India are schools of the developing world.” Kennedy’s supporters often saw Israel as a bastion of liberty and liberalism. But the course of true alliance typically did not run so smooth. The U.S.–Israel bond was forged in the smithy of Middle Eastern hostilities, not born in a parlor of amity.  

Beyond pat assumptions about the inevitability of U.S.–Israel friendship, the historian also has to grapple with a certain glamour factor. For an administration known for (or perhaps obsessed with) style, it is worth noting that the key changes that Kennedy and his men brought to America’s Middle East posture had little to do with manners or form. Kennedy could be testy in his dealings with both Israel and Egypt, and the sort of syrupy rhetoric that is de rigueur today in discussing the special bond between Washington and Jerusalem was almost entirely absent from Kennedy’s policy deliberations. He could be conciliatory to Israel in public even as he was being tough as nails in private. Nasser got even less warmth. Jack Kennedy was not a sentimental man.  

Nevertheless, Americans are sentimental about Jack Kennedy. Writing about the New Frontier is seriously complicated by stubborn and ardent public perceptions of the period. Kennedy’s thousand days are more shrouded in mythology—the name Camelot says it all—than any other modern presidency. While most historians agree that the truly great American presidents were Washington, Lincoln, and FDR—men who helped define both the office and the nation—Kennedy’s name perennially appears near the top of the list whenever the public is asked to list its greatest commandersin-chief. (At least one comedian has unkindly suggested that Kennedy would rank similarly high when the public is asked to name a president.) Indelibly, Kennedy remains our image of the modern president. Even Josiah Bartlet, the liberal fantasy president of television’s The West Wing, whom many consider an idealized version of Bill Clinton, is actually modeled on JFK—right down to the New England inflections, Catholic patrician upbringing, detested Texan ex-senator running mate, dazzling policy versatility, and duplicitously concealed illness. Saying that aspirants to national office look presidential often means only that they remind us, however faintly, of Kennedy—or, to be precise, remind us of our idealized memories of Kennedy. “I still have difficulty seeing John F. Kennedy clear,” wrote Theodore H. White. So do we.  

Faced with this veneration for a martyred prince, scholars have been tempted to either beat ’em or join ’em. As the historian Alan Brinkley has suggested, writing about Kennedy is often tantamount to sitting in judgment on American liberalism. As such, works on JFK have tended to fall into the categories of either hagiography or gleeful revisionism. The two classic memoir-histories of the New Frontier, Theodore C. Sorensen’s Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s, A Thousand Days, are still essential sources; while some of their substance has been overtaken by the release of new documents and the digging of more skeptical scholars, much remains useful, and their elegance remains undimmed. The early antiKennedy myth-shattering of a Victor Lasky no longer seems shocking; Seymour Hersh’s salacious recent exposé, succinctly entitled The Dark Side of Camelot, epitomizes the way Kennedy has been hauled down from his martyr’s pedestal. More seriously, a younger generation of Cold War scholars have laid aside the Sorensen-Schlesinger narrative of a president growing into his powers after the Bay of Pigs fiasco until his apotheosis in the Cuban missile crisis; instead, they have found Kennedy to be a consistent Cold War hawk, and a rather sharp-taloned one at that. Meanwhile, a fuller picture of the administration’s deliberations has continued to emerge, helped importantly by the release in 2001 of reams of transcripts from the Oval Office tape recordings that Kennedy was secretly making long before Rose Mary Woods had her 15 minutes—or 18½ minutes—of fame.  

This book should alter our picture of Kennedy’s foreign policy by pointing out the frequently surprising innovations of his Middle Eastern policies, which are hard to square with the revisionist portrait of Kennedy as an inflexible cold warrior. Moreover, it turns out that the reason Kennedy did not make greater inroads with the most interesting Arab leader, Nasser, had more to do with Nasser’s lack of imagination than Kennedy’s lack of effort—a modest corrective to revisionists prone to blaming Kennedy for a series of other, more genuine Third World blunders.  

There is also good reason to consider Kennedy, if hardly a great president, then surely a truly talented commander-in-chief. Beyond his genuine strategic creativity in the Middle East, Kennedy’s much-ballyhooed skills often turn out to have been significantly as advertised. Kennedy’s interventions in discussions of policy on the Middle East—not, it should be stated frankly, an item consistently at the top of his agenda—were consistently crisp, savvy, and skillful. Of course, his administration’s blunders, especially on Vietnam, still do not look any better; that the best and the brightest were able to warn Nasser off his own quagmire in Yemen even as they sank deeper into Indochina does not bespeak overwhelming clarity of vision. Too often, the Kennedy administration reacted to events rather than shaping them. Nevertheless, after more than 40 years, the more we know about JFK as a crisis manager, the more he seems to have been the real thing: cool, salty, and probing. “You’re in a pretty bad fix,” Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay sneered to Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. “You’re in there with me,” Kennedy shot back. Hawk he may have been; cad he almost certainly was; but Kennedy’s raw talent, agility, and policy mastery remain impressive.  

While I remain wary of using history as a primer for policymakers, these pages should be of particular interest to those following the current agonies of the Middle East. Support Any Friend is designed to be read with profit by the specialist and with pleasure by the general reader. I have long felt deeply involved—perhaps more involved than I would like—in the fate of the Middle East, and I hope that sense of engagement has helped speed this work along. In David Copperfield, Dickens writes, “there is a subtlety of perception in real attachment.” Even so, Support Any Friend remains a work rooted in archival research and evidence, not presuppositions or speculations. This is not a book about either the saint or the sinner, the martyr or the malefactor; it is a book about a president who was both politician and policymaker, about a talented commander-in-chief directing a talented staff in the pursuit of elusive foreign policy objectives, and about the way that pursuit changed America’s Middle East posture.  

For greater clarity, this book briefly traces the pre-1960 historical background of U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli conflict and the evolution of Kennedy’s own pre-presidential thinking on the Middle East. It then explores the Kennedy administration by chronologically tracing each of its major Middle East policy strands—sometimes doubling back to examine the administration’s thinking on, above all, three key issues: Egypt policy and the war in Yemen, the Hawk sale, and the atomic diplomacy related to Israel’s Dimona reactor. (To help readers further see how the strands wove together, a chronology is provided.) This book remains a study of Washington decision making, not a work about how Ben-Gurion and Nasser made their decisions about Kennedy; I look eagerly forward to seeing other scholars shed more light on those questions. (This work also touches only glancingly on such fascinating policy questions as Kennedy’s handling of other Middle East states, such as Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, that were less directly entangled in the Arab-Israeli snare.) On balance, Kennedy receives a favorable grade in these pages—a solid A for innovation and somewhere south of a B-minus for implementation. He gets it, however, not for being glamorous or eloquent, but for heading an often quarrelsome but indisputably bright team grappling with dizzyingly complex foreign policy problems. America’s Middle East policies are serious business; they deserve serious study.  


While this work is devoted to considerations of policy, personality has its place. Indeed, it is almost impossible to immerse oneself in the documentary record and not feel the New Frontiersmen’s characters stepping out of the pages, arguing, sniping, gesticulating, trying to best one another in displays of mordant Kennedyesque wit, working late into the night; and it is also almost impossible not to think of how different those documents might have looked if different people had drafted them. As such, I have attempted throughout to provide some of the flavor of the dramatis personae, in the hopes of reminding readers that the policies under discussion were made by men, not machines. The outcomes were the farthest thing from foreordained.  

Understanding this means grappling with the protagonists’ personalities. Indeed, the characters drew me to this project in the first place. “We cannot learn men from books,” Disraeli insisted; but even if we cannot get people entire, we can still get much of them. The charismatic Nasser could be proud, rash, stubborn, self-pitying, or gallant. The pan-Arabist firebrand combined courtesy and steady nerves with genuine radicalism and a conspiratorial, sometimes paranoid view of the world. Nasser’s adversary, Ben-Gurion, was fully the Egyptian leader’s match in obstinacy. “I am a quarrelsome, obstreperous man,” Ben-Gurion himself conceded. He was as brave as he was combative, and he valued both youth and guts; when Israel was seized with “parachute fever,” the Old Man made up his mind to take a paratrooper training course until finally being dissuaded by Moshe Dayan. But Ben-Gurion “had no sense of humor whatsoever,” sighed Walworth Barbour, Kennedy’s ambassador to Israel. In contrast, Ben-Gurion’s heir, Levi Eshkol, was perhaps Israel’s only funny prime minister, with a gentle manner and a droll, mordant wit. (It is a not entirely appealing testament to the durability of Israel’s ruling class that every Labor Party prime minister to date except Ehud Barak—Ben-Gurion, Eshkol, Meir, Moshe Sharett, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres—makes their way through this story.)  

Chief among the personalities is, of course, Kennedy. With the signal exception of the nuclear issues related to Dimona, the president was only occasionally directly involved in Middle East policy. As one would expect in any White House, issues would be batted around at a staff level and only wind up from time to time on the presidential desk. But Kennedy also dipped in and out. He was an engaged, activist chief executive who presided over a somewhat chaotic White House in which staffers spoke more of such virtues as speed, crispness, and tough-mindedness than of such niceties as process, tidiness, and form. Kennedy was also genuinely, deeply, and sometimes single-mindedly interested in foreign policy—a far cry from such recent presidents as Bill Clinton, who took office with only a passing knowledge of the outside world and a voracious intellect, and George W. Bush, who took office with less than even that and wound up presiding over one of the most shocking crises in the history of the republic. In the 1960s, the height of the Cold War, the American electorate knew what it came to forget in the 1990s: that it could not afford ill-preparedness in its commander-in-chief. As has often been noted by historians, the only mention of domestic policy in Kennedy’s famous inaugural address was the hastily added insertion of the two words “at home”—a civil rights reference—in a passage talking about American support for human rights abroad. Indeed, JFK once remarked, “Domestic policy can defeat me, but foreign policy can kill all of us.”  

On the other side of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it is easier for younger readers to feel in their bones the tensions of a cold war—“a long twilight struggle” requiring a lasting American strategic commitment abroad. But when looking at Kennedy’s own Cold War in the Middle East, it is striking to note the way in which his deepening friendship with Israel did not preclude outreach to Arab progressives, his attempts to avoid signaling that America stood reflexively with the Arab world’s reactionaries, and his hope that modernization in the Levant could improve both the Arabs’ lot and the West’s standing. Progressivism did not contradict principle. Kennedy was capable of deploring French colonialism in Algeria and of denouncing terrorism by those who sought to end it, of trying to help Egypt modernize and of trying to force Saudi Arabia to ban slavery, of befriending Israel and of exploring ways to alleviate the misery of Palestinian refugees. In the Middle East, America has not always steered as well.  

Nor, for that matter, as creatively. It is hard to avoid being struck by the pluralism of Kennedy’s Middle East policy. After all, how can one explain an administration that reached out to both Israel and to Israel’s nemesis? How to explain an administration that tried to befriend both Nasser and Saudi Crown Prince Faysal? How to explain an administration that sold Hawks to Israel to assuage Ben-Gurion’s fears of Nasser and sent arms inspectors to Dimona to assuage Nasser’s fears of Israel?  

The answer may simply be that Kennedy was determined to give himself a wider range of Middle Eastern options than those available to Eisenhower, who had opened major rifts with both Nasser and Ben-Gurion. Kennedy, not himself a particularly devout Catholic, once both alarmed and amused his far more religious wife, Jacqueline, by reciting one of his favorite biblical passages—Ecclesiastes’s litany of “a time to be born and a time to die”—and, ever the pol, adding, “A time to fish and a time to cut bait.” For JFK’s Middle East policy, 1961–62 was a time to fish, a time to hurl a wide net out into the waters of the Middle East and see what would come back in it. The constant quest for alternatives, the dislike for cramped corridors of action, the ongoing search for the middle ground—all were hallmarks of the Kennedy style. So Kennedy was willing to experiment, even if that meant managing the anxiety of the Arab monarchs who were the West’s traditional regional colleagues and riding herd on a wary, proIsrael Congress. But by 1963, the outcomes of the overtures to both Nasser and Israel were ever more visible. By the time of Kennedy’s assassination that November, his administration was drawing ever nearer to the time to cut bait.  

The New Frontiersmen felt it particularly acutely in May 1963, in the wake of a nerve-fraying week in which the administration had faced the twin specters of a coup in the indispensable regional bulwark of Jordan and a third Arab-Israeli war. Amid the tension, Kennedy sent the latest in a series of letters—once bracingly frank, now downright testy—to Nasser, the chief regional troublemaker. “We want to steer an even course with all our friends,” Kennedy wrote pointedly, “and we hope it will not be made unduly difficult for us.”  

Finding such a path was proving difficult indeed for the Kennedy administration—but not unduly so. For while Kennedy and his Middle East staffers hoped to steer an even course with all their friends, the blunt regional reality was that America’s friends were either one another’s rivals or, increasingly, one another’s enemies. The pan-Arabist Nasser was seen as a clear and present danger not only by Israel but also by the conservative Arab states—Jordan, the Gulf emirates, and above all Saudi Arabia— that comprised the keystone of America’s traditional Middle East policies. There was no easy way to simultaneously be on all sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the inter-Arab cold war. Therein lay much of the originality and many of the limitations of JFK’s Middle East policy.  

And much of its complexity, too. It is far too neat to say that Kennedy rushed to befriend Israel. Rather, he wound up setting important precedents on U.S.–Israel relations—not because he was a single-minded Zionist or a shill for Jewish votes but because his propensity to avoid extreme alternatives guided him toward decisions that were moderate but still lastingly important. Indeed, Kennedy’s penchant for seeking the middle ground on policy questions runs throughout his Arab-Israeli policies. (The lone exception here is Dimona, which spoke to Kennedy’s central strategic preoccupations in a way unrivaled by any other Middle Eastern issue.) The Hawk sale, for instance, was an attempt to find a compromise between a State Department that was dead set against any arms sales to Israel and a government of Israel determined to turn America into its main arms dealer. On the Nasser initiative, too, Kennedy chose repeated attempts to sound Nasser out over either cutting him off entirely or wooing him unreservedly. Kennedy often sought maximum flexibility, not maximum decisiveness. But as the 1960s wore on, such flexibility was increasingly hard to come by. Arabs and Israelis alike were either making or being driven into making their Cold War choices—into a time to cut bait.  

The fact that Israel’s relationship with the United States expanded so significantly under Kennedy may tempt some to argue that he simply had an Israel policy—a straightforward program of reaching out to the Jewish state. In fact, he had an Arab-Israel policy, which entailed a careful balancing of regional rivalries and American ambitions. JFK was playing chess in the Middle East, not checkers. Kennedy’s Israel decisions came in the context of his Egypt decisions; his Egypt decisions came in the context of his Israel decisions; and both of these came in the context of the Cold War. Above all, the administration’s goal was barring Soviet penetration of the Middle East. Its other interests included keeping the Suez Canal open; ensuring that the oil needed to create a prosperous, noncommunist Western Europe continued to flow freely; keeping Arab-Israeli tensions contained so as not to offer any opportunities to Moscow; preventing nuclear proliferation; and retaining a “reasonable degree of rapport with [the] Arab world as well as with Israel.” That mandated a nuanced overall Arab-Israeli policy, with much in it to offend both sides. But only the Israelis were able to make the most of what was offered them and lay the groundwork for their subsequent full-blown alliance. Nasser was too much the prisoner of the Arab cold war to be the beneficiary of the superpower Cold War. The origins of the U.S.–Israel bond as we know it, then, lie not in one simple shift of presidential will but amid the diplomatic triangle between Kennedy, Nasser, and Ben-Gurion. In effect, JFK opened doors to both Israel and Egypt; one door slammed shut in Nasser’s face, but Ben-Gurion jammed his foot in the other. “Oh, well,” Kennedy said at one National Security Council meeting, “just think of what we’ll pass on to the poor fellow who comes after me.” Among other things, he passed on the foundations of the U.S.–Israel alliance.