Kennedy - NY Daily News via Getty Images - March 2012
U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion strove to forge a military alliance with the United States. Photo by NY Daily News via Getty Images
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On December 27, 1962, Foreign Minister Golda Meir traveled to Palm Beach, Florida, where she met with President John F. Kennedy. The crux of what she told him sounds like talking points for Netanyahu's speech at the AIPAC convention this week: Israel does not want to annex territories, but is very concerned. Egypt is preparing to launch a radiological war against Israel and has enlisted German scientists to that end. Cairo is scheming to force Israel to accept the Palestinian refugees and that means the destruction of the Third Temple. Therefore, declared Meir, the president of the United States must take upon himself a commitment to Israel's fate.

For his part, Kennedy was familiar with this rhetoric. He mentioned the reactor in Dimona and noted that the United States was opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. "He is very smart," Meir said about Kennedy when she got home.

David Ben-Gurion strove to forge a military alliance with the United States or to have Israel accepted into NATO. Kennedy offered mainly promises: to come to Israel's aid should it be attacked, so long as it was not the one who started the war, did not attempt to conquer the West Bank - and, of course, was prepared to relinquish its nuclear program.

The following years put the "special nature" of the relations between the two countries to the test. Joseph Heller, professor emeritus of international relations at Hebrew University, asserts in a new book that at least until after the Six-Day War, that "specialness" was more fiction than fact. In his book "Israel and the Cold War" (Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute; in Hebrew ), Heller writes primarily about the 1960s, but apparently the situation then greatly resembles the current one - with the United States trying to keep one Middle Eastern country from procuring nuclear weapons: At the time, that country was Israel. For its part, Israel was conveying existential anxiety: The main threat that was on everyone's lips at the time was "Arab unity."

Pan-Arabism failed, but in May 1963, just weeks before he resigned as prime minister, Ben-Gurion drafted a letter to Kennedy in which he declared: "I do not know for certain whether the state will still exist after my death." Even Golda Meir thought it was inappropriate to convey such profound gloom, and asked that the sentence be erased (it was).

The Americans in any case refused to be drawn in by such concerns. They demanded complete information from Israel about what was going on in Dimona, and threatened that if it refused, Israel might lose U.S. backing. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who replaced Ben-Gurion, agreed to open the reactor to inspection. Israel received Hawk missiles, but according to Heller that does not justify thinking that Kennedy was the so-called father of "the special relationship" - in other words, of the commitment to protect Israel. That, in Heller's view, came about as a result of the Six-Day War; not as a result of Israel's weakness, but of its strength.

Here is a basis for a thesis: The more powerful Israel grows - the more special "the special relationship" becomes. The more "special" the relations - the greater is Israel's dependence on the Americans.

It's a very complex story. In the 1960s it took place against the backdrop of the Cold War: Cuba, Berlin, Vietnam, the Soviet Union's penetration of the Middle East. There were plenty of diversionary tactics and mutual winking going on, and a lot of domestic politics at play, both here and there.

In recent days there has been an interest in using the Holocaust as an argument. It is hard to say which is more tiresome: the demagogic use that President Obama makes today of the liberation of Buchenwald or that which Benjamin Netanyahu makes of Auschwitz not being bombed. (Ben-Gurion and the directors of the Jewish Agency were opposed to bombing the camp in 1944. )

Either way, the chapters about the Six-Day War in Heller's book are another reminder that it was not well-founded intelligence about Egypt's intention to attack Israel that led Israel to go to war, but rather primarily the fear of a second Holocaust. A similar fear might also lead to an attack on Iran.

'Believe it or not'

The following story isn't new, but I doubt that many know it; it still comes under the heading of "believe it or not," and in any event this seems like a suitable week to be reminded of it.

For the past 30 years, the Weizmann Institute has had a chair in nuclear physics named for a German nuclear scientist who took part in the Nazi effort to arm Germany with an atom bomb. There is also a yearly symposium that bears his name. The man, Wolfgang Gentner, worked during World War II at the Uranium Club, as the nuclear energy project of the Third Reich was known. After the war, Gentner became head of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, and the director of a department at CERN in Geneva. In the 1950s a connection was forged between him and Amos de-Shalit, then head of the nuclear physics department at the Weizmann Institute.

A spokesperson for the institute explained this week that Gentner had done a great deal to promote cooperation between German and Israeli scientists, and was among those behind the German Minerva Foundation. This foundation sends millions of euros each year to the Weizmann.

Gentner died in 1980. He was honored in Germany and France as well. Does the Weizmann Institute today regret commemorating Hitler's nuclear scientist?

"I'm not sure you can judge this by today's mores," the spokesperson said. "Even Einstein, the pacifist, encouraged the United States to get on with atomic bomb research."