What Would Ben-Gurion Do?
Here is a hypothetical being asked around Israel: How would David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), Israel's first prime minister and a founding father, handle himself if it were he and not Benjamin Netanyahu who was scheduled to meet President Barack Obama on Friday (May 20), address AIPAC on Monday (May 23) and speak before a joint session of the US Congress on Tuesday (May 24)? Ben-Gurion's own meeting – precisely fifty years ago this month – with President John F. Kennedy provides some context about the limits of prime ministerial charisma and the constraints on Israel's freedom of action.
Start with U.S. Jewry. Even before he set out for America, Ben-Gurion found himself embroiled in a bitter public dispute with Nahum Goldmann and Irving Miller, top American Jewish leaders, over Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. Ben-Gurion began the row by saying that a Jew could only be a Zionist by making aliya – immigrating to Israel. The Jewish leaders insisted that one could be a perfectly good Zionist by aiding Israel from afar and by unifying Jews behind Israel as the civilizational core of world Jewry. Ben-Gurion further antagonized Goldmann and Miller by having issued a joint statement with Jacob Blaustein, head of the American Jewish Committee, which affirmed that Israel would not interfere in the internal affairs of the Diaspora and stipulating that aliya was a matter of personal choice.
Ben-Gurion well knew that the AJC in those days identified itself as non-Zionist and had pointedly stayed out of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in which Goldmann and Miller were leaders. Goldmann, who later became a vehement critic of the very Jewish establishment he helped create, lambasted Ben-Gurion for undermining the unity of American Jewry by fixing Israel-Diaspora relations with what Goldmann termed an "unrepresentative" AJC. One can only imagine Goldmann's and Miller's apoplectic reaction when they learned that while he was in the U.S. Ben-Gurion went so far as to meet with Lessing Rosenwald head of the stridently anti-Zionist American Council on Judaism.
Ben-Gurion departed Israel on May 24, 1961 travelling first to see Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker. At last, on May 30 at 4:45PM he was ushered into the presidential suite at Manhattan's Waldorf Hotel for his private meeting with Kennedy. 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 the Arab states by officially hosting Ben-Gurion at the White House. The premier, accompanied by Israeli Ambassador Avraham Harman, was described as tense heading into the meeting which included Myer Feldman, the president's liaison to the Jewish community and Phil Talbot from the State Department.
In a remark that Ben-Gurion later told intimates he found uncouth, JFK began by saying: "You know, I was elected by the Jews of New York" – indeed he had garnered 80 percent of the Jewish vote nationwide in his razor-thin victory over Richard Nixon in the 1960 elections – and 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. He knew that Ben-Gurion would be asking to purchase HAWK anti-aircraft missiles. Kennedy's State Department was decidedly opposed; the Pentagon was indifferent. Next, Kennedy wanted to get Ben-Gurion's assurance that Israel would not use its Dimona nuclear reactor – just visited by international inspectors who returned with a favorable report – for military purposes. And finally, Kennedy wanted Ben-Gurion to make a gesture to the Arabs on the refugee issue.
Ben-Gurion first implied that the Eisenhower administration had been inclined to sell Israel the HAWKS. When he saw this tack wasn't working he made a fresh case on the merits: The Soviets were supplying Egypt with advanced MIG-19s warplanes and the purely defensive HAWKS were needed to counter this threat. Not wanting to introduce missiles into the region – or leave Israel in a position that invited attack – JFK pledged to "continue to review the missile situation." Ben-Gurion didn't get a "yes" but he found JFK far more sympathetic than his predecessor. Indeed, in August 1962, following a meeting between 39 year-old Shimon Peres, director-general of the Defense Ministry, and Attorney-General Robert F. Kennedy, the administration agreed to sell the anti-aircraft system to Israel.
On Dimona, Ben-Gurion had already told Diefenbaker just days earlier that as a matter of survival Israel might be forced to develop a nuclear capability. Kennedy talked in a friendly way about the recently completed international inspection at Dimona and said that there must not be even the appearance that Israel was pursing 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 and Egyptian threat. The signals from Gamal Nasser were more than discouraging. Ben-Gurion told JFK: "If they should defeat us they would do to the Jews what Hitler did."
Kennedy next wanted to talk about the Palestinian Arab refugees. The premier said that Nasser did not really care what happened to them. The Israeli position was that the refugees should be resettled and absorbed in Egyptian-occupied Gaza, the Jordanian occupied West Bank and in Lebanon. JFK asked Israel to take back a token number of refugees saying it would help the US in trying to mediate between the parties. Ben-Gurion predicted that the initiative would fail, but Kennedy responded that Washington would rather see the onus of rejectionism rest with the Arabs. So Ben-Gurion agreed that the initiative was "worth trying" and following the meeting told the press that he and JFK were in agreement on a refugee initiative. Either the two men did not understand one other or the U.S. toughened its stance, but when UN Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson later detailed the specifics of the repatriation proposal to Israeli officials it became clear that there was an unbridgeable gulf between what Israel could live with and what Washington wanted.
By 6 P.M. the Ben-Gurion-JFK confab had concluded.
The next day, the New York Times led its coverage with the "problem of the Palestine Arab refugees."
Before leaving for London on his way back to Israel, Ben-Gurion met with the Conference of Presidents and with former president Harry S Truman, to thank him for his previous support He also saw former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Ambassador Stevenson, and Labor leader George Meany.
Anticipating criticism of the meeting, the State Department had sent diplomatic notes in JFK'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 U.N. and later to become the founding head of the Palestine Liberation Organization when it was established by the Arab League in 1964. The administration's unappreciated efforts at "impartiality" nevertheless brought it in conflict with Congress which sought to cut U.S. aid to Egypt.
In grappling with the "What would Ben-Gurion Do?" question, journalist Amnon Lord, speaking recently on Israel's Knesset Channel, bemoaned the sense prevalent in Israel today that its fate is no longer in its hands; its independence seems to be dissipating. Who would have thought, he asked, that a Netanyahu government would have imposed a de facto freeze on new housing construction in Jerusalem?
Actually, Netanyahu's position is not spectacularly different from Ben-Gurion's. Granted, Obama is more of an Eisenhower than a JFK, but the options available to an Israeli premier haven't changed all that much. Ben-Gurion employed suasion on the HAWKS and succeeded; on existential questions of survival – what the future might hold for Dimona – he exhibited requisite toughness; and on the refugee issue he first tried diplomatic accommodation before digging in his heels. Fifty years on, Israel's standing with U.S. Jewry is no less complicated; its security predicament no less threatened; its international standing no less tenuous.
So Israelis would be well served if Netanyahu managed to emulate "the Old Man" by employing just the right combination of suasion, toughness and diplomacy.
-- May 16, 2011