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America's staunchest Mideast ally

When Kennedy sold Hawk missiles to Israel, a great friendship was born

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Today the relationship between the United States and Israel is so close that it is hard to believe things were ever otherwise. Administration officials sometimes bristle at what they judge to be Israeli intransigence - an exasperated Secretary of State James Baker once read the White House phone number aloud to reporters and asked Jerusalem to call - but on the whole, the two countries are common-law allies. US foreign aid flows to Israel like a fiscal River Jordan. US weapons are the backbone of Israeli defense.

Yet the situation was not always thus. One of the greatest strengths of Warren Bass's thorough and fascinating "Support Any Friend: Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the US-Israel Alliance" is that it reminds us this relationship was made, not born. The two countries may share cultural affinities, but at many points along the way a change of leadership, or of heart, might have made things turn out differently. "The US-Israel alliance we know today is the cumulative product of individual decisions that could have gone either way," writes Bass.

The author contends that the pivotal presidency for US-Israeli relations was that of John F. Kennedy. Other historians typically emphasize the importance of later administrations and events, particularly the aid and arms flows that followed the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War. Yet JFK was the first US chief executive to sell a major weapons system to the Israelis, Bass points out.

True, the system in question was a defensive one - Hawk antiaircraft missiles. But the gates were open. As Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion had foreseen, the two nations began to move closer once the US policy debate focused on which armaments to sell Israel, as opposed to whether to sell any at all.

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