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Nixon and Israel: Forging a Conservative Partnership, by Noam Kochavi. New York: State University of New York Press, 2009. 146 pp. $55.00.
Noam Kochavi is a lecturer at the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He specializes in 20th-century diplomatic history, with a special focus on the diplomatic history of the United States. This book by Kochavi is in essence a collection of three of his articles, which he published in different journals in recent years.
Unlike his predecessors, Presidents Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson, Richard Nixon owed nothing politically to the pro-Israel lobby or to Israel, since in the November 1968 elections he received the support of only 15% of the American Jewish vote. Yet Nixon ended up being the most Israel-friendly president to date. Military and economic aid to Israel, as well the political backing it has enjoyed, all increased significantly during his term in office, and the “special relations” between Washington and Jerusalem, based on common interests both in the Middle East and globally, were forged.
Kochavi’s book is based on U.S. and Israeli documents declassified in recent years. The first chapter of his book surveys the Nixon administration’s attitude towards Israel in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict as well as the attempts made by the State Department at that time to forge a settlement of the conflict. Nixon and his influential National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, were very skeptical of the State Department’s chances of success and therefore failed to back State Department efforts to promote a settlement of the conflict between Israel and Egypt. In fact, Nixon and Kissinger actively worked to undermine these efforts, for example in the case of the December 1969 Rogers Plan.
Kochavi rightly claims that the relationships between Washington and Jerusalem suffered from mutual suspicion up until the crisis in Jordan in September 1970. President Nixon, who was more than slightly antisemitic, albeit not overtly so, believed that American Jews put Israel’s interests before the interests of the United States; he also resented their traditional support of the Democratic Party. In addition, Nixon feared that broadening U.S. military and economic aid to Israel would strongly hinder American interests in the Middle East, especially in those countries of the region that were friendly to the U.S., such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Israel also treated the Nixon Administration, especially the State Department, suspiciously at the time and feared that Washington intended to coerce it into signing a forced agreement with Egypt, in which Israel would have to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula without first reaching an agreement that would protect its interests.
Kochavi is also quite correct in suggesting that the period between September 1970 and November 1971 was an important turning point in Nixon’s attitude towards Israel, in which he realized not only that Israel could block Soviet attempts to increase its presence in the Middle East, such as in the case of the Syrian military invasion into Jordan, but also that every settlement in which Israel would give back the territories it had occupied in 1967 would strengthen the USSR’s standing in the region. Nixon therefore avoided pressuring Israel to move the peace process forward up to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War (pp. 17–21).
According to Kochavi, the mutual trust and appreciation that developed between Nixon and Kissinger on the one hand and Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Yitzhak Rabin, on the other, had a significant influence on improving Israeli-U.S. relations. The Israeli government, and especially Rabin, contrary to the usual protocol, openly supported Nixon in his 1972 election campaign against Democratic candidate George McGovern. This further improved the relationships between Washington and Jerusalem and further strengthened the U.S. President’s reluctance to urge Israel to move toward a peace agreement with Egypt (pp. 22–24).
All these statements by Kochavi are correct in and of themselves, but provide no new insights and add little to the remarks of other scholars, such as William B. Qandt and Robert Dallek, who have examined the Nixon administration’s relationships with Israel in the past.
The book’s main contribution to research is contained in its second and third chapters, describing the tension that developed in U.S.-Israeli relations between 1972 and 1974 around the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the U.S-Soviet trade bill. This law, agreed upon at the May 1972 Nixon-Brezhnev summit in Moscow, granted “most favored nation” status to the USSR for trade purposes. The amendment proposed by Senator Henry Jackson and Rep. Charles Vanik demanded that these trade benefits be conditional upon relaxing the restrictions on Jewish immigration from the USSR.
While the Jackson-Vanik amendment has been discussed in quite a few studies, Kochavi is, to the best of my knowledge, the first to use U.S. and Israeli archival materials to clarify the conflict of interests that formed between the U.S. Administration, led by Nixon and Kissinger, and the Jewish leadership in the United Stated and the State of Israel.
The Nixon administration, while publicly sympathetic to the grave problems which Soviet Jews were facing, had de facto opposed bringing up the issue in formal talks with the USSR, as such an open discussion was considered to be a threat to the air of détente and to the possibility for reaching agreements between the two superpowers on issues that Washington considered to be urgent, such as the war in Vietnam. Kochavi describes in great detail how Nixon and Kissinger acted with great vigor and determination to block the passage of this amendment. Among other efforts, the two met members of Congress as well as many Jewish leaders and tried to make it clear that the issue of the immigration rights of Soviet Jews was an “internal affair” of the Soviet regime and that the passage of the amendment would severely impede not only the spirit of détente, but also important U.S. economic interests. Kochavi describes how Kissinger tried to persuade Israel to abandon the Jackson-Vanik amendment and even conditioned the further transfer of arms to Israel on this. Kissinger’s pressure on Israel on this issue peaked in the first days of the Yom Kippur War, when Israel was in desperate need of U.S. military aid (p. 39).
The Israeli government understood that despite its wish to see the amendment pass—which would increase Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union—it would be unwise to enter into direct confrontation with the U.S. administration on the issue. Israel’s diplomatic representatives throughout the world were therefore explicitly instructed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to conduct no formal discussions on this subject. In light of this state of affairs, the struggle to pass the amendment was mostly conducted by the Jewish organizations in the United States (pp. 39–40). Eventually, despite the administration’s efforts, the amendment was accepted on October 18, 1974, and became law on January 3, 1975.
Kochavi’s book, despite its small size, is one of the first books dealing with U.S.-Israeli relationships during the Nixon administration based on recently declassified archival materials. It is hence an important book. It is to be expected that additional studies in this field will be published in the coming years which will expand our knowledge of this important period in U.S.-Israeli relationships.
Ben Gurion University