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Rick Sterling

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated sixty years ago. If he had lived and  
won a second term, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have evolved  
differently. Possibly the path toward Israeli apartheid and genocide in Gaza  
could have been avoided.  
In his short time in office, Kennedy changed U.S. foreign policy in significant  
ways. As documented in the book “JFK and the Unspeakable: Why he died and why it  
still matters,” JFK resisted the CIA and military industrial complex in the  
policies he set regarding the Third World and Soviet Union. The Vietnam War, the  
overthrow of President Sukarno and murder of hundreds of thousands of  
Indonesians, and continued hostility to Cuba and the Soviet Union would not have  
happened had Kennedy lived and won a second term.  
Less well known, Kennedy’s policies also challenged and opposed the military and  
political ambitions of Zionist Israel. At the time, Israel had only existed for  
thirteen years. It was still evolving, and the course was not totally set. There  
was significant international resolve to find a compromise solution regarding  
Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Nakba. When Israel attacked Egypt and seized  
the Sinai Peninsula in 1956, the Eisenhower administration demanded Israel  
withdraw from the captured territory. They complied.  
Racism and Discrimination in Israel  
At this time, in the early 1960’s, prominent Jewish voices criticized the racism  
and discrimination of the Israeli government. Israelis like Martin Buber assailed  
Ben-Gurion and noted that, “At the inception of the state, complete equality with  
the Jewish citizens was promised to the Arab population.” Many influential  
Israelis realized their long-term security and well-being depended on finding a  
just settlement with the indigenous Palestinian population.  
In the United States, the Jewish community was divided, and many were anti-  
Zionist. The American Council for Judaism was influential and anti-nationalist.  
The racist and militaristic character of Israel was not yet set in stone. Nor was  
American Jewish support for Israel. When Menachem Begin came to the United States  
in 1948, he was denounced by prominent Jewish leaders, including Albert Einstein.  
They said Begin, who later became Israeli Prime Minister, was a “terrorist” who  
preached “an admixture of ultra-nationalism, religious mysticism and racial  
superiority.” Many American Jews had mixed feelings and did not identify with  
Israel. Others supported Israel but on the basis of there being peace with the  
indigenous Palestinians.  
There are four key areas where the Kennedy policy was substantially different  
from what followed after his death.  
Kennedy was Not Biased in favor of Israel  
The Kennedy administration sought good relations with both Israel and the Arab  
nations. Kennedy aimed to extend U.S. influence throughout the Middle East,  
including with nations friendly with the Soviet Union and at odds with NATO  
JFK personally supported Arab and African nationalism. As a senator in 1957, he  
criticized the Eisenhower administration for supporting and sending weapons to  
France in their war against the Algerian independence movement. In a 9,000-word  
presentation to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he criticized “Western  
imperialism” and called for the U.S. to support Algerian independence. Algerian  
President Ben Bella, who France had tried to assassinate and considered far too  
radical by many in NATO, was given a huge and impressive welcome to the White  
Kennedy changed the previous frosty relations with the United Arab Republic  
(Egypt and Syria) led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. For the first time, the U.S.  
approved loans to them. Kennedy wrote respectful letters to the Arab presidents  
before he welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion to Washington. The Arab  
leaders could see the difference and responded with appreciation. Those who claim  
there was no difference with Kennedy ignore the fact that Egypt’s Nasser,  
Algeria’s Ben Bella, and other nationalist leaders saw a big difference.  
Friendship For All Middle Eastern People  
In 1960, when Kennedy was campaigning for the presidency, he spoke at the Zionist  
Organization of America Convention. He made complimentary remarks about Israel  
but also expressed the need for friendship with all the people of the Middle  
East. He said the U.S. should “act promptly and decisively against any nation in  
the Middle East which attacks its neighbor” and “The Middle East needs water, not  
war; tractors, not tanks; bread, not bombs.”  
Kennedy frankly told the Zionists, “I cannot believe that Israel has any real  
desire to remain indefinitely a garrison state surrounded by fear and hate.” By  
maintaining objectivity and neutrality on the Israeli Arab conflict, Kennedy  
wanted to steer the Jewish Zionists away from the racist, militaristic, and  
ultra-nationalistic impulses which have led to where we are today.  
Kennedy Wanted the Zionist Lobby to Follow the Rules  
The second difference in Kennedy’s policy is regarding Zionist lobbying on behalf  
of Israel. Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), organizations that  
promote or lobby on behalf of a foreign government are required to register and  
account for their finances and activities. Under Attorney General Robert Kennedy,  
the Department of Justice (DOJ) instructed the American Zionist Council (AZC) to  
register as agents of a foreign country. AZC is the parent organization of the  
American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC).  
As documented in detail here, on 21 November 1962, the Assistant Attorney General  
wrote to them that “the receipt of such funds from the American sections of the  
Jewish Agency for Israel constitutes the (American Zionist) Council an agent of a  
foreign principal…. the Council’s registration is requested.”  
The emergence of Israeli political influence was also scrutinized in the Senate.  
Under Senator J. William Fulbright, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held  
hearings in May and August 1963. They revealed that tax free donations to the  
United Jewish Appeal, supposedly for humanitarian relief in Israel, were being  
channeled back to the U.S. where the money was used for lobbying and Israeli  
public relations.  
Registration As a Foreign Agent  
Attorneys for AZC stalled for time. On August 16, 1963, a Department of Justice  
(DOJ) analyst reviewed the case and concluded, “The Department should insist on  
the immediate registration of the American Zionist Council under the Foreign  
Agents Registration Act.”  
On October 11 the DOJ demanded that AZC register and “Department expects a  
response from you within 72 hours.”  
On October 17, a DOJ memorandum reports that attorneys for AZC pleaded for not  
being required to register as foreign agents. They offered to provide the  
required financial disclosures but that registering as a foreign agent “would be  
so publicized by the American Council for Judaism that it would eventually  
destroy the Zionist movement.” As indicated in this discussion, political  
Zionism was not yet dominant in the American Jewish community and was actively  
opposed by the American Council for Judaism and other Jewish groups.  
Kennedy Supported Palestinian Rights  
A third difference is regarding Palestinian rights. Although he was only 44 when  
he became president, Kennedy had more international experience than most U.S.  
presidents. In 1939 he spent two weeks in Palestine. In a lengthy letter to his  
father, he described the situation and difficulties. He wrote, “The sympathy of  
the people on the spot seems to be with the Arabs. This is not only because the  
Jews have had, at least some of their leaders, an unfortunately arrogant,  
uncompromising attitude, but they feel that after all, the country has been  
Arabic for the last few hundred years …. Palestine was hardly Britain’s to give  
In comments that are still true, Kennedy remarks how the Jewish residents are  
divided between “strongly Orthodox Jewish group, unwilling to make any  
compromise” and a “liberal Jewish element composed of the younger group who fear  
these reactionaries”. His analysis is sympathetic to both Jewish and Arab  
peoples and addresses the difficulty but necessity to find a compromise solution.  
In the early 1960’s, the U.S. State Department was not locked in to a biased  
acceptance or approval of Israeli policies. The U.S. supported U.N. Resolution  
194 resolving (in paragraph 11) that “refugees wishing to return to their homes  
and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the  
earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property  
of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which,  
under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the  
Governments or authorities responsible.” This has become known as the “right of  
Discord Between Washington and Tel Aviv  
On November 21, 1963, the day before Kennedy’s assassination, the New York Times  
has two news stories which exemplify the discord between Washington and Tel Aviv.  
A report from the United Nations is titled “Israel Dissents as U.N. Group Backs  
U.S. on Arab Refugees”. It begins, “A United States resolution calling for  
continued efforts to resolve the predicament of the Palestinian Arab refugees was  
approved tonight 83 to 1… Israel cast the single negative vote…. The issue  
centers on a 1948 resolution whose key section, paragraph 11, concerns the future  
of the Arabs who were displaced from their homes by the Palestine conflict. They  
have been living in the lands bordering Israel …. The revised United States text  
calls on the Palestine Conciliation Commission to ‘continue its efforts for the  
implementation of Paragraph 11’.”  
The second New York Times story is titled “U.S. Stand Angers Israel”. It reports  
from Jerusalem that “Premier Levi Eshkol expressed extreme distaste today for the  
United States’ position in the Palestine refugee debate…. Israel’s anger was  
conveyed ‘in the strongest terms’ to the U.S. Ambassador …. The Israeli  
Government is upset about the American resolution before the U.N. Political  
Committee and by American maneuvers over the issue.” Israel was angered and  
objecting because the Kennedy administration was trying to resolve the  
Palestinian refugee situation including the right of return.  
Kennedy tried to stop the Israeli nuclear weapons program  
The fourth and biggest contention between Kennedy and the Israeli leadership was  
regarding their developing nuclear weapons. This issue was kept so secret that  
crucial documents and letters have only been released in recent years.  
President Kennedy was a strong advocate for stopping nuclear proliferation.  
After the 1962 Cuba missile crisis, he realized how easy it would be to  
intentionally or accidentally trigger a catastrophic nuclear war. If nuclear  
weapons were allowed to spread to more countries, the risks of global catastrophe  
would be all the greater. It was also predicted that if Israel acquired nuclear  
weapons capability, they would become more aggressive and less likely to reach a  
compromise agreement regarding Palestinian refugees.  
When intelligence indicated that Israel might be trying to build a nuclear weapon  
at Dimona in 1962, Kennedy was determined to find out if this was true, and if so  
to stop it. This caused an intense diplomatic confrontation between JFK and  
Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. The proof of this has recently been  
revealed in the exchange of letters between President Kennedy and Prime Minister  
Ben-Gurion and his successor Levi Eshkol. They are all labeled “Top Secret” or  
“Eyes Only”.  
It is important to see the sequence and some details to understand how intense  
this showdown was. These communications are all from 1963. (Note to reader: skip  
ahead to the next section if you become tired of the detail in the following  
In March the U.S. State Department instructed the U.S. Ambassador to inform the  
government of Israel (GOI) that for “compelling reasons” the “USG seeks GOI  
assent to semi-annual repeat semi-annual visits to Dimona, perhaps May and  
November, with full access to all parts and instruments in the facility, by  
qualified US scientists.”  
On April 19 the State Department instructed the US Ambassador to Israel to  
“press” for an “affirmative reply” to the earlier request for semi-annual  
inspections of Dimona.  
Evading The Issue of Inspections  
On April 26, Israeli PM Ben Gurion replied to President Kennedy. He evaded the  
issue of nuclear facility inspections and instead expressed his concern regarding  
a recent proclamation from Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. He compared Egyptian President  
Nasser to Germany’s Hitler.  
On May 4 JFK responded to Ben Gurion’s concerns and underscored the U.S.  
commitment to Israel and peace in the Middle East. He told the Israeli leader he  
is much less worried about an “early Arab attack” than the “successful  
development of advanced offensive systems”.  
On May 8 a Special National Intelligence Estimate concluded, “Israel intends at  
least to put itself in a position to be able to produce a limited number of  
weapons” and that “unless deterred by outside pressure [the Israelis] will  
attempt to produce a weapon sometime in the next several years.” The analysis  
predicted that if Israelis had the bomb, it would “encourage them to be bolder in  
their use of the conventional resources both diplomatic and military in their  
confrontation with the Arabs.”  
On May 10 U.S. State Department sent an “Eyes Only Ambassador” telegram to the  
U.S. Ambassador to Israel. The ambassador was instructed to remind the Israeli  
leadership that they have previously agreed to the bi-annual inspections. The  
telegram also says Israeli concerns about Arab development of a nuclear bomb “are  
not valid” because there is nothing comparable to the “advanced Israeli program.”  
Israeli Lobby Escalates Tension  
The tensions between the Kennedy administration and Tel Aviv caused the Israel  
lobby to escalate pressure on the White House. This is revealed in a May 11 TOP  
SECRET State Department memo regarding “White House Concern with Arab-Israeli  
Matters”. It begins, “In recent weeks, as you are aware, it has become  
increasingly clear that the White House is under steadily mounting domestic  
political pressure to adopt a foreign policy in the Near East more consonant with  
Israeli desires. The Israelis are determined to use the period between now and  
the 1964 Presidential election to secure a closer, more public security  
relationship with the Unites States, notably through a public security guarantee  
and a cooler, more antagonistic relationship between the United States and the  
UAR [United Arab Republic].” This is a highly interesting memo showing Israeli  
influence in U.S. policy and electoral politics. It further shows Kennedy’s  
effort to mitigate this influence while standing firm on the goal to stop nuclear  
On May 12, 1963, Ben Gurion wrote another long letter to President Kennedy.  
Again, evading the U.S. request, Ben Gurion gives a distorted history including  
the claim that Palestinian refugees left Palestine “at the demand of Arab  
leaders”. He again compares Nasser to Hitler and suggests the danger of a new  
Holocaust. He says, “Mr. President, my people have the right to exist … and this  
existence is in danger.”  
On May 19 Kennedy responded to Ben Gurion emphasizing the importance he placed on  
not allowing the spread of nuclear weapons. “We are concerned with the disturbing  
effects on world stability which would accompany the development of a nuclear  
weapons capability by Israel.” Kennedy underscores the “deep commitment to the  
security of Israel” but says the commitment and support “would be seriously  
jeopardized” if the U.S. is unable to obtain reliable information about “Israel’s  
efforts in the nuclear field.”  
On May 27 Ben Gurion responded to Kennedy saying that the nuclear reactor at  
Dimona “will be devoted exclusively to peaceful purposes”. He counters Kennedy’s  
request for bi-annual visits starting in June by suggesting annual visits “such  
as have already taken place” starting at the end of the year. The condition is  
significant because the previous “visit” to Dimona was restricted in time and  
Nuclear Site Inspection  
On June 15 Kennedy wrote to Ben Gurion after he had received a scientific  
evaluation of the minimum requirements for a nuclear site inspection. After  
welcoming Ben Gurion’s assurances that Dimona will only be devoted to peaceful  
purposes, Kennedy issued a polite ultimatum. “If Israel’s purposes are to be  
clear to world beyond reasonable doubt, I believe the schedule which would best  
serve our common purpose would be a visit early this summer, another visit in  
June 1964, thereafter at intervals of six months.” He specifies that the “visit”  
must include access to all areas and “sufficient time be allotted for thorough  
On June 16, the U.S. Embassy in Israel reported that Ben Gurion resigned as  
Israel’s Prime Minister. This was a huge surprise; the explanation was that it  
was for “personal reasons”. It is likely that Ben-Gurion knew the contents of the  
forthcoming letter from Washington (received at the embassy the day before). The  
impact of his resignation was to stall for time. US Ambassador Barbour suggested  
waiting until the “cabinet problem is worked out” before sending JFKs near  
ultimatum to the next Prime Minister.  
Kennedy did not wait long. On July 4, he wrote to new Israeli Prime Minister Levi  
Eshkol. After congratulating Eshkol on becoming new Prime Minister, he goes  
straight to the point “concerning American visits to Israel’s nuclear facility at  
Dimona.” Kennedy says, “I regret having to add to your burdens to soon after your  
assumption of office, but …” He then goes on to request inspections as was  
requested in the letter to Ben-Gurion and that “support of Israel could be  
seriously jeopardized” if this is not done.  
Israel’s Defiance  
On July 17, Eshkol wrote to Kennedy that he needed to study the issue more before  
responding to Kennedy’s request for visits to Dimona. U.S. Ambassador Barbour  
added that Eshkol verbally conveyed that he was “surprised” at Kennedy’s  
statement that U.S. commitment to Israel might be jeopardized. Indicating Israeli  
defiance, Eshkol told the U.S. Ambassador “Israel would do what it had to do for  
its national security and to safeguard its sovereign rights.”  
On August 19, Eshkol wrote to Kennedy re-iterating the “peaceful purpose” of  
Dimona and ignoring the request for a summer inspection. He proposed the  
inspection take place “toward the end of 1963”.  
On August 26 Kennedy wrote to Eshkol accepting the visit at year end but  
emphasizing it needs to be done “when the reactor’s core is being loaded and  
before internal radiation hazards have developed.” Kennedy set these conditions  
because they were essential for determining whether the facility could be used  
for developing a nuclear weapon.  
On September 16, the State Department prepared a Memorandum of Conversation with  
a counselor from the British Embassy. There was joint concern but agreement that  
Dimona would be visited and inspected “prior to the activation of the reactor.”  
After the Assassination of JFK on November 22.  
After Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) became president, U.S. Mideast policy changed  
significantly. From the start, LBJ told an Israeli diplomat, “You have lost a  
very great friend. But you have found a better one.” The Israeli publication  
Haaretz says, “Historians generally regard Johnson as the president most  
uniformly friendly to Israel.” The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs  
writes “Lyndon Johnson Was First to Align U.S. Policy with Israel’s Policies” and  
“Up to Johnson’s presidency, no administration had been as completely pro-Israel  
and anti-Arab as his.”  
On the crucial issue of Dimona inspection, the Israelis ignored JFK’s condition  
and the reactor went critical on December 26. When the inspection occurred three  
weeks later, they could not inspect the areas that had been irradiated. A  
handwritten comment on the report says, “We were supposed to see this first!” We  
do not know what would have happened it JFK had been in the White House but given  
the intensity of his effort, and deep convictions regarding the dangers of  
nuclear proliferation, it would not have been ignored as it was under LBJ.  
Under LBJ, relations with Egypt deteriorated. The U.S. stopped providing direct  
assistance loans and grants to Egypt. The U.S. became increasingly antagonistic  
to President Nasser, as desired by the Israel lobby. U.S. support for a  
resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue decreased and then stopped.  
The Department of Justice efforts to require the American Zionist Council to  
register as foreign agents became increasingly weak until they were dropped under  
LBJ’s new Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. The sequence of exchanges  
On December 11, 1963, the AZC attorney wrote to the DOJ saying, “Our client is  
not prepared to register as an agent of a foreign government.” Instead, he  
proposed to provide “voluntarily” the required financial information.  
In January and February 1964, there were more exchange between AZC and the DOJ.  
AZC expressed concern because the American Council for Judaism publicly said that  
AZC was acting as “propaganda agents for the state of Israel and that the Jewish  
Agency was being used as a conduit for funds for the Zionist organization in the  
United States.”  
In summer 1964 Nicholas Katzenbach becomes Attorney General. Negotiations  
continued. DOJ staff noted that AZC was “stalling” and not providing acceptable  
information despite the increasingly special and favorable treatment. In spring  
of 1965 the DOJ accepted that AZC was NOT required to register as foreign agent.  
Their financial information was kept in a unique expandable folder. In November  
1967 the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) applied for a federal  
tax exemption. The U.S. Treasury Department granted it, backdated to 1953.  
Increasingly Aggressive and Uncompromising Zionist Israel  
The successful development of nuclear weapons added to Israel’s aggressive  
actions and unwillingness to resolve the Palestinian refugee crisis.  
With intelligence information provided by Washington, Israel made a surprise  
attack on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in June 1967. The “Six Day War” was a crucial  
turning point in Middle East history. Israel quickly defeated the unprepared  
combined armies. In the West, public perception of Israel changed overnight. The  
mythology of Israeli military (and general) superiority was created. Among the  
American Jewish population, doubts and concerns about Israel evaporated and  
support skyrocketed.  
Israeli leaders’ arrogance and deceit is exemplified by the attack on the USS  
Liberty during the Six Day War. The communications navy vessel was monitoring the  
air waves in the eastern Mediterranean when it was attacked by Israeli aircraft  
and boats. Thirty-four US sailors were killed and 172 injured. Amazingly, the  
ship managed to stay afloat. The plan was evidently to sink the ship, blame it on  
Egypt and consolidate U.S. support and hostility to Egypt and the Soviet Union.  
Lyndon Johnson over-ruled the calls for help from the vessel, saying “I will not  
have my ally embarrassed.” The deadly incident was covered up for decades.  
We do not know for sure what might have happened had JFK not been assassinated.  
It is possible that Israel would have been stopped from acquiring the bomb.  
Without that, they may not have had the audacity to launch the 1967 attacks on  
their neighbors, seizing the Golan, West Bank and Gaza Strip. If the Zionist  
lobby had been required to register as foreign agents, their influence would have  
been moderated. Perhaps Israel could have found a reasonable accommodation with  
Palestinians in one or two states.  
Instead, Israel hardened into an apartheid regime, committing increasingly  
outrageous massacres. As Kennedy warned in 1960, Israel has become a “garrison  
state” surrounded by “hate and fear”. The assassination of John F Kennedy  
insured Zionist control of Israel, suffering for Palestinians and permanent  
instability. *

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