An incumbent American president who is perceived by many to be indifferent or even hostile to Israel, who makes opposition to Israeli settlements a centerpiece of his Mideast policy, and who seems to share a mutual dislike with the Israeli prime minister faces a tough reelection challenge from an opponent vowing to heal the breach.
The year was 1992. The president was George Herbert Walker Bush, his challenger was William Jefferson Clinton, the Israeli prime minister was Yitzhak Shamir – and while the scenario sketched above bears a marked resemblance to the one we’re living through twenty years later, there is one crucial difference.
* * * * *
As a prep-school student at Phillips Andover, George Bush rescued a Jewish boy named Bruce Gelb from the grip of a bully. (Decades later, Gelb, whose father had founded Clairol, became an important financial contributor to Bush’s political campaigns). As a collegian at Yale, Bush voted for Jews to be allowed into the exclusive Skull and Bones Society.
As vice president of the United States, Bush coordinated America’s role in the exodus of Falasha Jews from Ethiopia. And as president, Bush had his administration work for Jewish interests on several fronts – as when it helped facilitate the emigration to Israel of hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews; played a crucial role in the rescue of a second wave of Falashas; and strong-armed the United Nations into rescinding the infamous 1975 resolution that equated Zionism with racism.
From everything that is known about him, there is no reason to believe, as some recklessly charged, that George H.W. Bush was or is an anti-Semite. Yet he is fated to be remembered – and deservedly so – as one of the two or three American presidents least friendly to Israel.
By most accounts at least some of the blame for the deterioration in U.S.-Israel relations during the Bush years belongs to then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir – not due to any out-and-out duplicity on Shamir’s part but simply because of his cryptic, tight-lipped demeanor. A former Mossad agent, secretive by nature and not given to false diplomatic pieties, Shamir tended to make short, concise statements that were often open to interpretation.
The tone was set in April 1989, when Shamir had his first meeting with Bush. The president, expressing his concern that the continued building of Jewish settlements on the West Bank would take away any Arab incentive to negotiate, suggested in rather strong terms that Israel stop the construction at once. “It won’t be a problem,” Shamir told Bush.
But U.S. officials soon learned from satellite surveillance that no halt had been ordered. Bush, who had chosen to interpret Shamir’s response as a promise to put an immediate stop to new settlements, was described by aides as beside himself with anger, convinced that Shamir had played him for a fool.
“For Bush and Shamir, it was a case of hate at first sight,” wrote Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman in Friends in Deed, their anecdote-rich account of the American-Israeli alliance. “Never in the history of relations between the two countries was there such antipathy – true emotional dislike – between the heads of government. Even between Eisenhower and Ben-Gurion things were not so bad.”
Bush did make an effort to find some common ground with Shamir. As journalists Michael Duffy and Dan Goodgame reported in Running in Place, a critical account of the Bush administration, Bush repeatedly asked his aides, “How can I get through to this guy?”
The president, wrote Duffy and Goodgame, “pressed assistants for information about Shamir’s hobbies and favorite sports but was told that Shamir had no real interests outside his work and family. Bush tried to bridge the gap by taking Shamir to see a movie at the Air and Space Museum in Washington.”
The movie was a nice touch, but it hardly brought Bush and Shamir closer. The U.S.-Israel relationship was in real trouble because, as Raviv and Melman put it, while Ronald Reagan had always thought the best of Israel, Bush had now come to believe the worst.
* * * * *
By birth a member of the old WASP elite and by occupation (prior to his political career) a Texas oil man necessarily sensitive to Arab concerns, Bush in his feelings toward Israel never came close to the sympathetic understanding of Lyndon Johnson or the pragmatic admiration of Richard Nixon, not to mention the gut-felt connection exhibited by Reagan and by Bush’s son and namesake during his own presidency years later.