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.
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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.
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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.
Bush certainly supported Israel’s right to exist, as he did the longstanding American commitment to Israel’s survival, but there was no indication of sensitivity on his part to Israel’s special history – the circumstances of its birth and the constant fears for its survival.
During his tenure as vice president Bush generally found himself allied with Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in pushing President Reagan to take a more even-handed approach to the Middle East. Those efforts usually proved fruitless as Reagan was more in tune with the pro-Israel views of Secretary of State George Shultz and UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick.
Bush signaled early on that his own presidency would differ from Reagan’s with regard to Israel when he appointed his good friend James A. Baker III as secretary of state.
A sharp-as-nails political operator with presidential aspirations of his own, Baker, who had been a key player in the Reagan administration as White House chief of staff during Reagan’s first term and later as treasury secretary, seemed to exude hostility toward Israel. But Baker’s responsibilities under Reagan essentially revolved around domestic issues and as such his feelings about Israel did not come to the fore until Bush brought him into the sphere of foreign policy.
Baker would achieve permanent notoriety among Jews in March 1992, when it was reported that he had responded to criticism of the administration’s Mideast policy by exclaiming, “[expletive deleted] the Jews. They didn’t vote for us.” Baker denied making the comment, but the sources for the story were reliable, and many who knew the secretary of state said it sounded like vintage Baker.
Far from an aberration, Baker’s statement was only the latest in a string of caustic remarks he had made about Israel and its American supporters almost from the day he took office.
In June 1990, for example, speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Baker made it clear he viewed Israel as the chief obstacle to getting some sort of peace process off the ground. Then, in a sound bite that was aired on nearly every television news broadcast over the next 24 hours, he addressed the Israeli government in a voice dripping with indignation: “When you’re serious about peace, call us. The phone number is 202-456-1414.”
According to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh and several others, Baker as much as admitted his bias soon after becoming secretary of state. A friend of his had asked why it seemed that every administration leaves office disliking the Israelis. Baker responded with a laugh, “What do you do about someone who comes into office feeling that way?”
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There was at least one prominent figure in the Bush administration whose support for Israel was up front and genuine – the much maligned vice president, Dan Quayle.
By the time Bush chose him as his running mate in 1988, Quayle had amassed a strong pro-Israel voting record in Congress, first in the House and then in the Senate. What made his record on Israel even more impressive was that, as a Republican from Indiana, Quayle was neither beholden to a large Jewish constituency nor answerable to Jewish financial contributors.
Quayle, who called himself a Zionist, did not share the view of Bush and Baker that Jewish settlements on the West Bank were the main stumbling blocks to peace in the Middle East. And he agreed with those who believed the formula of “land for peace” placed a disproportionate risk on Israel.
For Jewish lobbyists and organizational representatives, Quayle was the most accessible and sympathetic official in a White House where empathy for Israel was in constant short supply.
In contrast to Bush, who surrounded himself with men like Baker, John Sununu (chief of staff) and Brent Scowcroft (national security adviser) – none of whom was regarded as particularly sensitive to the concerns of American Jews and Israel – Quayle assembled a team of aides considerably more attuned to the Jewish community.
Notable among the Jews who worked for Quayle were his chief of staff William Kristol (who has since become a high profile television pundit and editor of the political magazine The Weekly Standard) and speechwriter Lisa Schiffren (who wrote Quayle’s famous “Murphy Brown” speech that criticized a popular TV character for glamorizing single motherhood).
It was Quayle who acted as an unofficial liaison between Jewish leaders and President Bush, particularly in times of trouble. So wholeheartedly did Quayle identify with the cause of Israel that he often spoke on the subject in the first person, as when he counseled Jews concerned with Bush’s stance on loan guarantees for Israel, “Let’s back off for now, we’re going to get [them] eventually.”
At the 1992 annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Quayle, despite a distinctly anti-Bush mood among the attendees, was treated like a member of the family and drew a rousing ovation when he greeted AIPAC delegates as “fellow Zionists.”
It was Quayle who first suggested that Bush use his post-Gulf War prestige to push for the repeal of the United Nations’ 1975 Zionism-is-racism resolution, an idea the president found to his liking. In a speech at the UN on September 23, 1991, Bush told the General Assembly that “[t]o equate Zionism with the intolerable sin of racism is to twist history. Zionism is not a policy; it was an idea that led to the home of the Jewish people in the state of Israel.” Three months later, the measure was repealed by a vote of 111 to 25.
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The low point for the Bush presidency in its relationship with Israel – arguably the low point in U.S.-Israel relations for any presidency up to that point – came on September 12, 1991 (ironically, less than two weeks before Bush’s impassioned pro-Zionist UN speech), when Bush held a nationally televised press conference and blasted Jewish organizations and lobbyists who were trying to win Congressional support for U.S. loan guarantees requested by Israel.
The administration, still at loggerheads with the Shamir government over the issue of Jewish settlements, had been urging Congress to delay consideration of the Israeli request. Polls showed strong public support for the White House position, but Jewish organizations dispatched hundreds of activists to Washington in a large-scale effort to sway lawmakers.
To Bush, still riding high six months after the Gulf War (though his approval ratings had already begun a downward slide that would only accelerate in the months ahead), this was nothing less than an attempt to take American foreign policy out of his hands, and he lashed out in language for which he would later apologize.
Pounding his fists on the lectern and wearing a look of barely controlled anger, Bush declared that he was “up against some powerful political forces…. I heard today there were something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill working on the other side of the question. We’ve got one lonely little guy down here doing it.”
Bush also made it sound as though he had gone to war with Saddam Hussein for the sake of Israel: “Just months ago,” he declared, “American men and women in uniform risked their lives to defend Israelis in the face of Iraqi Scud missiles.”
Of course, Bush left out the fact that the war was fought for Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the unrestricted flow of oil to the West, and that when Iraq rained Scud missiles down on Israel, Yitzhak Shamir honored Bush’s desperate plea not to retaliate, despite enormous pressure to do so from his own military advisers and at considerable political risk to himself.
And, knowing full well how unpopular foreign aid is to large numbers of Americans, Bush exploited that issue as well. “During the current fiscal year alone, and despite our own economic problems,” is how he put it, “the United States provided Israel with more than $4 billion in economic and military aid, nearly $1,000 for every Israeli man, woman and child” – never bothering to explain how and why that aid grew over the course of nine administrations, including his own.
Though Bush did add that the U.S. had been Israel’s closest friend for more than 40 years and that “this remains the case and will as long as I am president,” nobody paid any attention to that part of his outburst. Bush had, in just a few minutes’ time, ensured that he would be remembered as the first president ever to publicly question the motives and cast doubts on the legitimacy of pro-Israel lobbying by American Jews.
In the 1992 presidential election, Bush captured between 11 and 15 percent of the Jewish vote, depending on which poll you look at, down from the 27 to 35 percent he had garnered against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Even Jews who had been voting Republican on an increasingly frequent basis could not find it in themselves to pull the lever for Bush this time around.
Democrat Bill Clinton won big among Jews, receiving between 75 to 80 percent of their votes, while third-party candidate H. Ross Perot, a cantankerous rich man with a head full of fantasies, actually managed to score with nearly 10 percent of Jewish voters.
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When we set off on this little excursion into recent political history, mention was made of the one difference marring an otherwise pristine similarity between the presidential elections of 1992 and 2012, at least in terms of how the incumbent and the challenger were positioned vis-à-vis Israel.
The difference, of course, is that the incumbent in 1992 was a Republican and the incumbent in 2012 is a Democrat. So while George H.W. Bush paid a heavy price in Jewish support for following a Mideast policy designed to put some distance between the U.S. and Israel, Barack Obama likely won’t.
Because for most American Jews – famously agnostic in matters of religion but forever prostrate at the altar of secular liberalism – the letter “D” after a candidate’s name continues to mean more than the particulars of his relationship with Israel.
About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.
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