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).