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 Three months later, the measure was repealed by a vote of 111 to 25.
* * * * *
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.