The end of George W. Bush’s presidency coincided with the 20th anniversary of Bush’s father taking the oath of office, and it got the Monitor thinking of how one televised performance on the part of Bush Senior cemented his reputation as a president indifferent or even hostile to Israel.
Actually, the first President Bush has gotten something of a bum rap on that score. That’s not to say he came close to exhibiting toward Israel the sympathetic understanding of Lyndon Johnson, the pragmatic admiration of Richard Nixon, the gut-felt connection of Ronald Reagan, or the instinctive friendship of his own son.
But the fact is that Bush had his administration work for Jewish interests on several fronts, helping facilitate the emigration to Israel of hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews; playing a crucial part in the rescue from Ethiopia of a second wave of Falasha Jews (as Reagan’s vice president Bush had coordinated America’s role in the first mass exodus of Falashas); and successfully pushing the UN to rescind its infamous 1975 resolution that equated Zionism with racism.
It didn’t help U.S.-Israel relations that Bush’s term in office roughly coincided with the premiership in Israel of Yitzhak Shamir, a gruff and introverted man under the best of circumstances, which made him the polar opposite of the genial, extroverted Bush.
“For Bush and Shamir, it was a case of hate at first sight,” wrote Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman in Friends In Deed, their anecdotal 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.”
Nor did it help that Bush’s secretary of state, James A. Baker III, famously used a four-letter word in describing American Jewish voting habits or that, as the journalists Andrew and Leslie Cockburn reported, when a friend commented that it seemed like every U.S. administration leaves office disliking Israel, Baker responded with a laugh, “What do you do about someone who comes into office feeling that way?”
But the low point in the Bush administration’s relationship with Israel came on September 12, 1991, 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 requests. Polls showed strong public support for Bush’s position, but Jewish organizations had dispatched hundreds of activists to Washington in a large-scale effort to sway lawmakers.
To Bush, 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.
Fists pounding on his lectern, 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 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, the U.S. pressed Israel not to retaliate.)
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 we 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.”
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.
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org