George W. Bush will leave office as one of the most unpopular presidents in history, battered by years of non-stop criticism, scorn and derision – a good deal of it deserved, but much of it politically motivated, hypocritical and unfair.
Whether Bush will, like Harry Truman (who left office in January 1953 with approval numbers lower than Bush’s), eventually rise in terms of public esteem is a question that won’t begin to be answered for years if not decades.
But one thing that can be said with near certainty is that we shall not see a president as instinctively pro-Israel as Bush for a very long time to come – a president who entered office determined to pursue a policy that unambiguously favored Israel over its enemies.
In their anti-Bush book The Price of Loyalty, author Ron Suskind and his collaborator and protagonist Paul O’Neill, the treasury secretary who left the Bush administration on less than friendly terms, provided a revealing glimpse into Bush’s thinking on Israel.
On January 30, 2001, just ten days after his inauguration, Bush met with his senior national security team and, according to O’Neill as transcribed by Suskind, startled those in the room when the discussion turned to Middle East policy.
“We’re going to correct the imbalances of the previous administration on the Mideast conflict,” Bush announced. “We’re going to tilt it back toward Israel. And we’re going to be consistent. Clinton overreached, and it all fell apart. That’s why we’re in trouble.”
Bush reminisced about meeting Ariel Sharon (who the following week would easily win election as Israeli prime minister) when they shared a helicopter flight during Bush’s visit to Israel in December 1998.
“We flew over the Palestinian camps,” Bush said. “Looked real bad down there. I don’t see much we can do over there at this point. I think it’s time to pull out of that situation.”
Powell protested that “such a move might be hasty” and spoke of the “roots” of the violence in the Palestinian areas. “He stressed,” wrote Suskind, “that a pullback by the United States would unleash Sharon and the Israeli army. “The consequences of that could be dire,” he said, “especially for the Palestinians.”
Bush, according to Suskind and O’Neill, shrugged. “Maybe that’s the best way to get things back in balance,” he said. “Sometimes a show of strength by one side can really clarify things.”
So here was Bush, the media-caricatured simpleton, a week and a half into his presidency and some nine months before Sept. 11, making it clear that he was “going to tilt” U.S. policy “back toward Israel.” And here was Bush, the man his opponents tell us is an empty suit in thrall to a coterie of Machiavellian advisers, refusing to be taken in by Colin Powell’s State Department-style prattle.
In his book The Right Man, which preceded Suskind’s by a year, former White House speechwriter David Frum also referred to Bush’s first NSC meeting, quoting the new president as saying “a top foreign-policy priority of my administration is the safety and security of Israel.”
Frum also noted how Bush, seeking to allay the fears and suspicions of Jewish liberals, told an American Jewish Committee dinner, “I am a Christian. But I believe with the Psalmist that the Lord God of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.”
(An amusing, if somewhat depressing, sidebar to the AJC story is that the climactic line of Bush’s speech, the one about the God of Israel, was met with something less than approval from the secular Jews in attendance: “There was nothing,” wrote Frum. “Not a clap, not a cheer. Silence. Maybe even a rather disapproving silence.”)
Bush has been pilloried by his critics for supposedly neglecting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for most of his presidency. What those critics usually mean but don’t say is that Bush refused to push Israel in the manner they would have preferred, that he wasn’t even-handed enough, that he saw through Yasir Arafat’s pretensions and lies, that he actually carried through on the promise he made in that first NSC meeting “to tilt it back to Israel.”
For that he deserves our heartfelt gratitude, no matter how we may view other aspects of his presidency.
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org