Former president George W. Bush made a surprise appearance at the 50th anniversary tribute gala of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last week in New York, saying Iran cannot be trusted when it claims its nuclear program has peaceful intentions.
One attendee of the event, speaking anonymously because Bush’s comments were off the record, said Bush quoted from his May 2008 speech to the Israeli Knesset. In that speech Bush said America stands with Israel “in firmly opposing Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.”
“Permitting the world’s leading sponsor of terror to possess the world’s deadliest weapon would be an unforgivable betrayal of future generations,” Bush told the Knesset in 2008. “For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”
Tevi Troy, who served as White House liaison to the Jewish community as well as deputy secretary of health and human services in the Bush administration, said Bush’s appearance at the Conference of Presidents event was “enormously important” because Bush does not appear in public very frequently and has intentionally taken a low profile since leaving office.
Bush also spoke about his relationship with the Presidents Conference, the umbrella organization for more than 50 national Jewish groups. According to an attendee, Bush said the Jewish umbrella’s voice is extremely well informed and helpful, and clearly respects the office of the U.S. president.
Israel is America’s best friend in the Middle East, and the defense of Israel is not only an American value, but is in America’s strategic interest, said Bush, who entered the room to prolonged applause from an audience previously unaware that he would appear.
“[Bush] has long had very positive feelings toward the state of Israel and been a strong supporter of the security of Israel, and this was really highlighted in the period after 9/11, when the intifada was also going on in Israel,” Troy told JNS.
“He recognized that Israel’s struggle and America’s struggle were the same, and that Israel’s enemies and America’s enemies can overlap as well.”
The former president said he misses only three things from his time in Washington: Not having to stop at stop lights, getting to salute men and women in uniform, and former senator Joe Lieberman.
Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate and the most prominent Sabbath observer on Capitol Hill, was in the room to hear Bush’s compliment, as he had just presented an award to former Presidents Conference chairman James S. Tisch.
Also honored at the event was Malcolm Hoenlein, who has served as Presidents Conference executive vice chairman since 1986. Bush joked that Hoenlein, unlike U.S. presidents, has no term limits.
Former Presidents Conference chairman Alan Solow told JNS that he “was delighted that [Bush] joined us at this event.”
The gala also included an opening video message from President Obama. Hoenlein said the fact that remarks from both Obama and Bush were featured reflects the Presidents Conference’s objective of “unity, with diversity.” Unity is “the essence” of what the Jewish umbrella group is trying to accomplish, while also building respect for diversity, he explained.
“It was really an amazing demonstration both for the [Jewish] community’s political maturity and the importance of the community, and its sense of reach,” Hoenlein added.