George W. Bush has been getting some positive media coverage lately, with recent polls showing him at least as popular as his successor, Barack Obama, and a big new book about the Bush presidency by New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker (Days of Fire, Doubleday) portraying Bush as a much more hands-on chief executive than his detractors ever imagined.
Baker writes of Bush’s determination from the moment he took office to, in Bush’s words, “tilt [U.S. policy] back toward Israel” after years of Bill Clinton’s even-handed approach to Mideast peacemaking.
That’s not exactly a scoop, of course, to those familiar with former Bush speechwriter David Frum’s 2003 memoir The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush.
Frum acknowledged Clinton’s extraordinary popularity with American Jews and contrasted their support for Clinton with the low regard in which they held Bush, who “entered office with fewer Jewish friends and supporters than any president since perhaps Dwight Eisenhower.”
All of which, according to Frum, made it “really quite a stunning turnabout of history that George W. Bush should have emerged as one of the staunchest friends of Israel ever to occupy the Oval Office.”
Frum noted that Bush, during his first meeting with his National Security Council, stated that “a top foreign-policy priority of my administration is the safety and security of Israel.” And he recalled that Bush, seeking to allay the fears and suspicions of the liberals at the American Jewish Committee, addressed an AJC dinner and said, “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.”
Frum believes – and who will argue the point? – that “the American Jewish community is so terrified of non-Jewish religiosity that any reference to God by a non-Jew, no matter how friendly its intent, unnerved them. They do not trust people who talk too much about the ‘Lord God,’ and they do not like it any better when such people remind them that the Lord God in question is their Lord God, too.”
His personal support of Israel notwithstanding, Bush in the early months of his administration ceded control of Middle East policy to Colin Powell and his State Department pencil pushers. Even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 it was apparent that, in Frum’s words, “those foreign-policy bureaucrats most eager to appease the Arab oil states” were still articulating the U.S. position.
And in October 2001 Bush voiced his support for a Palestinian state “so long as the right to an Israeli state is respected” – becoming the first U.S. president to speak of Palestinian statehood in unambiguous terms.
But something was happening, at first almost imperceptibly, to the very warp and woof of U.S.-Israel relations: Bush was developing an unusually warm relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the same time that he was being confronted with numerous examples of Yasir Arafat’s duplicity.
Arafat, Frum wrote, “sorely misunderstood” the president: “Bush does not lie to you. You had better not lie to him.”
By the time Bush gave his much-anticipated June 24, 2002 Rose Garden speech on the Middle East, he had decided that “the United States will not support the establishment of a Palestinian state until its leaders engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure.”
Still, the U.S.-Israel relationship in the remaining years of the Bush presidency was far from conflict-free. Bush was just as adamant in his criticism of Israeli settlements as Obama has been, and Bush disastrously pushed Israel to allow elections in Gaza, which Hamas handily won.
But with that 2002 speech Bush had dramatically recast American Middle East policy and turned his back on decades of government-sanctioned moral equivalence – at least on paper if not, as it turned out, always in practice.