In his 2015 book Doomed to Succeed: The US-Israel relationship from Truman to Obama, former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross – who worked in the administration of former president George H.W. Bush – relates a tale of a speech he gave in 1992 to a large Jewish audience.
The speech came after bruising battles between Bush and Yitzhak Shamir, who was prime minister at the time, over settlements and loan guarantees to help house hundreds of thousands of immigrants arriving in Israel from the former Soviet Union. Bush was holding up those guarantees unless Shamir stopped building behind the Green Line; Shamir refused.
“After reciting the litany of what the Bush administration had done for Israel, I was asked, ‘If things are so good, why do I feel so bad?’” Ross wrote.
And that sentiment sums up to a large degree Bush’s Israel legacy.
On the one hand he did a lot – from efforts to rescue Soviet and Ethiopian Jewry to ushering in unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation after the first Gulf War – yet on the other hand, his extremely difficult relationship with Shamir and the public browbeating of Israel by his secretary of state James Baker left a sour taste in the mouths of pro-Israel supporters.
So sour, in fact, that Bush’s support among US Jews plummeted from 35% in the 1988 elections when he defeated Michael Dukakis, to just 11% when he lost to Bill Clinton four years later. That was the lowest level of support by Jews for a Republican presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater garnered only 10% against Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
In his book, Ross listed that litany of what Bush did for Israel.
This included maintaining $3 billion worth of assistance to Israel each year, and in the aftermath of the Gulf War, providing an additional $650 million to Israel to compensate for damages caused by Scud missile attacks, even though that was much larger than the actual damage inflicted.
The US-Israel Joint Political Military Group, which began under Bush’s predecessor Ronald Reagan to enhance US-Israel cooperation, was expanded under Bush, enhancing R&D cooperation, joint exercises and training, military contracts and pre-stocking military material in Israel.
Two Patriot missile batteries were deployed in Israel after Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles on Israel in 1991, requiring the unprecedented deployment of 700 US troops to Israel to operate the missile defense system.
In addition, a direct communication link was set up under Bush between the US defense secretary and Israel’s defense minister.
In addition, Ross noted, the administration mobilized and led efforts to repeal the UN Zionism is Racism resolution in 1991, brought about the Madrid Conference, and was instrumental in helping Israel establish diplomatic ties with dozens of countries after that conference and the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Bush himself was active in US efforts – from his days as ambassador to the UN – in the campaign to free Soviet Jewry, and in bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel. In 1985, Bush, as vice president, persuaded Sudan to allow 10 US C-130 transport planes to bring 900 Ethiopian Jews to Israel, after they had been stranded during the covert Operation Moses. And again, in 1991, his intervention with Ethiopian authorities helped pave the way for Operation Solomon.
He took those steps despite, as Ross wrote, he never felt anything special toward Israel.
“George H.W. Bush’s instincts when it came to Israel were very different from those of his predecessor,” he wrote. “Unlike Ronald Reagan, he did not have an emotional attachment to Israel. In his eyes, it was not a special or unique relationship; there was no intangible link or sense of moral responsibility generated by the Holocaust.”
In short, he did not pass the “kishka test,” a phrase coined during the Obama years to assess whether former president Barack Obama felt anything special for Israel.
According to Ross, Bush didn’t feel anything special, which goes a long way to explain the tensions that developed over the years.
For many pro-Israel supporters, Bush’s approach to Israel could be summed up by three statements: one he made, one his secretary of state James Baker made and one Baker was purported to have made.
In 1991, at the height of the battle with Shamir over the loan guarantees, Bush said – as participants from the AIPAC conference in Washington were going to Capitol Hill at the end of the organization’s annual policy conference to lobby for the loan guarantees – that he was just “one lonely guy against a thousand lobbyists,” a comment that stoked antisemitic responses.
The first Baker comment came during an appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 1990. Reacting to conditions the new Shamir government had laid down for peace negotiations, Baker gave out the White House phone number:
“I have to tell you that everybody over there should know that the telephone number is 1-202-456-1414. When you’re serious about peace, call us.”
And the second Baker statement that seemed to encapsulate the hostility between the Bush administration and Israel came when former New York mayor Ed Koch claimed in a New York Post column that Baker said, “F*** the Jews, they don’t vote for us anyway.”
Baker denied saying those words.
But regardless of whether those words were or were not uttered, the tone toward Israel that Bush brought to the White House differed markedly from that of the Reagan administration. According to Ross, Richard Nixon told Bush during the 1988 transition period after his election, “Reagan has been the most pro-Israel president in history. It’s time for some evenhandedness out there.”
Bush was adamantly opposed to settlements, ruffling feathers in 1990 by questioning whether Israel could build in areas in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line. For the first time since Jimmy Carter a decade earlier, Bush said, “We do not believe there should be new settlements in the West Bank or in east Jerusalem.”
That summed up his policy, and poisoned his relationship with Shamir, who was intent on building in the settlements. Ross cited in his book an oral history interview given by Bob Gates, who served as deputy national security adviser for Bush, saying the president did not “care very much for Shamir” when asked if there was any foreign leader that Bush “actively disliked.”
Israel will always remember Bush for his “commitment to Israel’s security, his important contribution to the liberation of Soviet Jewry and his efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East at the Madrid Conference,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday night.
He will not, however, be remembered as a president who necessarily had a warm, special place in his heart for the Jewish state.
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