President George H.W. Bush and an empty chair

The Israelis were on edge during the peace conference. There was no doubt that an attempt was being made to brand Israel as the aggressor.

PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. Bush at the Madrid Peace Conference (photo credit: KNESSET)
PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. Bush at the Madrid Peace Conference
(photo credit: KNESSET)
The world is remembering President George Herbert Walker Bush this week. I, too, have a memory of Mr. Bush. It revolves around an empty chair. In October 1991, at the conclusion of the first Gulf War – Operation Desert Storm – Israel was again forced to the bargaining table at the Madrid Peace Conference. President Bush was there to preside over the greatest coalition victory since World War II.
Mr. Bush had been privileged to preside over the peaceful end of the Cold War, and was also a catalyst in the reunification of Germany. Several key allies were less than elated by that prospect. Bush understood that the move to reunite East and West Berlin would provide the best move forward based on the global political and geographic outlook. His next focus was on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
President Bush fought hard against the request of a right wing Israeli government led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to receive $10 BILLION in loan guarantees from the United States. Israel had absorbed a massive number of Russian Jewish emigrants, and desperately needed help to house them. Mr. Bush demanded assurance from Shamir that the money would not be used for housing in the West Bank settlements. Shamir refused and the president urged the US Congress not to give Israel the guarantees.
The crisis escalated as President Bush and Russian President Mikael Gorbachev hosted the joint Madrid Peace Conference with the world powers present. I was sitting in the front row of the press pool. Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinians had delegations there. When the conference convened on October 30, 1991, representatives of nation after nation mounted the podium to build a case for a Palestinian state.
During a summit press conference with Secretary of State James Baker, I was privileged to ask the first question: “If you truly want peace, why not begin by recognizing one of the oldest capitals in history – Jerusalem – as the capital of Israel.” Mr. Baker became very testy and made it clear that he would not engage in what he called the fruitless debate that the status of Jerusalem had to be determined by negotiations.
In another press conference, Ms. Hanan Ashwari, an activist and supporter of Yasser Arafat’s First Intifada, said that Jesus Christ was the first Palestinian Christian born in the Muslim town of Bethlehem. When I challenged her with the facts that Jesus was Jewish, not a Palestinian, and Bethlehem was a Jewish town. Her response was: “Don’t distort my reality and try to confuse me with facts. My mind is made up.”
The Israelis were on edge during the peace conference. There was no doubt that an attempt was being made to brand Israel as the aggressor. On Thursday afternoon, October 31, the Egyptian ambassador approached me, followed within minutes by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara. He pulled a picture of Yitzhak Shamir from his pocket and told me to get the word out because on the following day he intended to accuse Prime Minister Shamir of being a terrorist. Shamir had been a member of the Stern Gang. The picture was a British Wanted poster from that era.
In the distance, I could see Shamir and his Deputy Foreign Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu whose eyes were locked onto me. Netanyahu held his hand up to his ear as a signal for me to call him. He wanted to know what the foreign minister had showed me. When al-Shara walked away, I borrowed a cell phone and called Netanyahu to relate to him what I had been told. The following day before the beginning of Shabbat, Mr. Shamir stood by his chair, thanked the leaders for inviting him to the conference, and said, “I have to leave now. I am an Orthodox Jew, and I leave these proceedings to my able delegation. I must be back in Israel before the eve of the Shabbat.” It was a shrewd move on Shamir’s part.
After Shamir departed, the Syrian foreign minister stood to make his accusations of terrorism against Shamir, but faced only an empty chair where Shamir had sat. It was a tactical blunder. Until that moment, international news sources had been focused on Israel’s intransigent prime minister. With the Syrian’s words, suddenly the global media focus changed to the Syrian display of aggressiveness towards Israel. It was obvious in the faces of those present, and especially that of James Baker that the narrative had just changed.
As a result of the Madrid Peace Conference and the loan freeze against Israel, George H.W. Bush was destined to be a one-term president. Others believe he lost the election over his “read my lips, no new taxes” comment. But I believe the evangelical pro-Israel vote might well have been a “red wave” for him as it was for Donald Trump.
The writer  is a #1 New York Times bestselling author with 93 published books, including Pursuing God’s Presence. He is the founder of Friends of Zion Museum and Heritage Center in Jerusalem of which the late President Shimon Peres, Israel’s ninth president, was the chair. He also serves on the Trump Evangelical Faith Initiative.