On Israel, Biden Should Learn From George H. W. Bush

Akiva Eldar
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Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush holds a news conference at the White House in Washington, on June 5, 1989.
Akiva Eldar

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the 1991 Madrid Conference, last Saturday, former Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who headed the Israeli delegation in the talks with the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation, told Haaretz that “the summit was not granted its proper place in history.”

And in fact, it was the first (and last) international gathering at which senior officials from Israel, Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf states, along with guests from around the world, sat together. In spite of that, the summit brought us no closer to the end of the occupation. It acquired its place in history thanks to its contribution to the end of the reign of Likud, at the time – in the form of U.S. sanctions against Israel.

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At present, with new housing projects being launched in the settlements, it is pleasant to recall the high price paid by the government of Yitzhak Shamir for its refusal to freeze construction in the territories during the negotiations over their fate. It was called the “linkage.”

U.S. President George H. W. Bush, the patron of the “Madrid process,” understood that the Israeli government had no intention of giving up a single inch of land. He exploited the economic problems caused by the waves of immigration to Israel from the former Soviet Union, and demanded that Shamir choose between $10 billion in guarantees and the continuation of construction in the settlements.

Shamir’s refusal to accept the U.S. conditions caused a crisis in relations with the Bush administration and hastened Likud’s return to the opposition. The government of Yitzhak Rabin, which was formed after the June 1992 election (44 seats for the Labor Party and 12 for Meretz), agreed to an arrangement to the effect that every shekel that crossed the Green Line (separating pre-1967 Israel from the Palestinian territories) would be deducted from U.S. aid to Israel. Unfortunately, Rabin did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of the peace process that began in Madrid, on the way to the Oslo Accords.

Three decades and another 350,000 settlers later, Israel once again expects U.S. taxpayers to donate their money to Israel. This time the Bennett government is asking for a $1 billion grant in order to renew the inventory of the Iron Dome missile defense system.

This is an excellent opportunity to recreate the 1991 linkage. You want money for the Iron Dome – shelve the new construction plans. You want a visa exemption for tourists entering the United States from Israel? Keep your promise (to former U.S. President George W. Bush) to dismantle the outposts established since 2001.

Expressions of “deep concern” about the construction like that published by the U.S. State Department last week are received in Israel like a “dog bites man” story. The same is true of the lame objections from the Labor and Meretz ministers.

Recently in these pages the “government of change” was described as a kind of miracle that should be preserved at all costs. But political miracles are even rarer than naturally occurring miracles, and no miracle will save us from the disaster of the settlements, which will haunt Israel for generations to come.

When the time comes, Hanukkah oil that lasted a miraculous eight days runs out, and the right returns to government in full force – it will expect, justifiably, that President Joe Biden make do again with “expressing concern.” If the left-wing parties are willing to vote in favor of settlement construction, their members will be forced to keep their mouths shut when they are returned to the opposition benches.

You may ask, “What does this purist want – for Biden to bring down the government and bring former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to the residence on Balfour Street?” Good question. But what’s the alternative?

For the President of the United States to show Israelis that it’s possible to expand settlements undisturbed and also receive money from Uncle Sam? For the United States to teach the Jews that in the Land of Israel it’s permitted to impose an apartheid regime and also to enjoy the support of the leader of the free world – as long as the name of the Pied Piper leading them to the abyss is not Benjamin Netanyahu?

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