George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st U.S. president who died Friday at the age of 94, was seen as having a rather frosty relationship with American Jews and Israel. But it was a reputation earned mostly from a single comment by an angry and at the time popular president, taking aim at the pro-Israel lobby trying to override him.
It was September 12, 1991, the day hundreds of American Israel Public Affairs Committee supporters took to the halls of Congress to push for $10 million in loan guarantees for Israel – to help build new housing for the wave of Jewish immigrants flooding the Jewish state from the crumbling Soviet Union.
Bush did not have a problem with the funding in principle. But he did not want the money to be used for homes in Jewish settlements in Gaza or the West Bank. Israel's then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir would not budge, and instead gave the green light to AIPAC to send its members to Capitol Hill to shore up congressional support.
Meanwhile, down the road at the White House, a clearly annoyed Bush told a news conference that he was “up against some powerful political forces.”
“I heard today there was something like 1,000 lobbyists on the Hill working on the other side of the question. We’ve got one lonely little guy down here doing it,” he told reporters.
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Those words not only shocked and cowed the American-Jewish community, sensitive to accusations of dual loyalty. They also led members of Congress to tell AIPAC to cool its approach. Almost immediately, support for the loan guarantees withered (though they would be granted later in a deal overseen by Yitzhak Rabin, who succeeded Shamir as prime minister).
Some Jewish leaders approached Bush afterward and warned that his comments would stir up anti-Semitic sentiment in the United States – a warning not borne out by subsequent events.
Malcolm Hoenlein, former head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, helped organize the AIPAC lobbying push in 1991. And he was there afterward when Bush received a delegation from the group.
“I literally saw tears in his eyes,” Hoenlein recounted. “He kept saying he regretted [the comments].”
Another infamous comment emerged from the Bush administration, though this was not by the president himself but his secretary of state, James Baker. He reportedly told an associate in private, “F*** the Jews; they didn't vote for us anyway.”
Hoenlein said of relations between the Jewish community and Bush, “It was a roller-coaster relationship, but there were many good things about it. It is hard to characterize. I think people mischaracterize it unfairly, forgetting that he played a key role in the rescue of the Ethiopian Jews, Russian Jews and Syrian Jews,” he said.
In addition to helping oversee the airlifts of Ethiopian Jews, and assisting with the immigration of Soviet and Syrian Jews, the Bush administration also helped coax various countries – most notably the Soviet Union and China – toward opening diplomatic relations with Israel.
It was also the Bush administration that helped quell Israel’s foe, Iraq, in the first Gulf War in 1991. And after that war it was Baker who orchestrated the Madrid Peace Conference, bringing Israel to the negotiating table with all of its Arab neighbors for the first – and to date only – time.
And it was the Bush White House that, in December 1991, helped successfully revoke the UN resolution equating Zionism with racism and racial discrimination, which had been introduced in 1975.
“He was always available and open. I had numerous meetings with him, and you could see his visceral reaction against racism and anti-Semitism,” Hoenlein recalled.
What Bush did not have was the emotional attachment to Israel and the Jewish community that Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had before and after him. It was also something his son, George W. Bush, exhibited in bear hugs with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and by giving near-carte blanche approval to Israeli positions and policies.
But despite the often prickly relations between Bush and the intensely ideological Shamir – especially their squabbles over settlement expansion – the pair coordinated positions as Bush prepared the groundwork for the first Gulf War at the start of 1991.
Shamir agreed to the U.S. request not to counterattack should Israel come under fire from Iraq, even though doing so would break one of Israel’s longest-standing defense codes. The United States, in turn, defended Israel with Patriot anti-missile batteries, which worked for the most part. And Shamir stood true to his word amid the missiles that hit and resulted in a handful of Israeli deaths.
After the war, military relations between the countries accelerated to the unprecedented level of intelligence-sharing and joint exercises of modern times. One notable example is the Arrow anti-ballistic missile project that Bush agreed to finance.
Bush told Congress in March 1991, “The time has come to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Secretary of State Baker then embarked on months of shuttle diplomacy to the Middle East; his straight-talking approach with both Israelis and neighboring Arab countries managed to engineer the Madrid Conference seven months later.
“James Baker was really the one calling the shots. Even though he [Bush] had that incredible foreign affairs background of his own, being president you have so much to do and he was willing to delegate much more than other presidents,” explained Morris J. Amitay, a Washington lobbyist and former executive director of AIPAC.
Baker also worked with senior staffers who were sympathetic to Israel and he listened to them. It was Baker who assembled, for the first time, a group of foreign policy experts – Dennis Ross, Aaron Miller and Daniel Kurtzer – to help plan for Madrid. These would go on to play important roles in U.S. peacemaking efforts.
The trio, along with Richard Haass (then a National Security Council official), were criticized by both Arabs and Israelis. Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Shamir’s closest advisers labeled them “Baker’s Jew boys.”
“There was tension between the right-wing Israeli government and the Jewish team under Baker who basically supported the Labor Party outlook,” said Prof. Jonathan Rynhold, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, who specializes in U.S.-Israel relations.
The Madrid Conference, Rynhold said, “was a success, but a limited one. It got everyone in the room – and that’s not to be belittled.”
The Oslo peace process would follow in 1992, after Madrid fell apart.
In retirement Bush grew close to Bill Clinton, the man who beat him in the 1992 presidential election – an election in which Bush failed to win most of the Jewish vote.
The two worked together as former presidents in the aftermath of two natural disasters: the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004) and Hurricane Katrina (2005), and struck up an unlikely but heartfelt friendship.
In the summer of 2012, Clinton and George W. Bush appeared at an event together. Clinton, referring to the younger Bush, told the crowd, “I like him, and I love his father.”
Bush joined the Seeds of Peace organization’s advisory board in 2004. The group began its activity by bringing together teenagers from Israel, the occupied territories and Arab countries, and later expanded to other conflict zones around the world.
He met a delegation of teenagers from the group in 2016, but spent much of the last decade of his life out of the limelight.