NEW YORK (Aug. 10)
This month’s Middle East tour by Vice President George Bush — campaign motives and lack of diplomatic initiatives aside — was significant both as a symbol of the current warm relations between the U.S. and Israel and as an opportunity to cement a warm personal relation-ship that had already been forged with Israeli Premier Shimon Peres.
This was the conclusion of Jacob Stein, one of eight Jewish Republicans who were invited to accompany Bush on the Israel part of his three-leg tour.
“On the first day of his visit, the press didn’t seem to know what to make of it — whether it was a photo opportunity, a political exercise, a goodwill trip, or what; but that soon dissipated,” said Stein, a New York realtor who was President Reagan’s first liaison to the Jewish community.
Stein and the other Jews invited on the Vice President’s plane are officials of the National Jewish Coalition — a relatively new Republican organization formed out of what had been a Jewish campaign group for the Reagan-Bush White House ticket. Stein said the invitations to the group of eight, who were asked to join as independent advisers and who paid their own way, were “unprecedented.”
The other seven members of the group were Gordon Zacks, national co-chairperson of the Coalition and a close friend of Bush; Ivan Novick, a former president of the Zionist Organization of America; Paul Borman, of Detroit; Joseph Gildenhorn, of Washington, D.C.; Barbara Gold, of Chicago; Richard Goldman, of San Francisco, and Jay Kislak, of Miami.
CITES THREE-FOLD SIGNIFICANCE
The visit, said Stein, in an interview following his return to New York, was significant in three respects. First, he said, “there was the clear statement to the Soviet Union about what is expected of it as a necessary condition of improved political relations.” This was brought out, he maintained, in the considerable time and attention devoted in his itinerary to meetings with former refuseniks.
They included a session with human rights activist Anatoly (Natan) Shcharansky, a visit with a former refusenik couple in a Jerusalem absorption center, and a meeting in the office of Knesset Speaker Shlomo Hillel with members of Mothers of Freedom, a group of women with refusenik family members left behind in the Soviet Union.
“I think one of the messages that Vice President Bush was trying to send was that we remain deeply concerned about the issue of Soviet Jewry, and if you want to take a step in improving relations with our country, you should deal with that issue,” Stein said.
He said that in a private meeting between Shcharansky and the group of eight, the recently-freed Prisoner of Conscience urged them to “support a massive demonstration of concerned Jews in Washington” during the still unscheduled summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Bush visit, said Stein, was also important for the Vice President’s “restatement of the American position that it will not impose a peace, but will serve only as a friendly supporter” in seeking a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Finally, there was an important message of concern from Bush to the Israeli government about the need for the Jewish State to “pay attention to keeping its economic house in order,” said Stein, who has been active in Operation Independence, a project initiated by Detroit businessman Max Fisher to reduce Israel’s dependence on U.S. aid by stimulating its economy through private investment.
SEEN AS A PUBLIC RELATIONS TOUR
In the eyes of many observers, however, the Bush visit was, more than anything else, a public relations tour conducted with an eye to the upcoming Presidential elections. Following Bush around the Jewish State was a camera crew paid for by a political action committee raising funds for the still unannounced Bush campaign.
One already widely publicized photo that caused a few mild squirms among some American Jews, captured the Vice President reverently kissing the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
“He was with (Minister of Religious Affairs) Yosef Burg, when Burg walked up to the Wall and kissed it,” Stein said, appearing mildly embarrassed for Bush, though amused. “So he followed Burg and put his head to the Wall and kissed it, too.”
‘AN UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT’
A more embarrassing incident was the cancellation of an invitation to Jerusalem Post correspondent Wolf Blitzer to join the press team accompanying Bush to Israel, Jordan and Egypt. Blitzer, who had a visa signed by the Jordanian Ambassador in Washington as bumped from the plane at the last minute, after it became clear that the Jordanians had decided that the American Jewish journalist would not be welcome in Amman.
“It was an unfortunate incident,” said Stein. But he added, “It looked worse than it was. It was a snafu. Part of it must have been the fault of the Jordanians; part of it was probably the fault of Bush’s staff and part of it, I think, was Wolf Blitzer.”
Blitzer, who was invited to join the Vice President, then bumped, then re-invited and ultimately bumped again, had initially been offered the option by Amman of going as a journalist for American newspapers only, according to Stephen Hart, assistant press secretary to Bush. But those were not the complete criteria,” he said, declining to specify what other conditions the Jordanians had imposed.
In any case, Blitzer responded to his first bump with a front-page story in The Jerusalem Post about his ordeal, in which he blasted the Bush staff for failing to see that Jordan’s request that he not be identified publicly with the Post was not a hint to have him dropped from the press team, but a diplomatic nicety, apparently too subtle for some of Bush’s aides.”
In the end, however, the Jordanians told Blitzer directly he should stay away. “The final outcome was that he wasn’t welcome, period,” Hart said.
On balance, though, the Vice President’s trip should be seen neither as a successful get-start in the campaign for the Jewish American vote nor a public relations fiasco, said Stein, who said he plans to support a Bush candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination. Instead, he stressed, it should be viewed as another important step in the continuous deepening of American-Israeli relations.