Republican Committee Chairman Learns About Israel Firsthand
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Republican Committee Chairman Learns About Israel Firsthand

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Lee Atwater, chairman of the Republican National Committee, has always considered himself a good friend of Israel.

But it was not until he made his first trip to Israel last week that he clearly understood Israel’s “fragile” geopolitical situation as a small country surrounded by enemies.

“The trip probably had as much impact as anything I can remember in my life,” Atwater told a group of reporters from the Jewish media Tuesday, two days after he returned from the weeklong visit.

Atwater said the smallness and precariousness of Israel was brought home to him in visits to the Golan Heights, the Allenby Bridge across the Jordan River and especially Masada.

Atwater said that the Jews at Masada were isolated 2,000 years ago, and that he sees Israel today isolated in a similar way, except that Israel has allies. “I’m proud to say that their best ally is us,” he said.

Atwater said he got a sense of the situation within minutes after he was greeted at Airport on July 30 by Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu pointed to the mountain ridges they could see from the airport and said that was Jordan before 1967.

While driving along the road to Jerusalem, they stopped at the spot where an Arab from the Gaza Strip had forced a bus off the road, killing 16 passangers.


The situation was further reinforced when Atwater went jogging shortly after checking into his hotel in Jerusalem, as is his normal custom.

He was joined by Howard Kohr, an official of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, who pointed out to him the walls of the Old City just 70 yards away and said that they would have been “sitting ducks (from snipers) had I made the same run in 1967.”

Atwater visited Israel after receiving an invitation from Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, when the two met in New York in April.

Atwater and his wife, Sally, were accompanied by five American Jews. In addition to Kohr, they were Gordon Zachs, an Ohio businessman who has close ties to President Bush; Marshall Breger, chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States and a former Jewish liaison for President Reagan; Ben Waldman, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition; and Leslie Goodman, the Republican National Committee’s press secretary.

The group arrived in Israel as the hostage crisis was unfolding, and while Atwater was meeting with Foreign Minister Moshe Arens, word came informing them that an Islamic fundamentalist group had claimed to have killed Lt. Col. William Higgins.

“It was very moving,” Atwater said. “The guy was very upset about it.”

He would not talk about the hostage situation itself, except to say that Israel was cooperating with the United States.

Atwater said that despite the crisis, none of his appointments was canceled and he met with everyone from Shamir on down, including virtually every leader of the various parties.

While he found diverse opinions, he said, there was nevertheless an “absolute unity of national goals and of their perception of the United States as an ally. The point was made over and over again–they are the No. 1 ally of the United States.”

Atwater said he likes to wander around when he visits a new city, and spoke warmly of the ordinary citizens of Israel.

“I have never been in a foreign country where virtually every person I’ve talked to was pro-American, I mean in a very warm sense,” he said.

Atwater said that this feeling was reciprocated in the United States, especially by Bush, whom Atwater said had always been steadfast in his support of Israel. He has known the president since 1973.


“After a couple of years, the people of Israel are going to know that George Bush is their friend,” Atwater said. “Maybe a couple of times they will be irritated because that’s what happens among friends from time to time.”

To further illustrate that “that there is no better friend to have than George Bush,” Atwater told of the numerous times Bush was advised to drop him from the presidential campaign last year and refused.

“When he’s a friend, he is a friend,” Atwater said of Bush. “He considers Israel a friend and ally.”

Atwater also spoke of the impact that a visit to Yad Vashem had on him, even though he had believed he knew about the Holocaust. “I was like an entirely different person when I walked out of there after an hour and a half.”

Atwater also spoke of his talks with Natan Sharansky on a Jerusalem park bench, a visit to an absorption center where Ida. Nudel lives and his visits with Ethiopian Jews.

The tour, which was organized by the Israeli government, also went through the West Bank. Atwater said he visited an absorption center near Bethlehem expecting to see squalor and overcrowding, and instead saw what looked like an apartment complex.


His one experience with the Arab uprising came when a group of youngsters, about 13 years old, planted a device made out of nails which blew out a tire of their tour bus. “It just hit home that we were victims of the intifada, teenage terrorism,” he said.

Atwater and his wife also enjoyed visits to Christian holy places, even taking time to enjoy a tire tube ride down the Jordan River.

During a visit to writer Ze’ev Chafets’ home, Atwater played the guitar in a “jam session” of 1960s and 1970s rhythm and blues tunes with Israel’s top rock ‘n’ roll star Danny Sanderson.

Atwater, who led a band when he was in college, noted that his was the “cool” group to have for Bar Mitzvahs in South Carolina at the time.

The conservative Republican visited two kibbutzim and was impressed. It was at one of them on a Friday night he had his first taste of gefilte fish. He carries tabasco sauce with him and puts it on everything.

“Next time you have gefilte fish, get yourselves some tabasco sauce,” he advised.

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