WASHINGTON, Dec. 5 (JTA) Flying above the West Bank and visiting the Golan Heights during a 1998 trip to Israel, George W. Bush apparently began to see the complexities of the Middle East.
“It was truly an educational trip” for the Texas governor, said Cliff Sobel, who co-chaired the Jewish community outreach program for Bush’s presidential campaign and accompanied Bush and several other Republican governors during that visit.
But the Middle East has changed dramatically in the 24 months since Bush’s trip to Israel, which included a lengthy discussion with then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
There is a new Israeli leader whose short tenure could be cut shorter by early elections, and the region’s attempts at peace have been knocked down at least a few notches.
Life has changed for the governor as well. He is now, in his eyes and the eyes of many, the president-elect of the United States.
As the legal battle over the votes in Florida continues, Bush and running mate Dick Cheney have begun identifying key members of a Bush administration. More names will surface in the next several weeks.
In the Jewish community, all eyes are on Bush’s likely nominees to signal the direction of his international and domestic policies.
The next president will be facing a shaky political climate in the Middle East as well as numerous divisive domestic issues, including issues related to the separation of church and state.
Just as significant, Bush may be in a position to choose as many as three new members of the U.S. Supreme Court.
While cautious not to anoint Bush the winner until Vice President Al Gore concedes, Jewish activists and analysts are beginning to speculate on the new and familiar faces that could be included in a Bush administration.
“The first thing George W. Bush has to do is pick a team,” said Diana Aviv, vice president for public policy for the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella group of North American federations.
“In many ways, his philosophies are going to be translated by the top team he puts together.”
Two key Jewish names being mentioned for Cabinet level posts are Stephen Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis who has been Bush’s domestic policy guru, and Paul Wolfowitz, an undersecretary of defense during the administration of Bush’s father.
During the campaign, George W. Bush voiced strong support for Israel and a role for the United States as a mediator in regional peace negotiations.
But by and large, the Texas governor is untested in foreign policy in general, and the Middle East in particular.
Some Jewish leaders will be watching to determine whether Bush acts to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which he promised to do during the campaign.
Congress has legislated such a move, but the Clinton administration put it off, saying it would jeopardize the peace process.
Bush’s action on the embassy will be a key opening-round test of the new Bush presidency, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
In general, Hoenlein added, “I think we will look at the kind of outreach that goes on to our community.”
Most analysts predict that Bush will not devote the same level of time and energy to the Middle East conflict that President Clinton did.
To the extent that a Bush administration focuses on the region, the job is likely to fall to the State Department.
Bush’s chief foreign policy advisers during the campaign were Wolfowitz, Gen. Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Condoleezza Rice, a Stanford University professor who served on the National Security Council when Bush’s father was in the White House.
Powell, believed to be the leading contender for secretary of state, was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War, and apparently developed good relations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was Israel’s top military man at the time.
Powell, however, has not had much experience in diplomacy.
Rice, who visited Israel this summer, is Bush’s likely national security adviser.
In interviews during the campaign, she reiterated Bush’s belief in U.S. solidarity with Israel, but said the White House must allow the parties themselves to set the pace of peace talks.
“You want this period to unfold in a way that secures Israel, and you have to trust Israel to make decisions about its own security,” Rice said in an interview with the New Jersey Jewish News in September.
Tom Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said he is concerned that neither Powell nor Rice has a strong diplomatic track record.
But, Bush has an opportunity to delve into Middle East issues with a clean slate, Neumann said.
“This is an opportunity to come in and start afresh,” he said. Bush “does not have a stake” in whether the Oslo process, which began under the Clinton administration and has seemingly collapsed, works.
Meanwhile, some Jewish observers will be watching to see what role, if any, is given to James Baker, the former secretary of state who emerged as a key member of the Bush team during the Florida legal wrangling over vote counts.
Baker, seen by many Jews as hostile to Israel, incurred the wrath of the established Jewish community during a nasty fight over loan guarantees to Israel in the early 1991.
Jewish observers will also be watching for gestures made to the Arab American community, which gave Bush strong support on Election Day.
Jewish activists say Bush will have to straddle a working relationship between the Jewish community and Arab Americans.
Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he expects a change in the role the United States will play on issues related to the Middle East.
Bush “realizes Israel has to make its own decisions on the pace of the peace process,” Brooks said. “We’re not going to force Israel to conform to our timetable.”
He said recent actions by Palestinian leaders calls into question their true commitment to peace, and Brooks said the United States may have moved too fast under Clinton.
On the domestic front, a Bush White House will be forced to face a sometimes bitterly divided Congress. The task is likely to be even more daunting given the contentious outcome of the election.
Analysts say Bush’s campaign theme of serving as a “uniter, not a divider” will be put to the test.
“The healing in Congress and bipartisanship has been very important to him,” said Aviv of the UJC. “He ought to pick up on issues with consensus.”
Analysts believe that compromise will be necessary to quell some hot-button issues in the 107th Congress, including gun control, Social Security and Medicare.
“You’re not going to see massive changes in the legislative process because the margins are too narrow,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Also potentially explosive could be nominations to the Supreme Court and other federal benches. The Democrats have enough votes in the Senate to block some conservative nominations.
“Given the close division in the Senate, the president is going to be forced to the middle with a nomination,” said Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department.
On the abortion issue, Bush is pro-life, but a few moderate Republicans in the Senate are pro-choice.
The White House may be forced to nominate a candidate who will not overturn Roe v. Wade, but is in favor of legislative restrictions on abortion, Stern said.
But nominations to the court are unpredictable. A Democratic majority in the Senate in 1991 approved Clarence Thomas, considered one of the more conservative members of the current court.
Although nominees could be seen as moderate because of their views on abortion, Stern said, any Bush nominees will likely still take Republican positions on such issues as charitable choice and school vouchers.
Bush received only 19 percent of Jewish support in the election.
But according to Sobel, that will have no effect on the importance of the Jewish constituency.
“I know that Gov. Bush does not look at polls in making decisions,” said Sobel, the finance chairman of Bush’s New Jersey campaign.
“Whether we voted less or more for the Republican ticket would not make a difference on important issues.”
Forman said it is natural for politicians to steer away from groups that don’t provide a great deal of electoral support, but he said he still thinks the Jewish representation in a Bush White House will be greater than the Jewish proportion of the country.
“The Jewish community will survive a Republican White House,” Forman said. “We will have issues that we won’t be happy about, but we will survive quite well.”