Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

America Decides 2004 from Governor to President, Bush Has Followed His Instincts on Israel

August 20, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The story has been told over and over again: The future American president, George W. Bush, receiving a Middle East geography lesson in a helicopter from Ariel Sharon, the future Israeli prime minister. Analysts say that moment cemented a shared understanding among two future leaders that would help shape American policy toward one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

But perhaps the meeting during Bush’s 1998 trip to the Jewish state that had a more lasting impact was the one that didn’t even happen.

Bush did not meet Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president, during his visit to the Holy Land. Participants on the trip say Bush tried to set up a visit, but his advances fell on deaf ears.

To make matters worse, when Bush arrived in Israel, Arafat put out a news release chastising the Texas governor for not making time for him.

“I think it formed part of the president’s mind set that Yasser Arafat was n! ot worthy of belief but capable of aggressive falsehoods,” said Shelly Kamins, a Republican Jewish Coalition board member who accompanied Bush on the trip.

Six years later, Bush is the one saying no to Arafat. The Palestinian leader — a frequent guest at the White House in the Clinton administration — has been ignored by Bush from Day One, and a boycott of Arafat has been official administration policy for the past two years.

Many in the Jewish community credit Bush’s decision to isolate Arafat as a product of his Middle East advisers or their own lobbying. But for those who know Bush, and who have educated him on Jewish and Middle East issues over the years, the approach toward Arafat follows the path they have seen from Bush on every issue — a determination to follow his gut and call things as he sees them.

“If there has ever been a thing that was not politically expedient, it was the way he handled Israel,” said Fred Zeidman, a longtime friend who Bush appo! inted chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. “He’s rooted in what he believes in.”

Certainly, Bush’s support for Israel has hurt him in the European and Arab worlds, which take a much more pro-Palestinian approach to the Middle East conflict, and has made his other international priorities more difficult to achieve.

In the Jewish world, however, it has been seen as a mitzvah. Still, as Bush prepares for the Republican National Convention later this month — and a tough re-election battle in November — it’s an open question how much that appreciation for his efforts will help him.

Many American Jews remain unsatisfied with Bush’s leadership overall — the majority are likely to vote for his opponent in November, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) — but Bush has won near-universal accolades from Jewish organizational leaders for his strong defense of Israel and his efforts against international anti-Semitism.

Even Jewish leaders who think Bush’s Middle East policies are off-track still concede that he has worked tirelessly to d! efend Jews and the Jewish state.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way: In 2000, Jewish leaders watched Bush the presidential candidate with trepidation.

He was, after all, the man who once suggested that only those who accept Jesus would go to heaven. He was the candidate who failed a pop quiz on the names of international leaders. He was the Texas governor perceived as being beholden to Arab oil interests, and was warmly endorsed by the Arab American community. And he was the son of a president who openly clashed with the organized Jewish community on loan guarantees for Israel and over Israeli settlements.

Jewish leaders also were concerned Bush would utilize many of his father’s key advisers — like former Secretary of State James Baker and Brent Scowcroft, his father’s national security adviser — who consistently hammered the Israeli leadership on settlement expansion and Israel’s refusal to negotiate with the PLO because of its involvement in terrorism.

Bu! t in their first meetings with the Texas governor, Jewish leaders said they found a man willing to listen, and to consider the community’s opinions.

“He was willing to say he didn’t know, and he was willing to change his mind,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “He would say, ‘I don’t have to know everything, I have to choose good advisers.’ “

It also was becoming clearer that his father’s advisers would not play a role in a Bush administration.

Those early meetings may have allayed Jewish officials’ worst fears, but there still was little indication that Bush would go out of his way to stand beside the Jewish community in some of its international priorities.

A major turning point came when Bush sat down for a “working dinner” with Israeli President Moshe Katsav and American Jewish officials in May 2001. The president gained high marks for his enthusiasm and grasp of the issues during the three-hour meeting, working without notes or input from his advisers.

The trend continued after the S! ept. 11 terrorist attacks. There was fear that Bush would pressure Israel to make concessions in order to garner Arab support for U.S. action against Afghanistan. The concerns even prompted Sharon to state that Israel would not be another Czechoslovakia, sacrificed by the West before World War II in a vain attempt to appease Hitler.

Again, it didn’t play out the way the Jewish community feared.

Some suggest Bush gained even more empathy for Israel, which has suffered so much terrorism, after Sept. 11. But already a week before that, Bush was given strong marks by Jewish leaders for instructing U.S. delegates to walk out of the United Nations’ World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, after the meeting became a forum for anti-Israel and anti-Semitic agitation.

In fact, the non-scripted, plainspoken tone that has hurt Bush politically on other issues has aided him, many feel, in dealing with Middle Eastern politics. Rejecting the familiar formula tha! t has guided Israeli-Palestinian relations, centering on “land for pea ce” and negotiations at all costs, Bush moved U.S. policy in a different direction.

“The Jewish community started to see a resolve for promoting peace by motivating the Palestinians to take good actions, rather than starting with Israeli concessions,” said Jay Lefkowitz, a former Bush White House policy adviser.

Bush was the first American president to explicitly refer to “Palestine,” which he spoke of in an address to the United Nations in 2001. While some Jews were aghast at the implied policy change, it reflected the reality on the ground that a Palestinian state eventually would emerge, and that Bush was prepared to acknowledge it.

The same can be said for Bush’s handling of Arafat. Convinced that Arafat was not trying to end terrorist attacks against Israel, Bush said it would take new Palestinian leadership to bring peace to the region. The date of that speech — June 24, 2002 — has entered the lexicon for Mideast watchers the same way Sept. 11 has become ! part of the language of terrorism.

And Bush’s exchange of letters with Sharon earlier this year, acknowledging that Israel would keep some West Bank settlements and that Palestinian refugees had no “right of return” to Israel, was in the same vein.

Edward Walker, former U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration, said Bush’s approach to the region “is quite different,” and has “some very good and positive elements in it.”

“He has outlined a very viable approach,” Walker said. “The problem is now it has not had any follow up.”

Walker notes what many Jewish leaders have said — that Bush’s positive words have not led to decisive actions. Several groups have called on Bush to appoint a permanent envoy to the region, and have called for more U.S. engagement with regional leaders.

And some believe Israel has had to pay the price, in Europe and at the United Nations, for Bush’s “my way or the highway” approach to foreign policy.

Some Jewish lea! ders continue to question Bush’s policies, both foreign and domestic, even as they compliment his defense of Israel.

With the exception of the Orthodox community, many have vocally opposed Bush’s support for faith-based initiatives and school vouchers. There also has been concern about infringement on civil liberties in the post-Sept. 11 environment, with several Jewish groups concerned about provisions of the Patriot Act.

And while several Jewish organizations supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq at least tacitly because of the potential positive impact on Israel, many Jews beyond the organized leadership felt the war was not necessary, or that the administration’s decision to invade the country without a broad international coalition was problematic.

There also have been clashes of personality. Several Jewish leaders, accustomed to being brought in regularly for consultation with the president, have expressed anger and frustration that they have been passed over in favor of others who are seen as closer to Bush’s viewpoint.

So! me complain that those who get to meet most often with Bush — Republican Jews and Orthodox representatives — represent minority groups within the Jewish community.

Bush officials say the administration’s choices have stemmed from Bush’s philosophy of following his instincts. He has wanted to hear from a wider variety of Jewish leaders, they say, not just the leaders of Jewish organizations.

“We always tried to have a lot of rabbis in the room because the president really enjoyed engaging with them,” said Tevi Troy, a former Jewish liaison in the White House who now serves as a policy adviser to Bush’s re-election campaign.

It was those same instincts that made Bush move the annual Chanukah party to the White House residence and serve kosher food at a dinner honoring a new exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, advisers said.

Jews, who traditionally vote Democratic, have had to walk a tightrope when pressing this administration, communal officials ! said: They have tried to push their domestic agenda and get Bush to be more active in the Middle East, while doling out praise for the White House’s pro-Israel views.

“It’s been tricky,” the ADL’s Foxman said. “When the history is written, we will stand proud that we have not compromised our domestic issues because he has been good on Israel.”

Considering that Bush’s pro-Israel stance could lead more Jews than normal to vote Republican this fall, some question whether Bush’s support for Israel is just savvy politics.

Bush supporters dismiss that notion, arguing that Republicans realize they won’t get a majority of the Jewish vote, no matter what Bush says about Israel.

Bush himself understood that from the beginning, said Dov Zakheim, who served as a foreign policy adviser in Bush’s 2000 campaign.

“At one point, he said to me, ‘I don’t know what percentage of the Jewish vote I’ll get, but they’ll never have a problem with me on Israel,’ ” said Zakheim, who until recently served as undersecretary for defense.

Advisers and! friends say Bush hasn’t changed his approach in the past four years. It has been the Jewish community that has changed, embracing a politician many were skeptical of at first.

“There’s no change in him; the change has been in people’s perception of him,” said Zeidman of the Holocaust council. “He’s the same straight-shooter as he was on the first day.”

Recommended from JTA