George H.W. Bush, who died Friday at 94, was many things in his long lifetime — war hero, congressman, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., vice president and 41st president of the United States. Bush came into office pledging to make the United States a “kinder, gentler” nation, and urging Americans on to greater acts of kindness through his initiative known as the Thousand Points of Light.
President Bush embodied positivity and self-reliance, and America’s public displays of mourning this week — as well as the reflections and fond recollections of many who served with him and knew him — testify to these parts of his legacy.
But a friend of Israel — he was not.
The problem wasn’t that he opposed Israel’s policy of settling Jews in all parts of Eretz Yisrael, believing that such construction was an obstacle to peace. That was conventional wisdom in Washington in those days. Rather, it was his heavy-handed treatment of then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir, whose only “crime” was faithfully representing the views of the majority in Israel that a Palestinian state was a mortal threat and the Jewish people had a right to build in its historic homeland.
Bush was obsessed with Israeli “settlements.” According to Avi Pazner, Shamir’s close adviser, the U.S. president raised the subject at the two leaders’ first get-acquainted meeting in the Oval Office, and never relented. His demand was unequivocal: No new settlements were to be built in Yehudah and Shomron.
The only time tensions eased was in January 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War, when Shamir did Washington’s bidding and took the previously unthinkable step of not responding to enemy attacks. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein fired 39 Scud rockets at Israel, sending millions of people into sealed rooms, including the elderly, sick and infirm, and the government didn’t respond. Rockets slammed into residential buildings, schoolchildren went to school with gas masks, and Israel kept its combat planes in their hangars, in deference to Washington’s perceived need to hold together its coalition, which included Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria.
How did Bush reward Shamir for keeping his word in the face of fierce criticism at home, including from his own defense minister, Moshe Arens? By applying even more pressure to stop building settlements, and sending his secretary of state, James Baker, to the region to strong-arm Shamir into attending an international peace conference in Madrid.
In a crass intervention in Israel’s internal affairs, Bush and Baker did everything they could to convince Israeli voters that they would be better off with a left-wing leadership that saw eye-to-eye with Washington on settlements. This intervention reached its peak with the $10 billion in loan guarantees that Israel sought in order to help settle immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who at one point were arriving at a rate of 15,000 a month.
America was not being asked to provide money, but guarantees so that Israel could borrow at a better rate. The risk to the U.S. taxpayer was practically nil considering Israel’s track record of always paying back its loans. But Bush withheld the loan guarantees in order to punish Shamir, to make him look bad in the eyes of the electorate — at the expense of FSU immigrants who were in desperate needs of housing, jobs, medical care and education.
And it worked. Shamir lost to Yitzchak Rabin, head of the Labor party, who went on to receive the loan guarantees from Bush and to bring Israel the ill-fated Oslo agreements. It wouldn’t be a stretch, then, to say that Bush has shares in Oslo and its devastating results.
(Bush’s treatment of Jewish political leaders in the United States was equally dismissive. When AIPAC lobbied on behalf of the loan guarantees, as is its right, Bush commented: “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.” It was a biting comment that raised questions concerning American Jews’ dual loyalty.)
To be sure, the picture is not all black. Far from it. Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, among others, “enjoyed a close relationship with the President, through which he was able to voice his concerns on Israel’s security,” Agudath Israel noted in its statement expressing their grief at the president’s passing.
As U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Bush spoke out forcefully on behalf of Soviet Jewry. Malcolm 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 the final analysis, Bush’s greatest contribution to Israel may have been his son, George W., who as president stood solidly behind the Jewish state. Bush the son severed diplomatic ties with arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat after Israel intercepted the Karin-A, a ship carrying Iranian weapons to the Palestinian Authority.
He was the first to recognize that “in light of new realities on the ground,” it was unrealistic to expect Israel to return to the 1967 borders.
He didn’t care about public opinion polls when it came to Israel, or any matter of principle, only about what was right. These are values that come from the home, and for this we have gratitude to the father, President George H.W. Bush.