Appreciating President George H.W. Bush’s Contributions to Diplomacy in the Middle East

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Alan Elsner
on December 3, 2018

George H.W. Bush was one of the great foreign policy leaders of the 20th century. Anyone who cares about Israel and Middle East peace owes him a debt of gratitude.

I had the honor of serving as Reuters State Department correspondent during all four years of Bush’s presidency and saw first-hand how he and his Secretary of State James Baker handled with immense skill and courage the challenge of steering the world through a series of tumultuous events — the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the unification of Germany, the end of South African apartheid and the First Gulf War.

Bush also helped facilitate the rescue of Ethiopian Jews and the rescue of the small Jewish community in Syria and supported the right of Jews in the former Soviet Union to seek a better life in Israel and elsewhere. In 1990, he persuaded Israel to stay out of the First Gulf War, even when it came under Iraqi missile attack. His own decision not to invade Iraq was widely criticized at the time but seems incredibly wise in retrospect.

Bush was unpopular with many American Jews because he had the guts to oppose then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s settlement policy — and because of one very unfortunate turn of phrase. But we should not forget that he did succeed in moving peace efforts a decisive step forward by convening the 1991 Madrid Arab-Israeli peace conference. That in turn paved the way for the Oslo Accords which brought the parties closer to peace than ever before or since.

Taking office in 1989, Bush and Baker had high hopes of moving forward on Israeli-Palestinian peace but Shamir proved to be a dour, defiant and obdurate obstacle to progress. From the start, Bush and Baker made it clear they were willing to confront the Israeli prime minister and his US allies despite the high political risks.

In May 1989, Baker addressed the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference and said that Israel should abandon its “expansionist policies,” while Bush reminded reporters that East Jerusalem was an occupied territory.

An opportunity to put pressure on the Shamir government came in 1991 when Israel asked the United States for a five-year, $10 billion loan guarantee package to help absorb immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Bush told the Israelis he would not agree to their request unless they stopped building settlements. Shamir ordered AIPAC to unleash all its powers to get Congress to overrule the president — but Bush stood firm. At a White House briefing, he threatened to veto congressional action on the loan guarantees and famously said: “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.”

Many Jews never forgave Bush for his remark which seemed to imply that AIPAC members were putting Israeli interests above those of the United States. In the 1992 presidential election, 80 percent of American Jews voted for Democrat Bill Clinton while nine percent backed independent candidate Ross Perot. Only 11 percent supported Bush, the lowest total for Republican since records began, down from 35 percent who had voted for him in 1988.

But the confrontation with the US also backfired on Shamir and was a key factor in his electoral defeat in 1992. He was replaced by a Labor government led by Yitzhak Rabin, who took immediate steps to repair the relationship with Washington and then went ahead to negotiate peace with the Palestinians through the Oslo Process and with Jordan.

Much has been written about Bush’s fundamental decency and courtesy in dealing with others. But this chapter of his presidency shows that he was also tough and ready to stand on principle. The contrast to President Trump — not only in the way he conducts himself but also in the substance of his cruel, one-sided, reckless policies — need hardly be stated.

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