In 1991 President George H.W. Bush held up a $10 billion loan guarantee to Israel over Israel’s continued settlement building. Bush won the battle, but eventually lost the war, a lesson that politicians have remembered ever since…
By Alison Weir
In its article, “How ‘lonely little’ George H.W. Bush changed the US-Israel relationship,” the Times of Israel reports: “The 41st president beat AIPAC, but lost 24% of his Jewish backing after confronting Israel over the settlements; it’s a lesson US leaders since have taken to heart.”
The Israeli newspaper states that Bush “made clear the cost of an American president waging a political fight against the vast coalition of pro-Israel lobbying groups. In doing so, he exposed the limits of what the world’s most powerful man can do” when opposed by Israel partisans.
In 1991 Bush told Israel that the U.S. would not give Israel $10 million in loan guarantees until Israel stopped building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. (Settlements are illegal under international law.*)
Bush stated: “I think the American people will strongly support me in this. I’m going to fight for it because I think this is what the American people want, and I’m going to do absolutely everything I can to back those members of the United States Congress who are forward-looking in their desire to see peace.”
The Israel lobby, especially the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), was outraged.
Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper reports: “Thomas Dine, the then-executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, declared that September 12 – when Bush announced he would tell Congress that the request for the guarantees must be deferred for 120 days – would be ‘a day that lives in infamy for the American pro-Israeli community.’
“Dine lamented that ‘this president did what no other president has done: He held a special press conference on this issue and challenged not just congressional efforts to proceed with the guarantees legislation, but Israel’s overall aid levels.'”
Actually, once before, after Israel had invaded Egypt and occupied Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in 1956, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower had threatened to cut off more than $100 million in annual US aid if Israel didn’t withdraw. Israel withdrew, but first systematically destroyed infrastructure in the Sinai peninsula, including roads, railroads, telephone lines, and all the houses in two tiny villages.
But three decades later when Bush was President, the Israel lobby was far stronger, and few dared to go against it.
Ha’aretz states: “The pro-Israel lobby was shocked by the determination of the Bush administration to postpone congressional consideration of the guarantees – which it had carefully crafted with the Israeli government and expected to sail through Congress and then the White House in early October.”
An AIPAC official had predicted that the guarantees would pass “like a knife through butter.”
Ha’aretz reports: “In making his case, Bush pointedly reminded Israel that ‘just months ago, American men and women in uniform risked their lives to defend Israelis in the face of Iraqi Scud missiles,’ and that the Gulf War had ‘achieved the defeat of Israel’s most dangerous adversary,’ referring to Saddam Hussein’s regime.
“Moreover, he said, his administration had approved $4 billion in military aid for Israel, representing ‘nearly $1,000 for every man, woman and child,” and had already given Israel ‘millions in loan guarantees’.”
During the onslaught – a thousand Jewish Americans from at least 35 states descended on Congress demanding that the loan guarantees go through to Israel – Bush complained: “There are 1,000 lobbyists up on the Hill today lobbying Congress for loan guarantees for Israel and I’m one lonely little guy down here asking Congress to delay its consideration of loan guarantees for 120 days.”
The lobbying had been organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and AIPAC.
Bush had long opposed Israeli settlements. His Secretary of State James Baker had told Israel in 1989: “Forswear annexation. Stop settlement activity.”
While the Bush administration offered to guarantee a loan to build housing for Russian immigrants, this offer was contingent on Israel not using the money for construction in the Palestinian Territories. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir ignored this condition, and in 1991 Shamir demanded that the loan guarantee go up to $10 billion, even while he undertook what the Washington Post called “the biggest settlement construction program ever launched.”
It didn’t help that Shamir had been a terrorist leader in past years involved in a number of murders. The organization’s charter called for the establishment of a Jewish state ‘from the Nile to the Euphrates’ and the transfer of the Palestinian inhabitants.
After Israel was established in Palestine in 1948 by its founding war, Shamir had become head of the Mossad, claiming Israel had the right to interfere in the internal affairs in every other nation state in the world.
Shamir had often defended his terrorism, once stating: “Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat. We are very far from having any moral qualms as far as our national war goes. We have before us the command of the Torah, whose morality surpasses that of any other body of laws in the world: ‘Ye shall blot them out to the last man.’”
Bush’s temporary win
Bush was highly popular leading up to the fight with the Israel lobby, with a 70 percent approval rating. Eventually, AIPAC and others backed down, and Congress reluctantly went along with the President and delayed the loan guarantees for four months.
This was to prove a short-term win.
While Bush won that battle and Shamir lost his next election bid, so did Bush, and indications suggest that he lost the larger war.
Bush eventually approved the $10 billion loan guarantees when Shamir’s replacement Yitzhak Rabin promised to halt “political” settlements. However, Rabin continued settlement building, increasing the number of settlements by ten percent in two years, and settlement building has continued apace ever since.
Author Donald Neff writes: “Passage of the loan guarantees was Israel’s greatest victory in its decades-long struggle to gain U.S. approval for settlements…. Israel made obvious by its actions that for the first time Washington was acquiescing in employing U.S.-guaranteed funds to build and expand settlements.”
And Neff points out that while Bush managed to push through the loan guarantee delay, “He would pay dearly for it in the presidential campaign. The New York Times reported that Bush’s Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton, received 60 percent of his campaign funding from Jewish sources and that he gained 80 percent of the Jewish vote.”*
While Bill Clinton used the campaign slogan “It’s the economy, stupid,” many analyst feel it was Bush’s confrontation with Israel that doomed his bid for a second term.
Democrats exploit Bush’s stand
The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs reports that the Democrats supported Shamir and exploited this split between the Israel lobby and the first Bush administration.”
In May 2000, presidential candidate Al Gore told a cheering AIPAC convention: ‘I remember standing up against Bush’s foreign policy advisers who promoted the insulting concept of linkage, which tried to use loan guarantees as a stick to bully Israel. I stood with you, and together we defeated them.”’
The Washington Report notes: “In 1997, Fran Katz, the deputy political affairs director of AIPAC, became finance director of the Democratic National Committee; the previous year, the former chairman of AIPAC, Steve Grossman, had become national chairman of the Democratic Party, telling the press, ‘My commitment to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship is unwavering.’
“Clinton also appointed Martin Indyk, a veteran of a pro-Israel think-tank associated with AIPAC, as ambassador to Israel, only a few days after this Australian citizen received his U.S. citizenship papers.”
Politicians learn the lesson
The Times of Israel states: “American presidents have since been cautious to avoid paying for challenging Israel like that — for using their leverage — and none really has, especially not in their first term.
“Clinton made sure to abide by the principle of keeping differences with Israel private; and he certainly had differences with Netanyahu during the Israeli premier’s first go-round from 1996 to 1999.
“George W. Bush, the elder Bush’s son, was careful not to criticize Israel during his first term, which took place during the Second Intifada. But after he won reelection, he spoke out against Israel occasionally, including on settlements. He was also the first president to call for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.”
The article concludes: “It was not until the very end of his presidency that Obama allowed the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that criticized settlements, having protected Israel with his veto throughout the first 7.9 years of his time in the White House.
“The fact that he waited until his last days in office, despite an increasingly acrimonious relationship with the Netanyahu administration, was a sign that Bush’s hard-learned lesson has continued to reverberate in Washington.”
Today, Israel partisans are working to push through a $38 billion package to Israel, the largest military aid package to a foreign country in U.S. history, and once again we find a Republican opposing it. Senator Rand Paul has placed a block on the legislation at the 11th hour, outraging AIPAC, which has placed Facebook ads against Paul. This time, however, Paul is much more cautious in his statements, perhaps aware of what happened to Bush.
U.S. media have largely failed to tell Americans about the legislation. So far, it appears that the only national news organization to mention it, belatedly, is Politico, which called the massive package “routine.”
While a newly elected Democratic Congressional representative is challenging AIPAC, so far no Democratic senators have joined in Rand Paul’s objection to the AIPAC-crafted legislation.
* Israel’s settlements consist of confiscating Palestinian land and creating a Jewish-only colony. These are illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention. They were opposed by every administration for years and called “an obstacle to peace,” until the Israel lobby became so strong that officials caved in.
A recent memoir about Bush by his friend and associate Marshall Breger published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reports:
“George Bush had a principled sense of fairness as well, even when it went against the feelings of the Jewish community. He once invited me to a private lunch in his office, where he spread out a map of Jerusalem and asked me to explain each and every Jewish settlement in the city. He saw such settlement as injurious to the peace process, telling me it was as if two parties were negotiating over a quarry and at night one of them entered and removed stones, reducing its value. I tried to explain the attachment of Jews to Jerusalem, but to him it seemed fundamentally unfair to change the status quo while negotiating about it.”
Bush’s principled stand caused him great harm, causing pro-Israel voters and campaign donors, as well as many in the media, to oppose him.
Breger writes: “Some years later, when he was no longer president, I attended a small dinner party at the Israeli ambassador’s residence. The conversation turned to former President Bush, and the American Jews present spoke of how they reviled him.”
Bush’s attempt to stand up to what he called “powerful political forces” – and Bill Clinton’s decision to go along with them – changed the course of history.
It’s impossible to know how George Bush, Jr. would have acted if this had played out differently.
Alison Weir is executive director of If Americans Knew, president of the Council for the National Interest, and author of Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel.
*The quotes from Donald Neff come from his book Fallen Pillars, U.S. Policy toward Palestine and Israel since 1945, Institute for Palestine Studies, Washington DC, reprint edition 2002, page 161. He cites New York Times, 5 January 1993.
C-SPAN VIDEO: President Bush White House Press Conference on Israeli Loan Guarantees’ Delay
Douglas Bloomfield, writes in Israel’s Jerusalem Post newspaper:
George H.W. Bush was the first and last presidential candidate endorsed by AIPAC. It started with a handwritten note from Tom Dine, AIPAC’s executive director, to Rep. Jack Kemp (New York), chairman of the Republican Platform Committee at the 1988 GOP convention in New Orleans.
“This is the most pro-Israel platform of any party,” Dine told Kemp, and said he could use it as he wished.
Kemp, a pro-Israel shtarker in Congress, made sure the pro-Israel lobby got what it wanted.
By contrast, Dine and other pro-Israel leaders were uncomfortable with Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis. He had a troubled history with the Jewish community (“hymies”) and tried to insert pro-Palestinian language into the Democratic platform a month earlier in Atlanta.
Kemp had become Housing Secretary and was to meet with his Israeli counterpart, housing minister Ariel Sharon, the hard-charging settlement builder who clashed repeatedly with the Bush administration and particularly Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the president’s close friend.
When Baker learned they were to meet at Kemp’s HUD office he ordered the meeting canceled. Kemp later told friends that he protested, arguing that his friendship with Israel would be valuable for Republicans in the coming election, and that Baker told him, “Fuck the Jews. They don’t vote for us.” Baker denied it.
Bush and Baker had a reputation for hostility toward Israel dating to their days in the Reagan administration. During the fight over the sale of the AWACS early warning aircraft to Saudi Arabia, strongly opposed by AIPAC and Israel, pro-Israel Republican members of Congress told me that Baker, the White House chief of staff, warned them that they had to choose “Begin or Reagan.” Begin was Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin.
When Begin ordered the 1981 bombing of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor, Bush and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger pressed to punish Israel by withholding delivery of F-16s, the kind that bombed Iraq. Reagan’s UN ambassador worked with Saddam’s ambassador to draft the Security Council resolution that unanimously and “strongly” condemned Israel.
Perhaps in an effort to woo the Israel lobby, Dukakis said he would be willing to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, as did his opponent for the Democratic nomination, Bill Clinton. Moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem was a plank in the 1984 Democratic Party platform.
Dukakis never used the term “hymies.” However, opponents tried to connect him to Jesse Jackson, who had once done so.