Houses of the holy

George W. Bush offers an olive branch to Jewish voters while trying to set a different tone from his father's squabbles with pro-Israel lobbying groups.

Published May 24, 2000 6:26PM (EDT)

In a speech to the country's most influential Zionist interest group Monday,
Texas Gov. George W. Bush tried to out-Israel Vice President Al Gore, even
issuing a stern rebuke to the Clinton administration for "attempt(ing) to take
sides in the most recent Israeli election."

"America should not interfere in Israel's democratic process," Bush said to
the thunderous applause of 1,600 delegates at the 40th annual policy
conference of the American
Israel Public Affairs Committee,
or AIPAC. "And America will not interfere
in Israeli elections when I am president."

Democrats in the White House and the campaign trail immediately slammed
Bush's comments. Calling the charges irresponsible and baseless, Gore
spokesman Chris Lehane mocked the presumptive GOP nominee's past
geographic confusion.

"George W. Bush seems as confused about the Middle East peace process as
he was confounded about the difference between the Mediterranean Sea
and the Red Sea," said Lehane, referring to a September 1999 Bush
statement in which he apparently confused the two bodies of water. "Al
Gore's leadership credentials on facilitating the Middle East peace process
are impeccable, while Bush is suffering from an antiquated analysis,
reminiscent of the Republican approach of the 1980s."

When read Bush's remarks, National Security Council spokesman P.J. Crowley
erupted with laughter. "He's suggesting that we interfered in the Israeli
elections?" Crowley asked. After reviewing a copy of the speech, which he
called "naive" and "puzzling," Crowley stated that "U.S. administrations --
Democratic and Republican alike -- are steadfast in avoiding any interference
in the electoral processes in other countries; it's a ridiculous charge. These
have been choices for the Israeli people to make as part of a very vibrant
democratic electoral process."

But far more important than Bush's attempt to distinguish himself from Gore
was his attempt in this speech to separate his policy and position toward
Israel from that of his father.

Bush the senior was criticized in October 1991 by Morris Amitay, a past
president of AIPAC, who was quoted in the Jerusalem Report accusing a
comment by President Bush as having come "close to inciting anti-Semitism."
Added Amitay: "We no longer have a president who sees the value of a
strategic relation with a country like Israel in a region as unstable as the
Middle East."

This Bush -- continuing to reach out to traditionally Democratic voting blocks
-- however, made sure to cut quite a different figure. In his speech Monday,
Gov. Bush went on to outline several positions guaranteed to meet with
AIPAC claps -- moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Jerusalem;
standing against "the ancient wrong of anti-Semitism" as most recently
demonstrated with the "unjust" imprisonment of 13 Iranian Jews accused of
espionage; military aid to Israel such as that provided by the Arrow missile
defense system. And along the way, with help from a supporter and AIPAC
board member, Mayer "Bubba" Mitchell, Bush portrayed his position on the
Middle East's lone democracy as quite different from the one held by a
certain, nameless ex-president.

"He staked out his own position and showed that he's his own man and he
does his own thing," said one official of a pro-Israel organization who
attended the conference. "It was a call to the Jewish community where he
said, 'Do not visit the sins of the father on the son.' That's how I took it,
anyway, and that's how many members of the audience took it. It was a
very, very pro-Israel speech."

Maybe it needed to be. While many AIPAC members saw Ronald Reagan as
one of the nation's most pro-Israel presidents, the Governor's father is seen
by many of those same AIPAC members as one of history's worst presidents
for U.S.-Israel relations.

Thus Bush quoted Reagan in his remarks to the AIPAC, while his father went

Additionally, the man who introduced Bush -- "Bubba" Mitchell, a Mobile, Ala.,
resident and past chairperson of AIPAC's board -- did reference the younger
Bush's foreign policy advisers as familiar faces, ones seen as pro-Israel, such
as Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz, "arguably the most supportive
secretary of state in the history of the state of Israel," according to Mitchell.

Other advisers to Gov. Bush cited by Mitchell include Richard Perle, Reagan's
assistant secretary of defense for international security policy; Ambassador
Paul Wolfowitz, Bush's undersecretary of defense for policy and dean of the
School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University;
Ambassador Richard Armitage, Reagan's assistant secretary of defense for
international security affairs; and Dr. Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's
National Security Council director of Soviet and East European Affairs. All are
regarded as supportive of Israel.

But Bubba didn't mention the slew of Gov. Bush's foreign policy advisers --
nicknamed the "Vulcans" -- who were around President Bush quite a bit
during his confrontations with AIPAC. These include both Stephen Hadley,
President Bush's assistant secretary of defense for international security
policy and Robert B. Zoellick, who served President Bush as both
undersecretary of state and deputy White House chief of staff. There was no
mention of Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings
Institute, who served from 1989 to 1992 as a special assistant to President
Bush and was the Bush administration's senior director for Near East and
South Asian affairs on the National Security Council; or Robert Blackwill,
special assistant to President Bush for European and Soviet affairs, who in
September 1992 credited the "extraordinarily intense and adroit negotiating
and diplomatic efforts of the United States of America, President Bush and
Secretary of State Baker." Regardless of the ones Mitchell chose to point out
to the AIPAC audience, Gov. Bush's advisers are at least as Bushie as they
are Reaganite.

But Bush and Mitchell are doing everything they can to emphasize the more
Reaganite side of the governor's foreign policy team. "George Bush Jr. is not
using his father's advisers; that's what I find interesting," said an official of
the pro-Israel organization. "He's using Reagan administration advisers."

Mitchell underscored the fact that Bush is not his father during his
introduction of the governor, outlining the various pro-Israel positions the
younger Bush has adopted. Bush reiterated those positions several weeks
ago in a 2 1/2 hour meeting with a number of AIPAC board members who
flew to Austin "at Gov. Bush's request to visit with him and discuss issues of
importance to Israel and the Jewish community," Mitchell said to the crowd.

The official noted that Mitchell's efforts to reassure the crowd about Bush
were understandable. "There's definitely a concern there," he said. "The
relationship between the U.S. and Israel under George Bush Sr. was not a
good one, it was very unhealthy. I think George Bush Jr. understood that he
was dealing with a community that has a lot of questions and a lot of
suspicions. But he went a very long way toward allaying those fears with his

The events of that era loom large in the minds of many AIPAC members.
Israel had asked the United States to guarantee loans it needed to absorb
waves of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants. President Bush attempted to link
any U.S. guarantee of Israeli loans to Israel's cessation of settlement
construction in land in dispute, including East Jerusalem. In the midst of this
controversy, President Bush painted AIPAC and other pro-Israel
organizations in somewhat conspiratorial terms.

"I'm up against some powerful political forces, but I owe it to the American
people to tell them how strongly I feel about" deferring additional loan
guarantees, President Bush said, on September 12, 1991. "I heard today
there were something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill, working the other
side of the question. We've got one lonely little guy down here doing it."

The feud was escalated in March 1992, when Bush Secretary of State James
Baker allegedly said about the American Jewish community, "Fuck 'em. They
didn't vote for us."

Seven AIPAC policy conferences ago, in April 1992, Thomas Dine, then the
executive director of AIPAC, slammed Bush's father, then the president,
tacitly calling for his defeat. Dine referred to Bush as having "ominously ...
questioned the unalienable right of American citizens -- you and me -- to
lobby on this issue. Sept. 12, 1991, will be a day that lives in infamy for the
American pro-Israel community!"

While AIPAC cannot and does not donate money to or endorse candidates, it
can assess a candidate's position on matters of American-Israeli relations.
And assess Dine did.

"We are not happy about what has happened over the past three-and-a-half
years" to the U.S.-Israel relationship "and to Israel's image in this country,"
Dine said in his speech. "On Sept. 12, 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."

However, he noted in reference to Baker's lovely ode to a Jewish vote
unearned, "We are most angry about the recent series of Washington leaks,
accusations, alleged vulgarities and the whole patronizing approach this
administration's top officials have displayed toward Israel."

The Republican Party had previously been making headway with American
Jews, who make up only 3 percent of the U.S. population but vote
disproportionately and tend to live in electoral vote-rich states like New York
and California. In 1980, Reagan split the Jewish vote with President Jimmy
Carter by 44 percent to 39 percent, and Reagan won 70 percent of the
Jewish vote in California, according to one poll. In 1984, that number slipped
to around 32 percent. The elder Bush got around 35 percent of the Jewish
vote in 1988. But in 1992 -- according to one poll -- Bush came in third among
American Jews, coming in behind Clinton (79 percent) and Ross Perot (10
percent) with only seven percent of the vote.

Bush would like a tad bit more than that, of course; thus in sharp contrast to
his father's remarks, Gov. Bush on Monday lauded AIPAC's lobbying. "The
work AIPAC does is a vital part of our democratic process," he said. "You
speak out boldly, and that's good for America, it's good for Israel, and good
for the cause of peace and justice in the world. You make sure that
politicians hear what voters have to say not only on Election Day, but every
day of the year."

While allowing that there would doubtless "be some times when we don't
always agree," Bush urged AIPAC members to "keep speaking, keep
working, keep fighting for your principles. This nation, the land of Israel, the
Middle East and the world are better for it."

This divergence from his father's attitude toward the pro-Israel lobby did
not go unnoticed. "At the end of [the] speech, when he said, 'Please keep
lobbying' -- does that seem like something his father would have said?"
asked the AIPAC official.

Indeed it didn't. Though he did sound a bit like Father Bush when he told how Mitchell sent him a mezuza, a religious object containing Biblical verse that
observant Jews place on their doorposts. After he praised the Israel
Meh-ZOO-ZA, and conveyed a little monotheistic commonality to the crowd,
Bush's remarks were met with a bit of skepticism in the Bush press corps.
One veteran Bush reporter leaned toward a colleague and joked, "Ten bucks
he uses the mezuza as a fishing lure."

Before the speech, Democratic consultant Jennifer Lazio handed out leaflets
from the National Jewish Democratic Council, a group of Jewish Democrats,
eager to remind Jews about Bush's speech at Bob Jones University, his coy
refusal to condemn Pat Buchanan's anti-Semitic remarks, and his "support for
school prayer and the teaching of creationism as science in America's public

In the accusatory four-page document, however, not one charge was made
against the governor's support for Israel. Perhaps Bush has had some
success in showing himself to the pro-Israel community as, at least on this
issue, not his father's son.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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