Governors’ Trip Cemented Bush’s Bond With Sharon

By Marc Perelman

Published March 28, 2003, issue of March 28, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In November 1998, then-Texas governor George W. Bush did something very unusual, at least for him: He traveled abroad.

Together with fellow governors Paul Celucci of Massachusetts, Mike Leavitt of Utah and Marc Racicot of Montana, all Republicans, Bush spent three days in Israel as a guest of the National Jewish Coalition, currently known as the Republican Jewish Coalition.

The trip, best remembered for Bush’s helicopter ride along the edge of the West Bank with then-foreign minister Ariel Sharon, played a crucial if little-understood role in one of defining transformations in recent geopolitical history: the dramatic emergence of the 43rd president as one of the most pro-Israel figures in American political history.

The trip is legendary among Bush-watchers as the moment America’s current president bonded with Israel’s current prime minister.

Less noticed is the fact that the Bush-Israel bond was precisely the purpose of the governors’ mission. Although presented as a political junket by four Republican governors eager to burnish their pro-Israel bona fides, “Bush was clearly the objective,” said an official who participated in the mission.

The reason: unhappy memories of the tense relationship between Israel and the elder George Bush, coupled with a growing sense among Washington insiders that the younger Bush had an inside track to the Republican presidential nomination.

Accordingly, said the official, the mission was slapped together in order to “patch things up between Israel and the Bush family.”

While Israel obviously welcomed the trip, officials there said Israel did not initiate the trip. The two key planners of the trip were Mel Sembler — later nominated by Bush as ambassador to Italy — and Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Brooks told the Forward that this was a “governors’ trip” and stated flatly that Bush was not the focus, though he attracted more media attention because of his name.

He acknowledged that the move has since paid off handsomely.

“We brought Bush to Israel and he brought Israel back with him,” he said, pointing to the strong bond between Bush and Sharon.

The governors met with top Israeli officials, toured military installations and visited the main tourist and religious sites. They also took their now-famous helicopter ride along the Green Line with Sharon, at the time the foreign minister and thought to be in the twilight of his political career.

Bush’s father had presided over a particularly tense period in American-Israel relations during the early 1990s, when a dispute over loan guarantees for Soviet Jewish resettlement became hostage to Bush’s determination to freeze Israeli settlements in order to convene a now-historic October 1991 peace conference in Madrid. The dispute led to famously derogatory remarks about Jews by Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, and provoked a rare crisis in Israeli-American relations.

The younger Bush had run-ins of his own with Jewish groups following reports that in a 1993 conversation with his mother, he claimed that only those who accepted Jesus as their savior could enter heaven. He was forced to mend fences with Jewish groups after a local paper ran a headline saying “Bush to Jews: Go to Hell.”

Besides Sharon, the governors on the trip met with the country’s top leaders at the time, including the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; the president, Ezer Weizman; the defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, and Labor party leader Ehud Barak.

In an indication of the changes that have occurred since then, the four governors expressed a desire to meet Yasser Arafat but learned he was in Washington at the time. Today, Bush refuses to meet Arafat, who is virtually imprisoned in his Ramallah office.

A participant in the trip said Bush was particularly impressed by demonstrations of Israel’s Arrow antimissile system, its military drills and a meeting with the F-16 pilots who conducted the strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.

The helicopter trip also has a story of its own. Initially, the plan was to fly over Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. However, protests from the Palestinian Authority forced a change of plan. Ra’anan Gissin, the longtime Sharon aide who is today his spokesperson, then decided that the chopper would fly high along the Green Line to show the visitors how tiny Israel was.

Bush was said to have been deeply impressed by the topography. He later told an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference that in Texas, some driveways are longer than Israel is wide.

Although he did not express any policy positions during the trip, Bush was obviously moved. He described it in his autobiography as “an incredible experience.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.