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!
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • 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.