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.”