Whatever else can be said about George W. Bush and his legacy on this day that his successor is being chosen, it is a near certainty that we shall not see a president quite as instinctively pro-Israel as he for a very long time to come–a president who entered office determined to pursue a policy that unambiguously favored Israel over its enemies.
In their anti-Bush book The Price of Loyalty, author Ron Suskind and his collaborator and protagonist Paul O’Neill, the treasury secretary who left the Bush administration on less than friendly terms, provided a revealing glimpse into Bush’s thinking on Israel.
On January 30, 2001, just ten days after his inauguration, Bush met with his senior national security team and, according to O’Neill as transcribed by Suskind, startled those in the room when the discussion turned to Middle East policy.
“We’re going to correct the imbalances of the previous administration on the Mideast conflict,” Bush announced. “We’re going to tilt it back toward Israel. And we’re going to be consistent. Clinton overreached, and it all fell apart. That’s why we’re in trouble.”
Bush reminisced about meeting Ariel Sharon when they shared a helicopter flight during Bush’s visit to Israel in December 1998.
“We flew over the Palestinian camps,” Bush said. “Looked real bad down there. I don’t see much we can do over there at this point. I think it’s time to pull out of that situation.”
Colin Powell protested that “such a move might be hasty” and spoke of the “roots” of the violence in the Palestinian areas. “He stressed,” wrote Suskind, “that a pullback by the United States would unleash Sharon and the Israeli army. “The consequences of that could be dire,” he said, “especially for the Palestinians.”
Bush, according to Suskind and O’Neill, shrugged. “Maybe that’s the best way to get things back in balance,” he said. “Sometimes a show of strength by one side can really clarify things.”
So here was Bush, the media-caricatured simpleton allegedly in thrall to a coterie of Machiavellian advisers, a week and a half into his presidency and some nine months before Sept. 11, making it clear that he was “going to tilt” U.S. policy “back toward Israel.”
Bush has been pilloried by his critics for supposedly neglecting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for most of his presidency. Of course, what those critics usually mean but don’t say is that Bush refused to push Israel in the manner they would have preferred, that he wasn’t even-handed enough, that he saw through Yasir Arafat’s pretensions and lies, that he actually carried through on the promise he made in that first NSC meeting “to tilt it back to Israel.”