The student newspaper of Clark University

The Scarlet

The student newspaper of Clark University

The Scarlet

The student newspaper of Clark University

The Scarlet

How Bush Sr.’s Showdown Provides a Framework for American-Israeli Diplomacy

President George H. W. Bush with James Baker at a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, November 19, 1990. Photo courtesy of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.
President George H. W. Bush with James Baker at a Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, November 19, 1990. Photo courtesy of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

Lately, Joe Biden has been ramping up pressure on Israel as the nation prepares for its offensive on the Gazan city of Rafah. In Rafah, over 1.4 million people (roughly two thirds of the population of Gaza) have been displaced as a result of the conflict which began on October 7, 2023. Additionally, Biden has publicly denounced Israel’s plan to invade Rafah as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and slapped sanctions on Israeli settlers and settlements. The United States even refused to veto a ceasefire resolution at the United Nations, instead voting to abstain. 

Many have criticized these actions as the bare minimum to rein in the Israeli military. Biden has continually provided unprecedented levels of military aid to Israel since October 7 without any conditions, often bypassing Congressional authority to do so, and the State Department has publicly repudiated criticism of Israel’s military actions and has denounced the idea of a ceasefire. As civilian casualties mount during Israel’s offensive in Gaza, many are calling for a reassessment in American-Israeli relations.

To find an example of a President who was able to more effectively put pressure on Israel, we must look to none other than, surprisingly, George H. W. Bush, who in 1991 had a public showdown with Israel over a $10 billion loan guarantee. The loan guarantee’s original purpose was to help settle Jews leaving Soviet Russia into Israel during the 1990s post-Soviet aliyah. This operation began in 1989 after the Soviet Union began lifting restrictions on emigration and formally recognized Israel for the first time since 1967.

However, that wasn’t the only reason Israel wanted that loan guarantee. During the opening stages of Operation Desert Storm in January 1991, the United States was building a coalition of nations in order to repel Iraq from Kuwait. Even though Israel was not part of this coalition, Iraq fired 42 scud missiles into Israel between January 17 and February 23 in the hopes of provoking an Israeli response and splitting the coalition, which included many Muslim-majority nations with hostile relations toward Israel. This plan failed; Israel reluctantly refused to retaliate at the insistence of President Bush. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin believed that Bush should have been grateful for Israel’s restraint. However, George H. W. Bush saw the $10 billion loan guarantee as an opportunity to promote lasting peace between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and promote an independent Palestinian state. Bush sought a peaceful end to the First Intifada, a conflict in the Palestinian Territories that had been ongoing since 1987.

Initially, the Bush administration was opposed to any recognition of an independent Palestinian state, which was a continuation of the pro-Israel foreign policy of the Reagan administration.

However, views in the Bush administration toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began to shift. As early as May of 1989 during a speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the largest pro-Israel lobbying group in the country, Baker outraged Israeli officials when he called on Israel to “lay aside once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel,” which meant ceasing the construction of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and refusing annexation of more territory, as well as a call to treat Palestinians “as neighbors who deserve political rights.”

The Bush administration placed two conditions on the $10 billion loan guarantee: that Israel stop the construction of settlements in the West Bank and that Israel agree to attend a Middle East peace conference with Palestinian leaders. This move was strongly opposed by the AIPAC. AIPAC, founded in 1954 in order to push for increasing US aid to Israel, had distinguished itself from other pro-Israel lobbying groups such as the American Zionist Council by broadening support for Israel among groups that were not traditionally Zionist. The organization grew in size during the 1970s and by the 1980s became a major force in government, scoring its first major victory in the House by unseating a pro-Palestine incumbent in 1982 and its first major victory in the Senate by unseating another pro-Palestine incumbent in 1984. 

On September 12, 1991, AIPAC organized the “Washington Action Day in Support of U.S. Loan Guarantees” in order to push Congress to oppose Bush’s conditions on Israeli aid, with an estimated 1,200 showing up and visiting lawmakers from over thirty-five states. Sixty senators had signed on to support these loan guarantees, and AIPAC believed that this number could climb as high as eighty. However, President Bush remained firm, and held a televised press conference on the same day in which he openly called for a 120-day delay of the loan guarantees and announced his intention to veto any foreign aid bill to Israel which included a loan guarantee. 

Most notable from the press conference was his direct confrontation of the pro-Israel lobby, saying, “Well 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.” 

That “lonely little guy” comment helped Bush cultivate an image of the President of the United States as an underdog, taking on the seemingly impossible and battling a political juggernaut like AIPAC. Privately, James Baker was much more blunt about his opposition. When someone mentioned AIPAC’s opposition to the administration’s conditions, Baker said, “Fuck them, they don’t vote for us.” Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch falsely reported Baker as saying “Fuck the Jews,” leading to Baker being accused of antisemitism.

Israel eventually relented, agreeing to sit down with Palestinian leaders at the Madrid Conference on October 30, 1991, which marked the first step in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which eventually led to the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. This was a major victory for the Bush administration, a realization of the ideals he laid out in an address he gave to congress back in 1990, in which he called on the United States to seize the responsibility of the post-Cold War era and create a “new world order” founded on international cooperation.

This victory came at a cost to Bush himself. He earned the contempt of settlers in the West Bank, who protested by chanting something which could be loosely translated to “Throw the bums out!” in reference to George Bush and James Baker. At home, this move cost him support from a lot of Jewish voters. 

In 1992, Bush ended up losing reelection in a three-way contest to Bill Clinton, who painted Bush as an anti-Israel extremist, accusing his foreign policy of “ever so subtly” eroding “the taboo against overt anti-Semitism.” By 1992, an inside joke among AIPAC lobbyists in Washington was “George Bush, Jim Baker and Pat Buchanan are in a rowboat that sinks. Who gets saved?” to which the answer would be “Israel.” (A joke which becomes much less funny when you realize that in such a scenario, Dan Quayle would be President… a terrifying thought.) And Bush ended up with only 11% of the Jewish vote, a stark drop from his 31% margin just four years earlier.

But while George Bush ended up losing reelection, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process had begun, and it took a president who was willing to tie aid to Israel to a specific policy outcome, over the opposition of both the Israeli government and lobbying groups like AIPAC, in order to set it in motion. And that is why understanding how Bush began the peace process between Israel and Palestine is necessary. Although it’s not a perfect comparison, a strategy of conditioning aid, confronting the Israeli government and taking on pro-Israel lobbying groups is necessary to bring about an end to the conflict in Gaza.

Today, Biden is in a much better position to take on a more confrontational approach than Bush was in 1991. While support for Israel was political consensus in 1991, with a Gallup poll showing 80% of Americans supporting Israel, in November 2023 a poll from Reuters, only 32% of Americans believed that the United States should back Israel. Even among Jewish voters, especially young Jewish voters, support for Israel has declined, with a poll from Jewish Insider in December 2023 showing that more than a quarter of American Jews between the ages of 18-29 opposed Israel’s military operation in Gaza. It is high time for Biden to become the next “lonely little guy.”

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

Comment approval is subject to the discretion of the Scarlet editorial board.
All The Scarlet Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *