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Progressives Can Learn From George H.W. Bush's Pressure On Israel.
U.S. Department Of State

Progressives Can Learn From George H.W. Bush's Pressure On Israel.


Even as the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian violence comes to an end with Thursday's cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian militia Hamas, there are indications that the recent violence may have a long-term impact on US policy in the region.

The high civilian death toll of Israel's bombing campaign, which was launched in response to an indiscriminate barrage of rockets fired into Israel, has given new impetus to calls for a rethinking of the US' financial and diplomatic support for Israel.

Proponents of imposing tougher conditions on the United States' annual $3.8 billion military aid package to Israel are mostly on the political left, but Republican George H.W. Bush was the most recent US president to use the threat of withheld aid to change Israeli policy.

Although the circumstances today are not identical, Bush's confrontation with Israel in 1991 over the terms of U.S. loan guarantees serves as an example of what a more evenhanded U.S. approach to the conflict could look like. Bush withheld the loan guarantees until he was satisfied that the money borrowed with U.S. assistance would not be used to fund Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories.

“Bush established consequences for bad behavior, and he got results,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, adding that “it could happen again.”

Progressives see Bush's actions as a useful reminder that renegotiating US aid to Israel is not a radical, left-wing idea.

“The issue of leveraging US aid to Israel has become so far dragged in the direction of radical foreign policy hawks that people forget what a common-sense position it was just a few decades ago,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, a left-wing group that has helped unseat a number of hawkish Democrats.

Following Bush's death in November 2018, I investigated his legacy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Given the evolving political debate over the United States' role in the conflict, Stardia is republishing a condensed version of that article here, with some updates to reflect the current context.

'One Lonely Little Guy' is a story about a lonely little boy.

After the first Gulf War, which ended in February 1991, then-President George H.W. Bush was at the pinnacle of his global power, having successfully expelled the Iraqi military from Kuwait, a U.S. ally and major oil producer, while effectively shielding Israel from retaliation by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Bush decided that the next item on his international to-do list should be Palestinian-Israeli peace.

To that end, his famously assertive secretary of state, James A. Baker III, laid the groundwork for what would become a multilateral peace conference in Madrid in October 1991, where Israel and a slew of Arab governments sat down, under American supervision, to discuss their most vexing disagreements, chief among them the status of the Palestinian people.

In a nod to Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the political and military umbrella group for most Palestinian factions, did not attend, instead sending representatives as part of the Jordanian delegation.

However, just a few weeks before the conference, right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir asked the United States to guarantee $10 billion in loans Israel needed to help absorb hundreds of thousands of Soviet Union immigrants. Under the arrangement, the United States would have served as Israel's guarantor with creditors, guaranteeing it a much lower interest rate than it would have otherwise received.

In October 1990, the United States guaranteed a $400 million loan to Israel in order to absorb a smaller wave of Soviet Jewish immigrants.

Baker had negotiated strong assurances from Israel at the time that the funds would not be used to relocate Jewish immigrants to settlements in territories Israel had occupied since 1967, which the US saw and, at least officially, continued to see as a major impediment to peace for decades.



Shamir objected when the United States attempted to impose the same terms on the new tranche of loans.

Bush stood firm, insisting on delaying the entire loan guarantee for 120 days, claiming that he did not want a protracted debate with Congress over settlements to disrupt the peace talks; he also likely wanted to pressure an uncooperative Shamir into cooperating with the conference and bolster American credibility as a fair mediator with Arab nations.

Shamir believed that, with the assistance of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, he could force Bush's hand by mobilizing Congress to approve the aid immediately, defying the president.

Unmoved, Bush vowed to veto legislation authorizing the aid before the 120-day delay expired, and he took his case to the media, speaking at length about his stance in a press conference on Sept. 12, 1991, presenting himself as an underdog against the might of AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups, which had recently organized a massive lobbying day on Capitol Hill.

“I heard today that there were something like 1,000 lobbyists on the Hill working on the other side of the question, and we’ve got one lonely little guy down here doing it,” he said, drawing laughter from the White House press corps.

Bush won his game of chicken with Shamir and AIPAC shortly after.

Congress backed down, and when the United States finally guaranteed the loans in the spring of 1992, it did so using a new formula designed to offset Israel's settlement spending: it guaranteed $200 million less for each billion Israel requested, to account for Israel's projected settlement spending.

The Madrid conference and the subsequent multilateral talks produced no breakthroughs between Israel and its Arab neighbors, let alone the occupied Palestinians.

However, the conference's shortcomings reinforced a realization within Israel's peace camp that direct talks with PLO leaders, who were not present in Madrid, were required.

Perhaps more importantly, the drama surrounding the loan guarantees hastened Shamir's political demise; he lost his reelection bid in June 1992, owing, at least in part, to public fatigue with the tensions he had created with the US.

Netanyahu will continue to push Israel and Palestine toward a one-state, separate-but-equal reality unless the United States backs up our rhetorical opposition to settlement expansion and occupation with concrete action.

Justice Democrats, Waleed Shahid

Shamir's successor, Yitzhak Rabin of the center-left Labor party, went on to give his approval to the first direct Israeli talks with PLO leaders, which took place in secret in Oslo, Norway, and resulted in the Oslo Accords, which established a degree of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza that was to serve as the foundation for future Palestinian sovereignty.

From this vantage point, Bush's confrontation with Shamir served as a model for the success an American president can achieve in the region if she or he is determined enough to withstand short-term political backlash.

It also exposed dissension within the ranks of Jewish Americans that AIPAC's strength had long hidden.



“It was the first time the pro-Israel lobby started to splinter,” said Dov Waxman, a Northeastern University political science professor and author of “Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel.”

Americans for Peace Now, a pro-peace organization, supported Bush's stance, foreshadowing the formation of more sophisticated liberal Jewish advocacy organizations like J Street, which rose to prominence more than a decade later, and provided politically valuable Jewish support for the Barack Obama administration's nuclear nonproliferation deal with Iran in 2015.

Some Middle East experts believe that no president has matched Bush's willingness to take a hard line with Israel on key issues since 1991.

“No other president has either acted affirmatively or reactively in dealing with things we don’t agree with when Israel does them,” said Dan Kurtzer, a longtime US diplomat who helped shape Bush’s Middle East policy before serving as ambassador to the region in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.

Similar Problems in Different Situations

The past two decades of lighter US intervention in the region have coincided with the proliferation of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land, with nearly 700,000 Jewish settlers now living in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, raising the political cost of the kind of withdrawal required to allow the establishment of a geographically contiguous Palestinian state on the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Of course, Israel has its own grievances with Palestinians, and Israeli governments have consistently argued that Palestinian incitement and violence against Jews are the reasons for its heavy-handed policing and settlement of the West Bank, rather than the result of it. Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians was especially lethal during the Second Intifada, which lasted from 2000 to 2005.

The difference is that American leaders are willing to apply pressure on Palestinian leaders that they have proven unwilling to apply on Israeli leaders.

Kurtzer claims that successive American administrations have been “tougher on Palestinians and more willing to accept Israel’s views.”

For example, in August 2018, President Donald Trump, who has taken a more one-sided, pro-Israel stance than any of his predecessors, cut $200 million in Palestinian Authority aid as punishment for refusing to cooperate with US peace talks.

Pro-Palestinian advocates, on the other hand, argue that the US has never imposed a substantive price on Israel in recent decades for expanding settlements, using disproportionate force in military operations, or presided over the expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem. Protests over the expulsion in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah helped spark the uprising.

Bush was foresighted in tying it to a specific foreign policy outcome.

Former State Department official Joel Rubin

“Netanyahu will continue to push Israel-Palestine toward a one-state, separate-but-equal reality unless the United States matches its rhetorical opposition to settlement expansion and occupation with concrete action,” Shahid said.

Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian activist and scholar based in Washington who was born in the ethnically mixed Israeli city of Lod, contends that the lack of conditions on US aid to Israel encourages an arms race of hawkishness in Israeli politics. He claims that in the absence of meaningful external pressure, Israeli politicians have every incentive to outflank one another further and further to the right.



“We need to recognize that we played a significant role in causing the mess, and we need to stop doing it before we can start correcting it,” said Munayyer, who wants all US aid to Israel to be cut off immediately.

Skeptics of tying US aid to changes in Israeli policy warn that the political forces that made George H.W. Bush's tough stance toward Israel successful, including the desire to appease Gulf Arab nations that supported the first Gulf War, Israel's need for loans to absorb a wave of new immigrants, and the presence of a vibrant center-left political bloc in Israel, are no longer present.

According to these critics, under the current circumstances, Israel, which is stronger economically, less diplomatically isolated, and more right-wing politically, may find the prospect of US retaliation less appealing.

“We were in a pretty powerful, unique place [in 1991.] Leverage opportunities were aplenty,” said Joel Rubin, who served in the United States State Department under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and now leads the American Jewish Congress.

Rubin opposes new efforts to condition US aid to Israel, but admits that George H.W. Bush was successful because he used aid to achieve a specific foreign policy goal.

“What Bush did that was foresightful was tie it to a very specific foreign policy outcome,” Rubin explained.

Although Zogby acknowledges that the situation on the ground has changed, he believes that the need for the United States to use tangible consequences to discourage certain Israeli policies has not.

“If the United States stood firm and said, ‘No, this cannot continue. Stop it now or else,’ and ‘or else,’ for real, there would be a debate in Israel about whether Netanyahu had taken on more than he could handle,” Zogby predicted.

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