Did the First President Bush Lose His Job to the Israel Lobby?

Two newly-published reports suggest that the first President Bush, George H.W. Bush, lost his bid for a second term in the 1992 general election because of the Israel lobby.

First there’s yesterday’s Washington Post Magazine piece on the lobby. It explored the standoff between Bush and Yitzhak Shamir in 1992, when Bush tried to stop Israel from building more settlements in the Occupied Territories.

Bush paid a price… He got crushed in a small group of heavily Jewish precincts in states such as New York, New Jersey, Ohio and Florida in his November 1992 election loss to Bill Clinton.

The argument is made more emphatically in the Summer 2006 issue of Security Studies, in an important article on the effect of the Holocaust on our foreign policy titled: “The Myth of Abandonment: The Use and Abuse of the Holocaust Analogy,” by Michael Desch, a professor at Texas A&M.

The article states:

“Many believe that George H.W. Bush’s defeat in 1992 was the result of Jewish-American opposition fueled by his hard line against Israeli settlements under the Shamir government.”

Desch’s evidence includes informal comments to students by the former President himself, in a visit to the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M in February 2005, a visit at which Old Man Bush decried the power of AIPAC (the preeminent pro-Israel lobby).

Neither of these reports is completely convincing to me. Yes, the Jewish vote turned against Bush. He had won 27 percent of it in ’88, only 15 percent in ’92. And the turn may well have cost him New Jersey and Ohio, states he had won by big margins four years earlier (and lost narrowly to Clinton). But Clinton won the presidency in ’92 by a resounding electoral margin, 370 to 168, and Bush’s gaining N.J. and Ohio wouldn’t have changed the outcome.

Maybe there’s a more extended analysis of how AIPAC and pro-Israel money changed the ’92 race, but I haven’t seen it…

But let’s focus on what matters here. A former President believes that the pro-Israel lobby cost him his job. His son runs for President and is far more responsive than his father was to the Israel lobby. Right there you have a good indication of the power of the lobby. Of course we don’t know what W.’s political calculations were on this issue. But everyone else has a theory about the effect of Papa Bush on W.; this is now mine. W. is a superb politician. He learned political lessons from his dad.

Even more important, consider the issue on which George H.W. Bush took on the Israel lobby: the building of settlements. He was holding up $10 billion in loan guarantees Israel desperately need to build housing for Russian emigres till Bush got an assurance that the loans would not fund settlements. Alas, in the end, Bush folded on the issue. As rightwinger (and social drinker) Christopher Hitchens wrote recently on Slate, “Almost everybody… concedes that the Israeli occupation has been a moral and political catastrophe.” An important component of that moral and political catastrophe has been the building of hundreds of thousands of (arguably illegal) homes on Palestinian land that some Jews regard as their ancient and present homeland. These settlements—colonies, under any conventional description—now hugely complicate the peace process. Many of them are encircled by Israel’s 30-foot wall, which moves in and out of the West Bank from the old green line marking the ’67 border. The settlements make a return to the ’67 border more difficult and the checkpoints and restricted highways and everything else they necessitate are the reason that leftwingers talk of Bantustans and apartheid when they survey the divisions on the West Bank.

I have two Zionist friends who in kvelling about Israel to me recently added, in a regretful murmur, “I just wish they hadn’t built all those settlements.”

The point here is that when an American president tried to take a stand against a wave of religious zealotry that almost everybody concedes has created an international moral and political catastrophe, he had to knuckle under, and to this day he believes that the opposition cost him his job. Wow. Maybe he’s wrong, but any discussion of the Israel lobby’s power must include this case study. As John Mearsheimer, the professor who broke the seal on this forbidden subject (and who’s been to Israel many times), pointed out on the Diane Rehm show recently, an independent American stance on the occupation and settlements would have been in the U.S.’s interests, and Israel’s too. It would have helped our image in the Arab world, it might have prevented Israel from the inevitable brutalities of occupation, one of which Mearsheimer noted was the killing of the young American writer, Rachel Corrie.

The lobby’s hurtful role in this political episode is only magnified by its refusal over the last few months to admit that it has any power at all. As the Israeli ambassador said yesterday on C-Span, It’s just like the Italian lobby. Maybe that’s why Bush lost Jersey?