Bush’s Embrace of Israel Shows Gap With Father

By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG

New York Times

August 2, 2006

WASHINGTON, Aug. 1 — When they first met as United States president and Israeli prime minister, George W. Bush made clear to Ariel Sharon he would not follow in the footsteps of his father.

The first President Bush had been tough on Israel, especially the Israeli settlements in occupied lands that Mr. Sharon had helped develop. But over tea in the Oval Office that day in March 2001 — six months before the Sept. 11 attacks tightened their bond — the new president signaled a strong predisposition to support Israel.

“He told Sharon in that first meeting that I’ll use force to protect Israel, which was kind of a shock to everybody,” said one person present, given anonymity to speak about a private conversation. “It was like, ‘Whoa, where did that come from?’ “

That embrace of Israel represents a generational and philosophical divide between the Bushes, one that is exacerbating the friction that has been building between their camps of advisers and loyalists over foreign policy more generally. As the president continues to stand by Israel in its campaign against Hezbollah — even after a weekend attack that left many Lebanese civilians dead and provoked international condemnation — some advisers to the father are expressing deep unease with the Israel policies of the son.

“The current approach simply is not leading toward a solution to the crisis, or even a winding down of the crisis,” said Richard N. Haass, who advised the first President Bush on the Middle East and worked as a senior State Department official in the current president’s first term. “There are times at which a hands-off policy can be justified. It’s not obvious to me that this is one of them.”

Unlike the first President Bush, who viewed himself as a neutral arbiter in the delicate politics of the Middle East, the current president sees his role through the prism of the war on terror. This President Bush, unlike his father, also has deep roots in the evangelical Christian community, a staunchly pro-Israeli component of his conservative Republican base.

The first President Bush came to the Oval Office with long diplomatic experience, strong ties to Arab leaders and a realpolitik view that held the United States should pursue its own strategic interests, not high-minded goals like democracy, even if it meant negotiating with undemocratic regimes like Syria and Iran.

The current President Bush has practically cut off Syria and Iran, overlaying his fight against terrorism with the aim of creating what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls ”a new Middle East.” In allying himself so closely with Israel, he has departed not just from his father’s approach but also from those of all his recent predecessors, who saw themselves first and foremost as brokers in the region.

In a speech Monday in Miami, Mr. Bush offered what turned out to be an implicit criticism of his father’s approach.

“The current crisis is part of a larger struggle between the forces of freedom and the forces of terror in the Middle East,” Mr. Bush said. “For decades, the status quo in the Middle East permitted tyranny and terror to thrive. And as we saw on September the 11th, the status quo in the Middle East led to death and destruction in the United States.”

Now, as Mr. Bush faces growing pressure from Arab leaders and European allies to end the current wave of violence, these differences between father and son have come into sharp relief.

“There is a danger in a policy in which there is no daylight whatsoever between the government of Israel and the government of the United States,” said Aaron David Miller, an Arab-Israeli negotiator for both Bush administrations, who has high praise for James A. Baker III, the first President Bush’s secretary of state. “Bush One and James Baker would never have allowed that to happen.”

Others advisers who served the elder Mr. Bush are critical as well, faulting the current administration for having “put diplomacy on the back burner in the hope that unattractive regimes would fall,” in the words of Mr. Haass.

Whether the disagreement extends to father and son is unclear. The president has been generally critical of the Middle East policies of his predecessors in both parties, but has never criticized his father explicitly. The first President Bush has made it a practice not to comment on the administration of his son, but his spokesman, Tom Frechette, said he supports the younger Mr. Bush “100 percent.”

Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser, who has been openly critical of the current president on Iraq, did not return calls seeking comment. He wrote an opinion article in The Washington Post on Sunday calling on the United States to “seize this opportunity” to reach a comprehensive settlement for resolving the conflict of more than half a century between Israel and the Palestinians. Mr. Baker also did not return calls.

The differences between father and son are partly to do with style.

“Bush the father was from a certain generation of political leaders and foreign policy establishment types,” said William Kristol, the neo-conservative thinker who worked for the first Bush administration and is now editor of The Weekly Standard. “He had many years of dealings with leading Arab governments; he was close to the Saudi royal family. The son is less so. He’s got much more affection for Israel, less affection for the House of Saud.”

That affection, Mr. Bush’s aides say, can be traced partly to his first and only trip to Israel, in 1998. It was a formative experience for Mr. Bush, then governor of Texas. He took a helicopter ride — his guide, as it happened, was Mr. Sharon, then the foreign minister — and, looking down, was struck by how tiny and vulnerable Israel seemed.

“He said that when he took that tour and he looked down, he thought, ‘We have driveways in Texas longer than that, “ said Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary. “And after the United States was attacked, he understood how it was for Israel to be attacked.”

Others say Mr. Bush cannot help but look at Israel through the prism of his Christian faith.

“There is a religiously inspired connection to Israel in which he feels, as president, a responsibility for Israel’s survival,” said Martin S. Indyk, who was President Clinton’s ambassador to Israel and kept that post for several months under President Bush. He also suggested Republican politics were at work, saying Mr. Bush came into office determined to “build his Christian base.”

But the White House press secretary, Tony Snow, dismissed that idea, telling reporters last week that Mr. Bush does not view the current conflict through a ”theological lens.”

Mr. Bush has to some extent played the traditional peacemaker role in the region, especially in dealing with relations between Israel and the Palestinians. He called for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, set out a “road map” to achieving a lasting peace and was critical of some of Mr. Sharon’s policies.

But he has drawn a sharp distinction between the Palestinian people and Israel’s conflicts with what he regards as terrorist organizations. He came into office refusing to meet with Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and cut off Mr. Arafat entirely in early 2002, after the Israeli Navy captured a ship carrying weapons intended for the Palestinian Authority. That foreshadowed the way he is now dealing with Hezbollah.

His father’s pre-9/11 policies were more concerned with the traditional goals of peace, or at least stability, in the Middle East. Relations between the first President Bush and his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Shamir, hit a low point when Mr. Bush refused Israel $10 billion in loan guarantees to resettle Soviet Jews. And Mr. Baker, as secretary of state, was once so frustrated with Israeli officials that he scornfully recited his office phone number and told them to call when they were serious about peace in the Middle East.

But Mr. Bush has enjoyed singularly warm relations, particularly after 9/11. “It is this event, 9/11, that caused the president to really associate himself with Israel, with this notion that now, for the first time, Americans can feel on their skin what Israelis have been feeling all along,” said Shai Feldman, an Israeli scholar at Brandeis University who has been in Tel Aviv since the hostilities began. “There is huge, huge appreciation here for the president.”