Even as Thursday’s cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian militia Hamas brings an end to the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed, there are signs that the recent violence could have a long-term effect on U.S. policy in the region.
Namely, the high civilian death toll of the Israeli bombing campaign ― conducted in response to a barrage of rockets fired indiscriminately into Israel ― has breathed new life into calls for a reassessment of the United States’ 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 now concentrated mostly on the political left. But the most recent U.S. president to actually use the threat of withheld aid to change Israeli policy was Republican George H.W. Bush.
Although the circumstances today are not identical, Bush’s showdown with Israel in 1991 over the terms of U.S. loan guarantees serves as an illustration 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 go toward Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories.
“Bush established consequences for bad behavior, and he got results,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. “It can happen again.”
At the very least, progressives see Bush’s actions as a useful reminder that renegotiating U.S. aid to Israel is not an extreme, left-wing idea.
“The issue of leveraging U.S. aid to Israel has become so far dragged in the direction of radical foreign policy hawks that people forget how common-sense of a 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.
After Bush died in November 2018, I examined the legacy of his role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In light of the changing political discussion about the U.S. role in the conflict, HuffPost is republishing a condensed version of that article here with some updates to reflect the current context.
‘One Lonely Little Guy’
In the wake of the first Gulf War, which ended in February 1991, then-President Bush was at the peak of his power on the global stage. He had successfully expelled the Iraqi military from Kuwait, a U.S. ally and major oil producer, while managing to insulate Israel, almost entirely, from retaliation at the hands of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Bush decided that Palestinian-Israeli peace was next on his list of international accomplishments.
To that end, his famously assertive secretary of state, James A. Baker III, laid the groundwork of what would become a multilateral peace conference in Madrid in October 1991. Israel and a host of Arab governments sat down, under American supervision, to discuss their thorniest differences, 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, was not present. Instead, Palestinian representatives participated as part of the Jordanian delegation.
But a few weeks before the conference, the 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 immigrants from the Soviet Union. Under the arrangement, the U.S. would have served as Israel’s guarantor with creditors, assuring it a much lower interest rate than it would have otherwise received in the credit markets.
The United States had already guaranteed a $400 million loan to Israel to absorb a smaller wave of Soviet Jewish immigrants in October 1990.
At the time, Baker had negotiated strong assurances from Israel that it would not use the funds to relocate the Jewish immigrants to settlements in the territories Israel had occupied since 1967, which the U.S. viewed ― and, at least officially, continued to view for decades ― as a major impediment to peace.
When the U.S. sought to impose the same terms to the new tranche of loans, however, Shamir objected.
Bush stood his ground, insisting on delaying the entire loan guarantee for 120 days. He claimed he did not want a protracted debate with Congress over settlements to interfere with the peace talks; he likely also wanted to pressure a wayward Shamir into cooperating with the conference and burnish American credibility as a fair mediator with Arab nations.
Shamir thought that with the help of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, he could force Bush’s hand by mobilizing Congress to approve the aid immediately in defiance of the president.
Unmoved, Bush vowed to veto legislation that authorized the aid before the 120-day delay had expired. He took his case to the media, speaking at length about his stance in a press conference on Sept. 12, 1991. He famously portrayed 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 there was something like 1,000 lobbyists on the Hill working on the other side of the question. We’ve got one lonely little guy down here doing it,” he said, eliciting laughs from the White House press corps.
Shortly thereafter, Bush prevailed in his game of chicken with Shamir and AIPAC.
Congress backed down. And when the U.S. finally guaranteed the loans in the spring of 1992, it did so using a new formula designed to offset Israel’s spending on settlements. It guaranteed $200 million less for each billion Israel asked for to account for Israel’s projected settlement spending.
The Madrid conference, and the multilateral talks that followed, did not result in any breakthroughs between Israel and its neighboring Arab nations, to say nothing of the occupied Palestinians.
But the shortcomings of the conference solidified a realization within Israel’s peace camp that Israel would need to conduct direct talks with PLO leaders, who had not been present in Madrid.
And perhaps more significantly, the drama over the loan guarantees hastened Shamir’s political demise. He lost his bid for reelection in June 1992 due, at least in part, to public weariness of the tensions his conduct had created with the United States.
“Netanyahu will continue to move Israel-Palestine toward a one-state, separate-but-equal reality unless the U.S. matches our rhetorical opposition to settlement expansion and occupation with concrete action.”
Shamir’s successor, Yitzhak Rabin of the center-left Labor party, went on to give his blessing to the first direct Israeli talks with PLO leaders that were initially undertaken in secret in Oslo, Norway. The discussions led to the Oslo Accords, which created a degree of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza that was meant to serve as the basis for future Palestinian sovereignty.
Viewed from that angle, Bush’s showdown with Shamir served as a model for the success an American president is capable of achieving in the region if she or he is determined enough to withstand short-term political blowback.
It also revealed dissension within Jewish American ranks that AIPAC’s strength had long masked.
“It was the first time the pro-Israel lobby started to splinter,” said Dov Waxman, a political science professor at University of California, Los Angeles, and author of “Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict Over Israel.”
Americans for Peace Now, a pro-peace group, backed Bush’s stance. Its divergence with AIPAC presaged the creation of more sophisticated liberal Jewish advocacy organizations like J Street, which rose to prominence more than a decade later. Those groups provided politically valuable Jewish support for the Barack Obama administration’s nuclear nonproliferation deal with Iran in 2015.
Some Middle East experts believe that since 1991, no chief executive has replicated Bush’s willingness to take a hard line with Israel on key disagreements.
“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 U.S. diplomat who helped shape Bush’s Middle East policy before holding Middle East ambassadorships in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
Different Circumstances, Similar Problems
The past two decades of lighter U.S. intervention in the region have coincided with the proliferation of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. There are now nearly 700,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, raising the political price of the kind of withdrawal that would be necessary to allow the creation of a geographically contiguous Palestinian state on those lands.
Of course, Israel has its own grievances with Palestinians. 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 a result of it. Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians was especially deadly during the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005, when Palestinian suicide bombings and other attacks killed more than 700 Israeli civilians.
The difference, however, is that American leaders are willing to exercise pressure on Palestinian leaders that they have proved incapable of exercising on the Israeli side.
Successive American administrations “have been tougher on the Palestinians and more willing to accept Israel’s views,” Kurtzer said.
For example, in August 2018, President Donald Trump, who applied a more one-sided, pro-Israel approach than perhaps any of his predecessors, cut $200 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority as punishment for refusing to cooperate with U.S. peace talks.
By contrast, pro-Palestinian advocates maintain that in recent decades the U.S. has never imposed a substantive price on Israel for expanding settlements, using disproportionate force in military operations or presiding 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 latest round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
“The thing that Bush did that was prescient was that he tied it to a very specific foreign policy outcome.”
“Netanyahu will continue to move Israel-Palestine toward a one-state, separate-but-equal reality unless the U.S. matches our rhetorical opposition to settlement expansion and occupation with concrete action,” Shahid said.
Yousef Munayyer, a Washington-based Palestinian activist and scholar, born in the ethnically mixed Israeli city of Lod, argues that the lack of conditions on U.S. aid to Israel encourages an arms race of hawkishness in Israeli politics. Absent meaningful external pressure, Israeli politicians have every incentive to outflank one another further and further to the right, he said.
“We need to recognize that we have played a role in creating the mess ― a big role. And we have to first stop doing it and then start correcting it,” said Munayyer, who wants an immediate end to all U.S. aid to Israel.
Skeptics of tying U.S. aid to Israeli policy changes warn that the political forces that made George H.W. Bush’s tough stance toward Israel successful ― among them, the desire to assuage Gulf Arab nations who 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.
Under the current circumstances, Israel, which is stronger economically, less diplomatically isolated and more politically right wing, might find the prospect of punishment from the U.S. less compelling, these critics say.
“We were in a pretty powerful, unique place [in 1991.] Leverage opportunities were aplenty,” said Joel Rubin, who served in the U.S. State Department under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and now leads the American Jewish Congress. “And it’s different now.”
Rubin opposes new efforts to put conditions on U.S. aid to Israel but concedes that George H.W. Bush was effective because he leveraged aid to achieve a narrow foreign policy objective.
“The thing that Bush did that was prescient was that he tied it to a very specific foreign policy outcome,” Rubin said.
Zogby agrees that the circumstances on the ground have changed but argues that the need for the U.S. to use tangible consequences to discourage certain Israeli policies remains the same.
“If the U.S. were firm and said, ‘No, this cannot go on. Stop it now or else’ ― and ‘or else,’ for real ― there would be a debate in Israel if Netanyahu had bit off more than he can chew,” Zogby predicted.