Bush Recalls 1998 Trip to Israel

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2008

JERUSALEM, Jan. 9 -- While this week's trip represents the first time President Bush has been to Israel as president, it is not the first time he's ever been here. Bush came here for what turned out to be an enormously important trip in 1998 when he was Texas governor, as he recalled during the arrival ceremony yesterday.

"It's been nearly a decade since I've been in Israel," Bush said. "Truth of the matter is, when I was here last time, I really didn't think I'd be coming back as president of the United States."

That may be true, but certainly the possibility of a Bush presidency was in the air when Bush last came to Israel. An interesting account of Bush's 1998 trip is provided in a new book, "Lost Years: Bush, Sharon and Failure in the Middle East," by Mark Matthews, a former diplomatic and Middle East correspondent for the Baltimore Sun.

As described by Matthews, the November trip was arranged by several prominent Republican Jews with close ties to Bush, including Florida developer Mel Sembler and Houston business executive Fred Zeidman.

The trip took place after Bush was reelected as Texas governor and was beginning to be seen as a likely GOP presidential candidate for 2000. While several other GOP governors joined Bush, it was "clear among Republicans and Israelis that the purpose of the visit was to introduce a likely presidential candidate to Israel's leaders," Matthews writes.

Matthews's account also makes it clear that the trip offered some interesting clues to the future course of Bush's Middle East policy when he became president. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was in Washington for a conference during most of Bush's three-day visit, missing what turned out to be perhaps his only real opportunity to meet with the future president, who would shun him after taking office.

Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon, then the new Israeli foreign minister, who had nearly completed a remarkable political comeback, took Bush on one of his trademark helicopter tours, designed to convey what Sharon considered Israel's tenuous security situation.

"They really went very low to show the Jordan River, to show the strategic importance of the ridges overlooking the Jordan River which must be controlled and the narrow waist of the state of Israel," longtime Sharon aide Raanan Gissin told Matthews. "And the president was very much impressed by the geographical dimensions. 'Gee,' he said. 'I never realized that Israel is so small.' "

When Bush was told Israel was less than 10 miles wide at its narrowest, he is said to have quipped that there were driveways in Texas longer than that.

Those close to Bush believe the trip made a very strong impression on the future president and would bond him to the future Israeli prime minister -- and, in the view of Bush's critics, would ultimately tilt the United States away from its role as a more independent broker of Middle East peace.

"The fact is, when he got back from that trip, he said it was absolutely one of the most meaningful experiences of his life," Zeidman said in an interview. "He truly got an understanding of Israel and Israel's security, the result of which is no one has ever been more steadfast in support of Israel."

Speaking of the helicopter trip, Zeidman said: "That really cemented his resolve on the security of the state of Israel. When he got back, he said to me Sharon was a man he could trust."

Sharon has been in a coma for two years, but Bush will meet with his family in Israel today. He recalled the helicopter ride in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

"I can remember so well Prime Minister Sharon pointing to a hill, and he said, this is where I engaged, as a young tank officer, my first battle, and see how far it is to our capital and our civilization. In other words . . . his purpose was to make it clear to me the strategic issues facing Israel. And then we flew over the West Bank, and it was a fascinating moment."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company