On the Plane

In Israel, Bush Recalls 1998 Tour With Sharon

By Mike Abramowitz
JERUSALEM, Jan. 9--While this trip represents the first time President Bush has been to Israel as president, it is not his first-ever trip to the Holy Land. Bush came here for what turned out to be an enormously important trip in 1998 when he was Texas governor, and he reminisced about the trip during the arrival ceremony Wednesday.

"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 back then. 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 visit was arranged by several Republican Jewish businessmen with close ties to Bush, including Florida developer Mel Sembler and Houston executive Fred Zeidman.

The trip took place after Bush was reelected as Texas governor and as he 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' account also makes clear that the trip offered some interesting clues as to the future course of Bush's Mideast policy when he became president. Then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was in Washington for a conference during most of the three-day Bush 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, the new Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who was close to completing a remarkable political comeback, used the opportunity to take Bush on one of his trademark helicopter tours, aimed at conveying to Bush how tenuous the Israelis considered their security situation to be.

"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," long -time 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 impact on him, and would bond him to Sharon, who went on to become prime minister in 2001. Bush critics would say the 1998 visit ultimately tilted the United States away from its role as a more independent broker of Middle East peace.

Sharon suffered a massive stroke two years ago and has been in a coma ever since. Bush will meet with his family here on Thursday.

"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 told me in a recent 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."

Here's what Bush himself remembered about the trip, from an interview last week with Channel 2 News in Israel:
"You know, my first trip to Israel, and only trip to Israel, was in 1998. And I remember being in a hotel room and opened the curtain over the Old City, and the sun was just coming up, and it just glowed. It was golden. And I told Laura, 'I can't believe what I'm looking at.' And after she got her contacts on, she came and looked."

"And, you know, one of the great ironies of that trip was that I was on a helicopter tour of the West Bank with Ariel Sharon. You know, life works in funny ways. I had just finished a reelection campaign in Texas, and there was a lot of pressure and a lot of talk about me running for president. But I don't think either of us would have guessed that both of us would have been serving in our respective offices in a defining moment in history."

And here's what Bush recalled of the helicopter ride to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot:
"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, it was -- 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."

By Washington Post Editor |  January 9, 2008; 10:30 AM ET  | Trip:  Bush in Middle East, Jan. 2008
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