Lost Years: Bush, Sharon and Failure in the Middle East
“Sharon’s opportunity was Yasser Arafat’s missed chance, and, as it turned out, his only chance to meet with Bush. By the late 1990s, it had become common for prominent American visitors to Israel to make a brief detour to Gaza or Ramallah to see Arafat or other Palestinian leaders. But Bush and His delegation didn’t. Arafat was in Washington for the donors’ conclave for much for the governors’ visit. Organizers of the Bush trip were understandably most interested in fostering good relations between the governor and Israel. But one of them said, though not for quotation, that they had made repeated efforts to arrange a meeting either with Arafat or a senior aide, without success, and that the Palestinian leadership never really made an effort to make a meeting happen.
Saeb Erekat, a longtime Arafat aide and interlocutor with Washington, remembers it differently. “I remember we were willing to meet with Governor Bush. They said to us, as I recall, that the schedule was very tight,” he recounted in a 2006 telephone call to his home in Jericho. “President Arafat would have been very happy to meet with him…I think we called about a meeting and they apologized.” Under Arafat’s autocratic and disorganized governing style, subordinates may have been afraid to reach out to Bush on their own while their leader was out of town. Years later [Montana Governor Marc] Racicot speculated that Bush took this as an early sign that the Palestinian leader couldn’t’ be relied upon. “The very first thing he ever did [in relation to Bush] was leave when they had the chance meet. I’ve always felt that one of the reasons the president said we need a dependable partner [on the Palestinian side] - the genesis was the first encounter.” When the two men both came to the United Nations at the same time three years later, Bush refused to meet with Arafat.
The governor’s three-day visit mixed policy and tourism. In brief comments to the press while meeting with Israeli president Ezer Weizman, Bush said, “I came to learn not only about Israel, but also about the history of my religion.” He easily dismissed questions about his possible presidential run (“I am not here for any political purpose”), but a member of his party saw the governor’s jaw tighten in anger when he was asked about Palestinians. Newsweek reported that Bush was angered by Palestinian charges that he didn’t want to meet with them and took this as an early sign of the Palestinian leader’s mendacity. Other press accounts, however, indicate Bush was asked to respond to Palestinian complaints about his plan to visit Jewish settlements….
Longtime Sharon aide Raanan Gissin said Sharon was content to hold a meeting with Bush in his office. “I said to him, ‘Listen: You’re at your best when you explain in the air, with a helicopter ride, so he can see the Land of Israel.’ I said, ‘Who knows? The worst that could happen is that you gave a helicopter ride to one of the candidates. But the best that could happen [is] that one day this man could become president.’ And that convinced him.”
Sharon was indeed practiced at giving helicopter tours of Israel and the occupied territories….Years after his 1998 visit to Israel, speaking before the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington, Bush described Sharon’s next move: “And after the briefing he introduced himself. He said, ‘Would you like to go on a helicopter ride and take a look at the West Bank?’” Here Bush adopted a facial expression conveying skepticism. “I said, ‘Are you flying?’ ‘No’ - (laughter from the crowd). I said, ‘You bet.’”
Palestinians feared the tour would serve to legitimize the settlements, considered illegal by much of the world. The U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv weighed in to discourage setting the helicopter down in the West Bank as part of an official Israeli tour. Hasty negotiations ensued among the Israelis, [Matthew] Brooks, and [Mel] Sembler, resulting in a clever move to sidestep the problem.
“I had a big argument about that because they didn’t want the helicopter to land on occupied territory, so to speak,” said Gissin, speaking in a 2005 interview. “So we came to a compromise. I said, “They’ll only hover. They’ll be hovering over the ground. They won’t touch the ground.”
The solution still allowed Sharon to make his point as he sat in the lead helicopter with Bush and Montana governor Racicot.
“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 waste of the state of the Israel,” Gissin said. “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 of Israel’s width at its narrowest point (less than ten miles), he is said to have quipped that in Texas, there were some driveways longer than that….
The three men conversed easily. Sharon, casually dressed, belied his headstrong “bulldozer” image. He was, Racicot said, “extraordinarily interesting, soft-spoken, understated,” as well as patient. “There was so much to know - thousands of years of human history compressed into a small piece of the planet.”