Elections 2000: Israel Seeking to Cultivate George W. Bush and Other Republican Presidential Hopefuls

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ELECTIONS 2000: Israel Seeking to Cultivate George W. Bush and Other Republican Presidential Hopefuls

Hoping to avert a troubled relationship with yet another Bush in the White House, Israeli government officials are seeking to cultivate closer ties with George W. Bush -- the Republican governor from Texas and son of former U.S. President George Bush -- who is now seen as a strong contender for the year 2000 presidential race.

The Washington Report has learned that Israel's permanent representative to the United Nations, Dore Gold, met privately with Governor Bush during a June visit to the Lone Star State and invited Bush to come to Israel on a "fact finding" mission. Several powerful Republicans active in U.S.-based Israel advocacy organizations are also getting behind the effort to bring George W. Bush to Israel.

Simultaneously, the Republican Party sees disenchantment among Jewish voters with President Bill Clinton's handling of Israel and the peace process, and hopes to lure these voters into the Republican political camp.

Tel Aviv political leaders hope the effort to establish close ties with George W. Bush will ensure Israel's relationship with the younger Bush is less troubled than that with his father.

For example, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir clashed bitterly over Washington's efforts to talk officially with Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). And Bush briefly withheld U.S. financial support to Israel over Shamir's refusal to suspend construction of settlements in Israeli-occupied territory.

Israeli foreign policy watchers believe that even if George W. Bush ends up relying heavily upon the counsel of James Baker, his father's secretary of state, the degree to which political realities have changed will work in Israel's favor.

Gold's meeting with Governor Bush is welcome news to many conservative foreign policy analysts: "This is Mr. Bush's bar mitzvah," Heritage Foundation director of congressional relations Marshall Wittmann told Forward, a New York Jewish weekly. The Heritage Foundation is a conservative, Washington-based political "think tank." "What's significant is he's building his portfolio for the Jewish community," Wittmann explained.

However, the deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Stephen Silberfarb, warned Jews against getting too excited about Israel's apparently positive contacts with George W. Bush. "I think with the return of the Bush demons, you never know where it's going to start or stop," Silberfarb says. "The bloodlines don't indicate that Mr. Bush will be pro-Israel. [His father] George Herbert Walker Bush certainly is not considered one of the more pro-Israel presidents."

For his part, Ambassador Gold described the meeting with Bush as one of many ongoing briefings he gives to American state officials. Gold, who has already met with the governors of New York, Connecticut and other states, talked with George W. Bush about Palestinian compliance with the Hebron Agreement, and displayed maps showing evidence of what Gold describes as "threats to Israel."

"It was a very friendly, warm meeting." Gold said. "He was very open and receptive to what I had to say."

A spokesman for Governor Bush, Shirley Green, called the meeting "basically a courtesy call," during which Gold "verbally asked the governor, as most ambassadors usually do, if he could visit [Israel]."

Green said Israel shouldn't expect Governor Bush to come any time soon. "He always responds to such inquiries by saying at this time he is running hard for re-election and has no plans to travel abroad," Green said.

Executive director Matt Brooks of the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican group, said he hopes George W. Bush accepts Gold's invitation. "We are in touch with all of the different candidates and people who are thinking about running for president," Brooks said. "As we do with all of the leaders in the party, we think anybody in a position of prominence should visit Israel. …