George HW Bush’s Tough Stance On Israel Helped Bring Middle East Closer To Peace Than Ever Before

No U.S. president since 41 followed the blueprint he created for Middle East peace.

former U.S. President George Bush speaks during a forum to discuss the 10th anniversary of the Gulf War, February 23, 2001
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

No U.S. president since 41 followed the blueprint he created for Middle East peace.

In his one term as president, the late George H.W. Bush took a tough stance on Israel. His policy helped bring the Middle East closer to a semblance of peace than any president ever did before or since.

According to the Huffington Post, Bush helped orchestrate the first ever direct peace talks between Israel and Palestine. To help bring the meeting about, the former president threatened United States aid to Israel, and he was the last U.S. president of either party to ever take such a firm stance with the country.

“Bush’s foreign policy legacy, especially on the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace, cannot be overstated,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a longtime U.S. diplomat who helped shape Bush’s Middle East policy. “His willingness to be tough on all parties… ushered in a period of intense diplomacy involving Israel and all of the Arab world.”

In the wake of his death, this part of Bush’s legacy has remained largely undiscussed. However, many people believe that if the U.S. had continued his approach to Israel, things in the Middle East today would be far different than the reality. For now, the region does not enjoy any type of lasting peace and continues to suffer from instability and attacks.

After the first Gulf War, Bush turned his sights toward Arab-Israeli peace. Secretary of State Jim Baker worked with him to create an October 1991 conference for peace in Madrid, Spain. Among the largest topics discussed at the summit under U.S. supervision was the Palestinian people’s status in the world. The Palestinian Liberation Organization did not represent the people in the peace conference, and instead, representatives of Palestine attended the talks. Ultimately, the lack of the PLO attendance ended up derailing any possible breakthroughs between the groups. The takeaway is that Israel needed to broker peace directly with the PLO to create something lasting.

Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who advised Palestinian negotiators from 2004 to 2009, said that it is surprising that no other Republican or Democratic U.S. president followed in Bush’s footsteps for helping create a lasting peace in the Middle East given that Bush helped show the steps they needed to take to accomplish such a feat.

To achieve the peace talks, Bush used negotiations over $10 billion in loans Israel needed for resettling thousands of Soviet Union immigrants to keep the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to cooperate in the proceedings.

After Bush lost his bid for re-election in the U.S. and Yitzhak Rabin took over as Israeli Prime Minister, Rabin authorized the first peace talks of Israelis with PLO leaders. Bush’s showdown over the loans ahead of the Madrid peace conference created a blueprint for future successful discussions. Unfortunately, Bush was unable to follow through on his success after losing to Bill Clinton.

“No other president has either acted affirmatively or reactively in dealing with things we don’t agree with when Israel does them,” said Kurtzer.

No president since Bush Sr. attempted such an approach to Israel and the Middle East, and Israel and Palestine have never reached a resolution. While U.S. leaders put pressure on Palestine, none since Bush have also put pressure on Israel.

As the U.S. observes a national day of mourning for the 41st president during his state funeral, this blueprint he created for potential Middle East peace serves as a powerful look at an underrepresented part of his world legacy.