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George W. Bush Administration: Discussion Roundtable with Israeli Youth

(May 16, 2008)

Bible Lands Museum

10:30 A.M. (Local)

THE PRESIDENT: First of all, Laura and I are honored that you’d join us. Thanks very much for sharing some thoughts with us. As you know, we’re parents of young professional women; we’re interested to know what’s on your mind. And if you’ve got any questions of me, I'll be glad to answer them.

What’s on my mind is peace. I hope some day that everybody will be able to co-exist and respect each other’s religions and work together for harmony. I believe it’s possible. And I know it’s going to happen when young people put a -- get their minds together and say, listen, let’s make this work.

So Im interested in your thoughts, and so is Laura. And we’re pleased to be joined by Condoleezza.

Perhaps you’d like to say something to begin with?

A PARTICIPANT: Mr. President and Mrs. Bush, thank you so much for choosing to spend this time with us. This is an amazing opportunity and I’m very honored and glad to be here. Congratulations, mazel tov also for your daughter’s wedding. (Laughter.)

I think this museum comes to show how unique this land and this region is, it’s so rich with history, the cradle of civilization -- while on the other hand we see that Israel is such a new, vibrant country, only 60 years old, and we’re still building our country, nothing is for certain here. And we -- I, my friends, we want peace, we want to see the world like -- live in peace, especially in this region. And I do hope -- and I guarantee that myself as, hopefully, a future leader, will do the best I can, the best of my abilities in order to make it happen.

I think that it’s for now. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.

10:32 A.M. (Local)


“BUT YOU’RE RIGHT. I’VE GOT TO DO A BETTER JOB OF MAKING IT CLEAR THAT WHEN I TALK ABOUT ISLAM, I TALK ABOUT A PEACEFUL RELIGION.” --- President Bush, to a young Palestinian Christian, Henriette Charcar, woman who told him that people in the Arab world think he dislikes Muslims because in his speeches, he often ties Muslims to extremism.  

That’s the headline from a startlingly frank and lively roundtable discussion between POTUS (and also FLOTUS and Condi Rice and the Ambassador and his wife) and a dozen Israeli young people here, including Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and an immigrant from Ethiopia. All are young leaders who are interested in fostering peace in their country. I have a list of names and am trying to match them to the kids who spoke. The discussion was varied and open.

At one point, the president displayed a certain American sensibility – some might call it an ignorance of cultural norms here – when he asked if Arabs and Jews date, or go to dances. “No dances?” he asked, sounding surprised. The ambassador politely interjected that it was a more conservative society.

At another point, the comforting Bush emerged. A young woman talked about the rocket in Ashkelon. “I understand,” he said. “It’s hard to be optimistic when rockets are landing in your neighborhood. But optimism doesn’t mean being blind to reality. Optimism doesn’t mean ignoring the truth.”

And the playful Bush was also present as well, though this conversation was mostly serious. “Where’d you get the snap shirt, man?” he kidded a 17-year-old boy, Jonathan Blumenfeld (he pronounced it “Yonatan”), who arrived in a western style short-sleeved shirt with snaps and told Bush he is a judo instructor and a guitarist.

Jonathan said he had been warned Bush would tease him about his shirt, and was worried because everyone else arrived in business shirts. “No, you look good man,” Bush said. To which Jonathan offered to take the president shopping.

There’s information in your packet about the museum; it includes artifacts that are intended to show the common threads among the religions. After the tour, your pooler emerged to find Hadley and Bolton sitting in a circle of wrought iron chairs under the shade of an olive tree, talking to the young people, who had been selected by the embassy. Full list of names at the end.  

Flotus said nothing during the session, with the exception of asking the participants if they were squinting too much in the sun, which prompted Bush to urge them to move their chairs into a tighter circle toward the shade. Condi spoke only once, to ask the musician Jonathan what instrument he played, which elicited the guitar response and yielded some piano discussion. And the ambassador spoke only once, when the dancing issue came up.

POTUS opened with his own discourse on yesterday’s speech. The tape picked up most but was too far away in the beginning, thus the ellipses.

“I gave what I thought was a pretty important speech yesterday.  . . .  It seems to me that the civilized world has got to come together to offer hope  . . . What happens here matters to people in the heartland of America. What happens here matters to people throughout the rest o the world.   . . . I mean what I say. You know, some times old people get set in their ways. It requires a new generation to come in . . .so I want to thank you all for joining us. I’m very hopeful. I know it looks grim at times. But I’m extremely hopeful. But 60 years, it looks like a long time to you. It ain’t nothing, not if you’re 61. So maybe you’ll go back to your leaders and say, you know, maybe old Bush had something right. Maybe he did see something.”

He ended with the Japanese/Bush story, “I think its one of the great historical ironies isn’t it. That the father fights and the son works to keep the peace. The same thing can happen here. But it required the Japanese to have a Japanese style democracy. Forms of government matter. The question is can Muslims self govern and the answer is absolutely and to say they cannot is the worst kind of international elitism possible.”

He then threw it open to questions.

The first one came from a young man who said he is 26 and interested in public service, and asked POTUS his advice for someone entering that line of work.  “My statement to you is you don’t have to lose your soul to serve the public. As a matter of fact it’s best if you don’t lose your soul. Have a core set of principles that you won’t change. The temptation in politics is to try to be the popular guy. Oftentimes to be the popular guy you’ve got to sacrifice your principles. It’s not worth it. It’s just not worth it. . . . . Secondly, is that you can raise your family you don’t have to sacrifice love of a family for politics.”

The discussions turned to why there is no peace.  One girl said the land is the source of the dispute but is also what ties everyone together. Bush said, “I think why people are fighting is there’s a group of people that refuse to accept a Jewish state . . . . There’s a refusal to admit a certain reality.”

At this point, Henriette, the Palestinian Christian woman, interjected with a respectful challenge to the president: “We can’t wipe out a whole section of history. The Palestinian people did exist.”

To which Bush replied: “The Palestinian people DO exist. Did exist, and do exist. The Palestinians area very entrepreneurial people, they’re smart. In many cases they are educated people, just give them a chance.” And he went on to predict an eventual state.

“It’s going to happen. Will it happen before I leave the presidency?”

Next up was Manar Saraia. When Bush asked if she was Palestinian, she said she is an Israeli Arab, but struggled to explain what that meant. “It’s hard to say your identity,” she finally said, to which Bush replied, “You’re a citizen of the world.”

She is 22 and lives in Haifa. She told him her roommates are Jews and Muslims. She’s also studying Hebrew.

“This is coexistence!” one young man interjected.

“I want to be optimistic,” she said, but when she looks out at Israeli society, “You don’t really see a wonderful future.”

It was at this point that another young woman, who lived near Ashkelon, told Bush it was hard to be optimistic, and he agreed. (see quote above.)

As an aside, it was Manar who responded to Bush’s later question about Jews dating Arabs. She said she was happy to have Jews as friends and roommate and even a boyfriend, but her parents would not approve. “The parents and the children themselves think if we are of different religions that it’s hard to live as a couple together.”

Then another young man chimed in, wearing a yarmulke. “I’m religious, but I want to give the Arabs land,” he said. “I feel I have a good life. Why don’t they get a good life too?” 

The conversation turned to democracy. “Remember, democracy is hard,” Bush said. “Condi’s relatives were slaves in the United States for the first 100 years of our existence.” He then talked about his belief in a universal God and in the value of democracy.

A young man interrupted with what was basically the Hamas question.

“But what if they don’t accept your intervention? This is the main obstacle. Not everyone wants to be democratic.”

“So you lead by example,” Bush said, citing the example of Europe. “History evolves and what’s needed are people like you who have certain values and are willing to defend those values.”

Moving around the circle, Bush came to Jonathan. He turns 18 in a week and is getting ready to go into the army. Bush asked him if he would volunteer if he had a choice. He struggled with that. “It’s a fair question,” he said. He said that during his interview, he was asked why he wanted to go into the army. “I said, don’t get me wrong, to protect both sides. I feel responsible for both sides, like I feel responsible for my family”, and said he felt it his duty to protect both sides. “I want to keep the peace.”

He said he has a girlfriend who is from Britain and has been in Israel for four years. She wants to serve but worries she is “wasting her life.’”

Later, when the talk turned to dancing, Bush turned back to Jonathan, who had spoken about his music. “No dances?” He looked at Jonathan. “You should get him to take out his guitar. How much reconciliation there would be on the dance floor.”

Then the talk was of misperceptions. One young man said Israel needs better public diplomacy, so that the world would see the other face of Israel – its research and development achievements, for instance – as opposed to the face of war. Bush said Americans have the same problem, and remarked, “Somebody said to me well, ‘Well, how come you dislike Muslims. I don’t.’” He said that’s just what people hear on TV and it’s not true.

But here, Henriette challenged him: “I think it comes out that you don’t like Muslims because in most of your speeches you do tend to relate extremism to Muslims.”

“Actually what I say is you’re not a religious person if you’re a murderer,” he replied. “But you’re right. I’ve got to do a better job of making it clear when I talk about Islam I talk about a peaceful religion, which I talk about a lot. But its more than that. There is a propaganda machine on state owned TV that is poisonous and we just have got to do a better job of reaching out. One way to do it by the way is to invite people to America and let them see what America is all about.”

At the end of the session, Henriette thanked Bush profusely for the opportunity to talk to him. He wanted to take a picture with the group. “Thanks a lot for coming us here today,” she said.

Here is a full list of participants:

Danny Glushenkov, intern, ministry of finance; student, Hebrew University
Aviad Tamir, student, Hebrew University
Ron Hasid, student, Bnei Akiva Yeshiva, Givat Shaul
Jonathan Blumenfeld, student ATIDIM, Hebrew University High School
Avraham Mullah, student Petah Tikva
Bar Hodis, student, Reali High School, Haifa
Asaf Irony, Argov Fellow in Leadership and Diplomacy, The Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya
Henriette Charcar, student, Tabitha School, Jaffa
Reut Nadler, student, Brenner High School
Manar Saraia, participant in United States Government Middle East Partnership Initiative Study of the US Institute for Student Leaders, civil and Environmental Student, Technion
Maayan Tal, high school student, Jerusalem, Gilo Center for Citizenship, Democracy and Civic Education
Mor Tzaban, graduate of Bnei Akiva High School for Girls in Netivot 

Sheryl Stolberg

Sources: The White House