Texas Gov. Bush boosts image on a short tour of Jewish state

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WASHINGTON — George W. Bush was on track to prolong his family's stormy relations with the Jewish community when he said four years ago that people who do not accept Jesus as their personal savior cannot go to heaven.

Now, the Texas governor and son of the former president has moved to repair relations with American Jews in advance of a widely anticipated run for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.

As part of this effort, Bush and his wife, Laura, toured Israel last week, along with three other Republican governors, on a trip sponsored by the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican Jewish group.

At an Austin, Texas, news conference following the five-day Israel trip, the governor sought to clarify his position.

"My faith tells me that acceptance of Jesus Christ as my savior is my salvation, and I believe I made it clear that it is not the governor's role to decide who goes to heaven," Bush said in response to a question.

"I believe God decides who goes to heaven, not George W. Bush," he added.

The governor conveyed a similar message in an exchange of letters with the Anti-Defamation League.

"I regret the concern caused by my statement and reassure you and the Jewish community that you have my deepest respect," Bush wrote in a letter received by ADL earlier this month.

"I am staunchly committed to the principles of religious freedom, tolerance and diversity that are embodied in the First Amendment," he wrote.

If Bush is going to attract Jewish support for a presidential run, he is likely going to have to convince the Jewish community that he would not govern like his father. Jewish voters abandoned President Bush's 1992 re-election bid in droves.

The former president alienated Jewish voters through a series of events, including an attack on the Jewish community for lobbying on Capitol Hill. Israel's aggressive settlement drive at the time led to tempestuous relations with the United States. His chief of staff at the time cursed the Jews within earshot of White House aides.

While Bush and Govs. Mike Leavitt of Utah, Marc Racicot of Montana and Paul Cellucci of Massachusetts shunned media attention in Israel, the trip could prove a valuable asset if Bush does decide to run for president.

Citing a virtual news blackout while in Israel, the Republican National Jewish Coalition argued that the trip was not politically motivated and sought to downplay, at least for now, its potential electoral implications.

"Take the trip at face value. It was a learning experience," said Matt Brooks, NJC executive director.

"If George Bush decides to run for president, he's going to be judged on the positions he takes — not by what his father did," said Brooks, whose group last year took Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson on his first trip to Israel as the head of the party.

For his part, Bush said he went to Israel to "listen and learn" about the strategic interests of "our strong friend and ally, Israel."

He hailed the Jewish state as a "country of genius."

Bush offered mostly general observations during and after the trip, his first to Israel.

"It's been wonderful to see firsthand not only the challenges facing Israel, but also the opportunities," he said at a dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"The relationship between Israel and the U.S. is a very special relationship," Bush added. "It will always be that way."

Before the trip, Bush and his father met in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

While the group tried to downplay the politics of the trip, Israeli officials sought to capitalize on the opportunity to make their case to the governors.

During a helicopter tour of the West Bank, Israeli Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon laid out the areas that Israel hopes to annex as part of a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians, Sharon said in a statement.

"I was there to listen and learn, and I learned a lot," Bush said, without commenting directly on the tour.

"The appropriate time to develop and lay out a comprehensive foreign policy will be when or if I decide to run for the presidency."