(March 25, 2015 / JNS) Former secretary of state James Baker, a prominent figure in president George H. W. Bush’s administration and a critic of the Israeli government’s policies, is under fire from conservatives and pro-Israel activists for his decision to speak at the annual conference of the left-wing J Street lobby. But should the pro-Israel community’s concern extend to former Florida governor and presumed presidential candidate Jeb Bush, for whom Baker serves as a foreign policy adviser?
Fred Zeidman, a Houston businessman and Republican fundraiser who is close with the Bush family, said there is a misconception about Baker’s role in the Bush campaign.
“Baker is not a key adviser to Jeb Bush; he has about a dozen policy advisers, all of whom are strong supporters of Israel,” Zeidman told JNS.org. “An adviser means that you call him when you are trying to understand something. We all greatly respect Secretary Baker, even if we disagree with him on things.”
“Jeb disagrees with [Baker] on the U.S.-Israel relationship and the way forward in the Middle East,” said Zeidman.
Indeed, Baker is one of 21 foreign policy advisers for Jeb Bush, who appears to have chosen a wide range of policy experts—many with strong pro-Israel records—from Paul Wolfowitz and John Negroponte, who served under his brother’s administration, to elder statesman George Shultz. Baker also served as a foreign policy adviser to the staunchly pro-Israel George W. Bush, even though he was often critical of the second Bush-family president’s foreign policy, especially on Iraq, during his two terms in the White House.
While Baker served a distinguished career as White House chief of staff and secretary of the treasury under president Ronald Reagan, and then secretary of state under George H. W. Bush, he is probably best-known among Jews for his infamous “F**k the Jews, they didn’t vote for us anyway” remark—words Baker has denied using. Baker is also known for his battles with former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir over housing-loan guarantees for Israel during the early 1990s, an episode many regard as a historic low in U.S.-Israel relations.
In his keynote speech at the J Street conference on March 23, Baker struck a more moderate tone than in the past, expressing his “great admiration and respect” for Israel and saying he is “proud” that America has supported Israel. But unlike most of his fellow Republicans, Baker was extremely critical of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, blasting his “diplomatic missteps and political gamesmanship” during his recent election campaign, including Netanyahu’s much-debated speech to the U.S. Congress on Iran and pre-election remarks about a two-state solution and Israeli Arabs.
“Frankly, I have been disappointed with the lack of progress regarding a lasting peace—and I have been for some time,” Baker said. “In the aftermath of Netanyahu’s recent election victory, the chance of a two-state solution seems even slimmer, given his reversal on the issue.”
Following Baker’s J Street address, Jeb Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell emphasized the expected presidential candidate’s opposition to Baker’s position on Israel.
“Governor Bush consults a wide range of advisers on foreign policy,” Campbell said. “While he respects Secretary Baker, he disagrees with the sentiments he expressed last night and opposes J Street’s advocacy. Governor Bush’s support for Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu is unwavering, and he believes it’s critically important our two nations work seamlessly to achieve peace in the region.”
In the eyes of J Street, which seeks to be the liberal alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and has supported President Barack Obama’s heavy criticism of Netanyahu, Baker represents a rare senior Republican figure who stands up to right-wing leaders of Israel.
“It’s unfortunate that Baker, who can certainly pick his speaking venues, chose to keynote the J Street conference and give support to an organization that has become increasingly hostile to the State of Israel,” Jay Lefkowitz, a Jewish attorney who served as special envoy for human rights in North Korea under George W. Bush and director of cabinet affairs for George H.W. Bush, told JNS.org.
“At a time when we should be looking to promote bipartisan support for America’s closest and most important ally in the Middle East, J Street often works to frustrate that objective,” he added.
Yet despite Baker’s controversial record on Israel and his decision to address the J Street gathering, Zeidman said he views Baker as a “patriot and brilliant statesman.” He said, “How can you not have someone like Baker as one of your advisers?”
Lefkowitz said Jeb Bush’s statements about Israel and his foreign-policy objectives “make it clear that he has a very different perspective about Israel than Jim Baker.”
“Baker is an old family friend to the Bushes. But just as Baker clearly had no influence on George W. Bush’s Israel policy, I wouldn’t expect him to have any influence on Jeb’s,” said Lefkowitz.
Some pro-Israel commentators, however, are more critical of Jeb Bush’s association with Baker.
Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary magazine, wrote that Baker’s “long record of hostility to Israel” should “make him radioactive for a candidate seeking to brand himself as a supporter of the Jewish state and a critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.” Zionist Organization of America National President Mort Klein said in a statement, “It is deeply disconcerting that Governor Bush would, not only contemplate, but actually appoint, as adviser someone who has been utterly wrong about the Middle East and unrelentingly hostile to Israel, endlessly demanding concessions and suggesting that Israel is the stumbling block to peace, while ignoring the continuing extremism, rejectionism and terrorism of the Palestinian Arabs, Syria and other hostile regimes.” Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, tweeted, “James Baker & J Street. The anti-Israel pre-Reaganite GOP meets the anti-Israel post-Clinton left.”
At the same time, Jeb Bush has visited Israel several times and has a warm relationship with the Jewish community in Florida, where he has governor from 1999-2007.
“Since I’ve started talking to Jeb about this over a year ago, I’ve never had any qualms or questions over his stance on Israel. He has certainly never given any indication that he won’t be as strong of a supporter as his brother,” Zeidman told JNS.org.
Despite the association with Baker, Lefkowitz believes that Jeb Bush will ultimately be judged on his own actions and words.
“I think American voters who care about Israel, and that includes the vast majority of Americans, are going to judge Jeb Bush based on his record, not the statements of a former secretary of state who, on other issues, is one of many foreign policy advisers to his potential campaign,” Lefkowitz told JNS.org.