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March 26, 2015 8:28 am

Does Association with James Baker Affect Jeb Bush’s Pro-Israel Credentials?

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Jeb Bush. Photo: Gage Skidmore.

JNS.orgFormer 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.

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“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 strongly 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.

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  • robert davis

    baker ,is a LIAR,an hypocrit and an opportunist whose words are not to be taken for face value. He is an antisemite and an anti Zyonist this is evident 200%. As to Jeb Bush he never took position for Israel in its arab-Israel conflict and he evidently does not undersand theonly solution for this conflict is the transfer of arabs over to Jordan(Eastern Palestine. Those arabs are jordanians anyway since they were given the jordanian nationality in 1949 when jordan occupied Judea/Samaria and they are therefore jordanians whether they like it or not. The best candidate for Republicans is TED CRUZ.

  • Joel

    Talk about retreads! James Baker, George Schultz (a good man), Paul Wolfowtiz, and John Negropnote? Why not dial up via a seance, William Seward and Hamilton Fish (Lincoln’s and Grant’s Secretaries of State)? Can the ancient Henry Kissinger be far behind?

  • Larry Andrews

    There are many intelligent Americans to choose as your advisers. Jim Baker is not one of them, and this shows a complete lack of judgment by Jeb Bush. In addition, Jeb Bush criticized his brother’s conduct of the Iraq war as making some “major mistakes”. Exactly what did his brother do correctly? The more you learn about Jeb Bush the more doubts you have. At this point, America doesn’t need another Bush or Clinton!!

  • Lynne T

    Among his “achievements” Baker may also be the chief mover and shaker in support of the P5+1 talks with Iran.

    “The report, published in December 2006, urged then-President Bush to take four major steps: withdraw American troops from Iraq; surge American troops in Afghanistan; reinvigorate the Arab-Israeli “peace process”; and, last but far from least, launch a diplomatic engagement of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its junior partner, the Assad regime in Syria. Baker and Hamilton believed that Bush stood in thrall to Israel and was therefore insufficiently alive to the benefits of cooperating with Iran and Syria. Those two regimes, supposedly, shared with Washington the twin goals of stabilizing Iraq and defeating al-Qaeda and other Sunni jihadi groups. In turn, this shared interest would provide a foundation for building a concert system of states—a club of stable powers that could work together to contain the worst pathologies of the Middle East and lead the way to a sunnier future.

    Expressing the ethos of an influential segment of the foreign-policy elite, the Baker-Hamilton report became the blueprint for the foreign policy of the Obama administration, and its spirit continues to pervade Obama’s inner circle. Denis McDonough, now the president’s chief of staff, once worked as an aide to Lee Hamilton; so did Benjamin Rhodes, who helped write the Iraq Study Group’s report. Obama not only adopted the blueprint but took it one step further, recruiting Vladimir Putin’s Russia as another candidate for membership in the new club. The administration’s early “reset” with Russia and its policy of reaching out to Iran and Syria formed two parts of a single vision. If, in Bushland, America had behaved like a sheriff, assembling a posse (“a coalition of the willing”) to go in search of monsters, in Obamaworld America would disarm its rivals by ensnaring them in a web of cooperation. To rid the world of rogues and tyrants, one must embrace and soften them.”

    the entire piece is available here: http://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2015/02/obamas-secret-iran-strategy/

    • robert davis

      All of baker’s advices should be trashed and I am not surprised a moslem african illegal immigrant and antisemite such as obama likes them since they would destroy America and Israel and lead straight to 3rd ww. This guy is a total idiot and full of hatred for America,Israel and democracy. Anyone who listens to him must surely understand this very fast and should trash him and his advices. His place is in a mental asylum.

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