Unbeloved Bush Aide Baker Reemerges in Mideast Thicket

By E.J. Kessler

Published December 12, 2003, issue of December 12, 2003.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A former secretary of state noted for his strained relations with Israel and American Jewry is back in the thick of Middle East affairs — just in time to throw a wrench into the 2004 election.

Last week, President Bush tapped James Baker III, a Texas oil man, longtime family friend and political fixer who helped secure Bush’s hold on the 2000 election in Florida, to be his “personal envoy” for sorting out the question of Iraq’s debt. Coincidently, in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations on December 3, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts mentioned Baker, along with President Carter, President Clinton and the elder President Bush, as someone whom he might send as an envoy to negotiate Israeli-Palestinian peace if he were elected president. Coincidently, too, Baker’s reemergence comes on the heels of the administration’s decision to deduct $300 million in loan guarantees to the Sharon government on account of Israeli settlement activity — a linkage that Baker originated during his days as secretary of state during the first Bush presidency.

Baker’s tenure as secretary of state from 1989 to 1992 is remembered as a time of truculent relations between Washington and Jerusalem, when the top pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the senior Bush were at loggerheads over a number of issues, especially settlements.

At one point in 1991, American relations with Israel’s Likud-led government were so strained that Baker declared Ariel Sharon, who was then Israel’s housing minister, persona non grata in Washington. Despite his denials, Baker also is famous for allegedly remarking, in a private

conversation on Middle East policy, “F—k the Jews. They don’t vote for us anyway.”

Baker’s appointment, especially coming after the Bush administration quietly cut the loan guarantees on the eve of Thanksgiving, conjured fraught memories for some in the Jewish community — with both a prominent pro-Israel activist and a Jewish Democratic activist issuing warnings.

“The influence of James Baker is a factor in [George W.] Bush’s pressure on Israel to reduce its military response to terror, in Bush’s refusal to move the embassy to Jerusalem despite his campaign promise to do so, in his complaining about Israel’s security fence, in his public demand for a Palestinian state and his public praise for the Geneva Accords,” said the president of the Zionist Organization of America, Morton Klein. A frequent critic of the Bush administration who opposes Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, Klein added: “You can be sure that his conversations with George Bush will not be limited to Iraq.”

That assessment was seconded by the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Ira Forman. “It’s a bad sign for this administration to start relying on Jim Baker for foreign policy advice,” he said. “For a consummate inside operator like Baker, you can be sure there’s no firewall between his advice on Iraq and broader Middle East issues.”

Others, however, said the appointment and cuts in loan guarantees have a different valence because President Bush’s relations with Israel and American Jewry are so much warmer than those of his father.

Steve Grossman, a former president of Aipac who is national campaign co-chairman for former Vermont governor and Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean, remembered that Baker gave a speech at an Aipac policy conference in 1989 that was “deeply disturbing to the pro-Israel community. I don’t think his relations with the Jewish community ever improved.” The current Bush administration, however, has no such “blanket hostility” to loan guarantees or “clear antipathy” to the leadership in Jerusalem, Grossman said. The cuts, he added, are not provoking a Jewish reaction because they have “no serious practical impact.”

Jewish communal leaders for the most part were muted in their reactions to Bush’s appointment of Baker to the Iraq post — and not a single Jewish communal organization issued a press release denouncing the cuts in loan guarantees.

“I wish [Baker] every success in Iraq,” said the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, adding, “I’d much rather have him dealing with Iraq than with Israeli-Palestinian issues.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said, “If Jim Baker was designated emissary to make peace, I would be upset and demonstrate loudly. He has not. They’re using him now in the service of an issue on which we all know he has abilities and skills.”

Even so, several communal leaders went out of their way to blast Kerry.

“Senator Kerry has sent the wrong signal by recommending former President Carter and former Secretary of State Baker as possible nominees for the job,” said the president of the American Jewish Congress, Jack Rosen, in one such statement. “Both Carter and Baker have demonstrated antipathy toward Israel, and neither has the confidence of the Jewish community.”

The differences in reaction prompted one Democrat to accuse the communal leadership of partisanship.

“There’s an extraordinary double standard among mainstream Jewish leaders with regard to President Bush,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic media consultant and strategist. “Their silence on Jim Baker, loan guarantees and the Geneva Accords is deafening.”

Yet Democratic presidential candidates appeared to be making a similar distinction, opting not to criticize Bush’s choice of Baker, while hammering Kerry for considering him as a Middle East envoy.

In a statement to reporters, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut called Kerry’s choice of Baker “a serious mistake,” saying that any emissary must have “the respect and trust of both the Israelis and the Palestinians.”

Similarly, Dean’s Jewish affairs adviser, Matt Dorf, said that Dean believed that the “the most effective negotiators are trusted by both sides,” and that because of Baker’s “history with Israel and verbal attack on the American Jewish community, he would be a poor choice.”

A spokesman for retired general Wesley Clark, meanwhile, called Kerry’s suggestion “offensive.” “We liked it better when Senator Kerry was calling Baker’s Florida operation ‘thuggism,’” said campaign communications director Matt Bennett in a statement.

One supporter of a rival campaign suggested privately that Kerry’s campaign was hoping the move would improve its standing among Arab-American voters in Michigan.

That idea was pooh-poohed, however, by the president of the Arab American Institute, James Zogby, who said that his polling shows that mentioning Baker as a possible envoy does not attract any more support than does one of the other names Kerry mentioned, former president Bill Clinton.

Kerry’s campaign, for its part, did not back away from the choice.

“Any Middle East envoy President Kerry chooses will understand his steadfast lifetime support of Israel,” wrote spokesman David Wade in an e-mail statement to the Forward. “John Kerry will set American policy, and he will do it with the conviction that the United States took sides in the Middle East under President Harry Truman even as the United States is a fair and honest broker for peace. No member of a Kerry administration will have any doubt where the President stands.”

As for Baker, many are hoping he has mellowed in the decade since he was Secretary of State.

“He was nasty,” said the communications director of AJCongress, David Twersky. “He went beyond where he needed to go to make the point.”

Find us on Facebook!
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.