Washington - Along the way to winning the presidential nomination of the Republican Party this week, Senator John McCain picked up the endorsement of James Baker, a former secretary of state with a long history of rocky ties with the American Jewish establishment. In the weeks since the February 28 endorsement, little protest has been heard from pro-Israel circles, and Jewish activists say Baker’s support is unlikely to become a campaign issue.
Democratic frontrunner Barack Obama, meanwhile, has been heavily scrutinized for accepting the support of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Malley, like Baker former administration officials who have riled the American Jewish community with their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Jewish Republicans are quick to point out that the communal shrug toward Baker’s endorsement could turn antagonistic should the Arizona senator name the former secretary of state as an adviser, a role Brzezinski plays in the Obama campaign. At least one Jewish Democratic activist, however, is already crying foul, claiming that the American Jewish community is giving McCain an undeserved free pass.
“There is a very, very disturbing double standard,” said Matt Dorf, a Jewish Democratic consultant who also works on Jewish communal issues with the Democratic National Committee. “I cannot think of any other figure in the Republican Party who raises more concerns than Jim ‘F**k the Jews’ Baker.”
Baker earned the nickname while serving as secretary of state under the elder Bush’s presidency, as the result of an alleged comment he made during the 1992 presidential campaign about American Jews’ lack of support of the Republican Party. He also drew the Jewish community’s ire by becoming the leading proponent in Washington of pressuring the Israeli government to change its policy toward the Palestinians, in particular toward stopping settlement expansion.
McCain supporters in the Jewish community portray Baker’s support as an ordinary political matter and insist that Baker’s endorsement does not affect the Arizona senator’s pro-Israel record.
“With one or two possible exceptions, every former secretary of state in a Republican administration has endorsed John McCain,” said Lewis Eisenberg, a national finance co-chair for McCain’s campaign.
Other Republican activists added that while some McCain supporters have raised questions about Baker’s endorsement, they do not see it as an emerging issue in the Jewish community. Senator Joe Lieberman, who criticized John Kerry during the 2004 Democratic primaries for naming Baker as a potential envoy to the Middle East, and who is now campaigning for McCain, has not commented on the former secretary of state’s support for the Arizona senator.
Democratic Jewish activists, for their part, attribute the communal shrug given to Baker’s endorsement to Democratic reluctance to make Israel a partisan campaign issue, a charge they level at their Republican counterparts.
For some American Jewish officials, so long as Baker’s support for McCain does not translate into a role in the campaign, a distinction should be drawn between Baker’s views on Israel and his standing as an elder GOP statesman.
“I don’t think anyone has a problem with mentioning Baker’s name; he is an establishment figure in the Republican Party,” said David Twersky, senior adviser of international affairs at the American Jewish Congress. “Everyone has baggage, and Baker has baggage, too.”
Leading Jewish Republicans themselves stress that by accepting Baker’s endorsement, McCain has not committed himself to accepting advice from the former secretary of state or to involving him in Middle East policymaking.
“The endorsement is fine. If he would become a Middle East adviser, that could be a problem,” said Ben Chouake, president of Norpac and a member of McCain’s financial committee. “He served our country well, and even though he was never considered a close friend of Israel, in general this is a good endorsement.”
Chouake dismissed calls for McCain to turn down Baker’s endorsement, arguing that there is no moral equivalence between Baker’s endorsement and the support Obama received from Farrakhan. In fact, Obama publicly rejected Farrakhan’s endorsement and denounced him for his views.
During his term as secretary of state, Baker played a lead role in bringing about the Madrid peace conference, at which Israeli, Palestinian and Arab leaders officially met for the first time. While his Madrid efforts were welcomed by Israel, Baker earned ill will in Jerusalem for leading an American push to pressure Israel on the issue of the settlements, arguing in Congress that they were the greatest obstacle to Middle East peace. He also played an important role in denying Israel’s request in 1992 for crucial loan guarantees because of the Shamir government’s refusal to declare that it would not direct any of the money to West Bank settlements.
Given the antagonistic history between Baker and the American Jewish community, it is perhaps surprising to hear one of its most hawkish officials insist that Baker’s endorsement will not be a problematic issue. Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America and a strong supporter of the settlement movement, said the former secretary of state should be judged not on his alleged remarks but on whether his thoughts are translated into action, a warning that also extended to the new Republican nominee for president.
“If McCain announces he wants Baker as a Middle East envoy,” Klein said, “then you’ll see uproar.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.