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.”
This story "Unbeloved Bush Aide Baker Reemerges in Mideast Thicket" was written by E.J. Kessler.