As official Washington waited with bated breath this week for the report of the Iraq Study Group, neoconservatives were sounding alarms that the document boded ill for Israel.
That was because the leader of the ISG was none other than James Addison Baker III.
By now, it’s an immutable law of American politics and foreign policy: Whenever a Bush finds himself in big trouble, there emerges Baker, the suave inside political operator, sage diplomatic wise man and consummate family fixer.
It’s no wonder President Bush turned to Baker. President Reagan’s last chief of staff and an old-line Houston lawyer, Baker worked with the first President Bush for decades and helped him out of innumerable jams. Then, too, Baker oversaw the Republican strategy during the 2000 Florida recount, securing the younger Bush his victory.
But Baker’s history as a diplomat makes him controversial, especially in the Jewish community. As secretary of state from 1989 to 1992, during the first Bush administration, Baker often clashed with Jerusalem and the top pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
A Texas lawyer and consultant with ties to the oil industry and to the Saudi monarchy, Baker once said that there was “no greater obstacle to peace” than Israel’s settlements. During 1990 congressional testimony, he recited the number of the White House switchboard, saying that the Israelis could call it if they were interested in making peace. In 1991, the Bush administration withheld $10 billion in loan guarantees that Israel had requested to absorb Russian Jewish immigrants, linking them to a freeze in settlements. Then there’s the matter of his famous alleged (and denied) private remark: “F-k the Jews. They don’t vote for us anyway.”
“It’s written into James Baker’s political and ideological DNA that the solution to any problem in the Middle East runs right through Jewish Jerusalem,” said one prominent neoconservative, New York Post columnist John Podhoretz. “He is one of the last voices of the politics of the Old Right, which sees Israel as a hindrance to American interests in the Middle East rather than an outpost of Western civilization amid tyranny, kleptocracy and Islamic fundamentalism. His views should be viewed with particular skepticism by American institutions dedicated to the preservation of the U.S.-Israel alliance.”
Baker’s well-remembered pronouncements have engendered distrust in some quarters toward the recommendations of the study group, a bipartisan effort headed jointly by Baker and a former Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Lee Hamilton.
Concerns were hardly assuaged by leaks suggesting that the study group would recommend a grand international conference to ameliorate the Iraq crisis — with the participation of regional bad actors Iran and Syria, secured with concessions from Israel. Privately, however, the administration and its allies were downplaying any Arab-Israeli piece as tangential to the study group’s deliberations.
American Jewish organizations, for their part, were keeping their powder dry, at least until they could study the report, which the Baker group was presenting to the public as the Forward went to press Wednesday.
“Most of the Jewish community will stand aside from the debate unless there’s [a push] to have linkage of the Arab-Israel matter to the resolution of Iraq; if that’s part of the recommendations, you will hear a response,” said the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, in the days before the report came out.
Some Republicans defended Baker, saying that, whatever his past history, the hard-nosed former state secretary might prove the man of the hour for Iraq.
Fred Zeidman, a top GOP and Jewish communal activist from Texas, said that while Baker “probably listens to [the Arabs] more than we would like,” he’s “not an antisemite” or anti-Israel.
Zeidman said that the reality of the Iraq situation was forcing changes in administration policy that might make Jews nervous but were nonetheless necessary. “I love George Bush, but someone has to talk to those guys,” Zeidman said, referring to Syria and Iran. “They’re not going away. Is James Baker the right answer? Maybe he’s the cover George Bush needs to move off his position.”
Zeidman was not alone. A former State Department official with close ties to the Jewish community and a deep involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace process urged American Jews to receive the report in a spirit of openness.
Aaron David Miller, who served as a key peace-process point man during both the first Bush and the Clinton administration, told the Forward that it would be “inappropriate” to formulate a “Jewish view” of the report and that there was no relation between Baker’s earlier tiffs with the Jewish community and the present effort. “American Jews should sit down and take a deep breath and understand this is a national issue that concerns all Americans, including them,” Miller said. “We’re bogged down in a major foreign policy debacle in Iraq. Does the report offer practical, innovative and sound advice for extricating us?”
It was not only neoconservatives, however, who questioned Baker and the study group.
Old CIA Middle East hand Robert Baer — no neoconservative — wrote in Time magazine that, while Baker is liked and respected among Sunni Arabs, “with the Sunni Arabs from the Gulf paying for many of the bombs that are blowing up Shia markets and mosques, you have to wonder if Baker is the right person to sort out the differences between Iraq’s Shia and Sunni. Don’t we have unconflicted, disinterested statesmen anymore?”
Next to questions like these, the Jewish organizations’ early-1990s problems with Baker might seem like small, old potatoes. Still, the memory lingers.
“It was a bitter time and left everyone with a bad taste about Baker,” recalled David Twersky, the American Jewish Congress’s director of international affairs. “He didn’t like getting pressure from Aipac, and he gave better than he got.”