Memory Lane

Jim Baker’s Tart Message for Bibi at J Street

Bush 41’s secretary of state came out swinging at Israel yesterday. He hasn’t changed—but the Republican Party sure has.

03.24.15 4:29 PM ET

Don’t expect James A. Baker 3d to be tapped for another stint at Foggy Bottom. On Monday night, at J Street’s fifth annual conference, Baker lit into Benjamin Netanyahu and his newly elected, Likud-led government. Never one to mince words, Baker told the crowd, “Frankly, I have been disappointed with the lack of progress regarding a lasting peace—and I have been for some time… 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.” 

Tart as that message might have been, the 84-year-old Baker had gone there before. Baker, who served as George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state, as Ronald Reagan’s treasury secretary, and as White House chief of staff to both Presidents, had laid down a similar line in May 1989 to an earlier Likud prime minister. In a speech to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Baker told the folks in the room and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir to “lay aside once and for all the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel… reach out to Palestinians as neighbors who deserve political rights.” 

Against this backdrop, Baker’s J Street Speech sounded like a stroll down memory lane, and it could have even been delivered by Denis McDonough, the Obama White House chief of staff—and indeed, it was. Earlier on Monday, and also before J Street, McDonough warned Israel against annexing the West Bank, and similarly upbraided Netanyahu for being Netanyahu.

Still, one place, however, where Baker’s words were unwelcome is the current iteration of the Republican Party. As conservative talk radio-host Mark Levin put it, “Jim Baker, much like Barack Obama, has always had a hate on for Israel.” Wow. Levin had lumped Baker in with Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s most famous congregant.

Since Baker’s forced retirement in 1993 at the hands of Bill Clinton, both America and the GOP have changed. The Republican Party has increasingly become an assembly of White America at Worship, an America that vividly and painfully remembers 9/11, and for whom Islam and ISIS spell a real and personalized threat and challenge. In 2012, Evangelicals comprised just over half of all Republican primary voters in contested states, and their views predominate.

In other words, the Republican Party is no longer the party of a WASP Establishment, just as Mainline Protestantism no longer defines the American religious mainstream. And Baker’s view on the two-state solution is a casualty.

Still, it’s not just about demographics. The fact that Baker’s take on the Middle East lacks a natural home within the GOP is not mere happenstance, and Baker himself had had a hand in that, however unintentionally.

In case anybody forgot, it was Baker who reportedly mouthed off “Screw the Jews. They don’t vote for us anyway,” and on a certain level Baker got it right. Taking Baker’s words to heart, Jewish voters stuck it to Bush and Baker. In 1992, Bush won just 11 percent of the Jewish vote, down from 35 percent just four years earlier.

Enter the neoconservatives, who were alarmed by Baker, but who were also disturbed by the Democrats social liberalism, and disgusted by the Ghost of George McGovern. According to The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, “the big story in the Republican Party over the last 30 years… is first the eclipsing of I’d say the [George H.W.] Bush [Brent] Scowcroft [James] Baker traditional—it’s unfair to say— hostility to Israel— but lack of closeness and warmth for Israel.” Feeling Israel in one’s kishkes is now another requirement for seeking the Republican presidential nod, at least according to Kristol.

In Kristol’s view, the GOP of yore “was an Arabist, old-fashioned Republican Party, which was certainly very concerned about relations with Arab states that were not friendly with Israel and skeptical about the case for Israel.” Kristol, however, neglects to mention that it was also a Republican Party that knew how to exercise power, while also understanding its limits.

Bush 41 successfully assembled a true coalition of the willing, drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, knew when to say when, and actually won a war. Apparently, all minor details to Kristol.

But the decline of Bakerism is as much about Mammon as it is about God. As the Times of Israel reported in 2012, “the biggest donor to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, and the two biggest donors to Barack Obama’s reelection bid, are all Jewish,” with by far the biggest donor being Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas-based casino mogul.

Where Adelson’s sentiments lie are no secret. His Israeli daily, Israel Hayom, is a Netanyahu mouthpiece. Adelson has advocated that America nuke Iran and downplayed the role that democracy needs to play within Israeli political life. According to Adelson, “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy… God didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state… Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state—so what?” 

So nothing. Notwithstanding all of this, Republican presidential hopefuls continue to make their pilgrimage to Adelson—even libertarian-minded Rand Paul. And if Paul is acting like another Adelson supplicant, don’t hold your breath waiting for Baker to be delivering the 2016 Republican keynote address, let alone being named secretary of state.

J Street, Sunday talk shows, his own hagiography, and Jeb’s 2016 campaign are where it’s at for Baker. He won’t be going back into government, but also don’t expect him to be ignored. With Obama a lame duck anxious for bipartisan cover, it looks like Baker is having an unexpected encore.