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Jeb Bush stresses support for Israel in wake of James Baker’s comments

Jeb Bush: Listen to me, not Baker. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

This story has been updated

Presumed Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush says he disagrees with critical comments about Israel made Monday by former Secretary of State James Baker, according to his campaign team.

Baker, a longtime friend of the Bush family and an unpaid adviser to Jeb Bush's expected presidential campaign, has been an outspoken advocate for the former Florida governor's possible White House bid. Bush touted Baker's support last month when he announced a 21-member foreign policy advisory team that is counseling him as he prepares to run for president.

The group of nearly two dozen Republican experts also includes former secretaries of state George Schultz and Condoleezza Rice and other veterans of the two Bush administrations, including Paul Wolfowitz and John Negroponte. Aides have said that the group embodies the broad base of support for Bush, but that the luminaries are not advising the former governor on a daily basis.

Baker spoke Monday night at a conference hosted by the left-leaning J Street Group, an Israeli advocacy organization comprised mostly of Democrats. During his keynote address, Baker recounted decades of tensions between American and Israeli leaders and expressed support for the Obama administration's ongoing talks with Iran.

Baker was notably critical of comments Netanyahu made in the closing hours of his reelection campaign last week, when the prime minister suggested that he no longer supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Frankly, I have been disappointed with the lack of progress regarding a lasting peace -- and I have been for some time,” Baker told the group. He added that “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.”

"I still remain cautiously optimistic -- and I stress cautiously -- because it seems to me that Israel's future, absent a two-state solution, could be very difficult at best," he added later, according to reports about his speech.

Netanyahu later backtracked on his comments regarding a two-state solution, but the White House has responded with deep skepticism.

Kristy Campbell, a Bush spokeswoman said in an e-mail that "Governor Bush consults a wide range of advisors on foreign policy. While he respects Secretary Baker, he disagrees with the sentiments he expressed last night and opposes J Street’s advocacy. Governor Bush’s support for Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu is unwavering, and he believes it's critically important our two nations work seamlessly to achieve peace in the region."

Campbell had earlier reiterated Bush's support for Israel and said that he found J Street's "advocacy to be inconsistent with his views and to the interests of a safe and secure Israel."

Baker spoke a few hours after White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough told the conference that Netanyahu's remarks were "so very troubling." He added that "an occupation that has lasted for almost 50 years must end, and the Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state."

Baker served as Secretary of State for former president George H. W. Bush and has remained an active, sought-after voice on foreign affairs ever since. He served as a legal adviser to George W. Bush during the 2000 Florida recount and later co-chaired the Iraq Study Group, which was critical of U.S. military operations in Iraq. Baker is the subject of a forthcoming PBS documentary that recounts his work for the Bush family and former president Ronald Reagan and describes him as "the man who made Washington work."

Baker's speech earned a quick rebuke from several conservative commentators who have long disagreed with his more critical stance on Netanyahu and Israel.

Bill Kristol, editor of the influential Weekly Standard, tweeted early Tuesday: "James Baker & J Street. The anti-Israel pre-Reaganite GOP meets the anti-Israel post-Clinton left." He added in a separate Tweet that "Thankfully, James Baker doesn't speak for today's Republican Party. Wish the same could be said for Denis McDonough and the Democrats."

John Podhoretz, a conservative New York Post columnist, said on Twitter Monday night that Baker's speech "should really help Jeb. Congratulations on assembling that team of experts so early."

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in a recent essay that Baker "has a track record of policy recommendations that hone closer to what Obama has implemented than the clean break Jeb Bush suggests he wants."

"Baker has been outspoken in his support for Jeb Bush," Rubin added. "While Baker is friendly with Jeb Bush’s father, that did not stop the former secretary of state from signaling his displeasure with the governor’s brother. It is hard to imagine Baker giving such full-throated support to Jeb Bush unless he sees in Bush a kindred spirit. If that’s the case, then there is much to worry about as Jeb Bush develops his foreign policy."