Former Florida governor Jeb Bush on Tuesday disavowed criticism of Israel levied by longtime family counselor and former secretary of state James A. Baker — laying bare a problem faced by the entire 2016 presidential field.
Israel, and U.S. policy toward it, has become an intensely partisan issue with serious implications for Jewish voters, campaign fundraising and foreign policy.
For Republicans seeking office, almost any critique of Israel has become taboo. That doesn’t leave much leverage for diplomacy if a Republican wins the White House.
And for presumed Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, the tough line that President Obama is taking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forces her hand. Clinton is in the awkward spot of appearing to side against Netanyahu or against the president she served as secretary of state.
“Frankly, I have been disappointed with the lack of progress regarding a lasting peace — and I have been for some time,” Baker told a left-leaning audience Monday night, according to news reports of his speech.
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.”
That put Baker — a longtime friend of the Bush family and an unpaid adviser to Jeb Bush’s expected presidential campaign — alongside Obama and firmly outside the Republican wagon circle.
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. Netanyahu has since backtracked, with limited effect.
Obama on Tuesday said he took Netanyahu “at his word” and was openly skeptical that the Israeli leader would support an independent state for Palestinians.
Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and a former Obama administration Mideast policy aide, said Netanyahu’s speech to Congress earlier this month crystallized the growing partisan divide.
Republicans invited Netanyahu over White House disapproval, and Democrats accused Republicans of colluding with Netanyahu to sabotage nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
“The fact that Netanyahu has become such a hero to them, and that the whole confrontation has such a partisan tinge to it, just exacerbates a division that was not there” to the same degree in past elections, Goldenberg said.
Clinton has not addressed Netanyahu’s remarks or the White House reaction to them. She is on record supporting the diplomatic outreach to Iran that undergirds the current U.S.-Israeli tension.
As Obama sought to do Tuesday, candidate Clinton will no doubt stress the ongoing strength of U.S. support for Israel despite policy differences with its leader. In the short term, she will probably try to avoid criticizing Netanyahu directly, according to analysts and Democrats involved in outreach to Jewish voters.
“Hillary Clinton as both a candidate and as president would put serious effort into healing the rift between the United states and Israel,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
If the rift continues, Clinton may seek to distance herself from Obama’s hard line. That is because any tension with Israel makes many Jewish Democrats squeamish and because she would want to pave the way toward better relations with Netanyahu if she wins.
Baker has been an outspoken advocate for the former Florida governor’s likely 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.
Baker has also long supported peace negotiations that would require concessions from Israel and the Palestinians. As secretary of state to Jeb Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, in 1990, Baker famously told Israel off for stiff-arming U.S. efforts to broker talks.
“When you’re serious about peace, call us,” Baker said, addressing the Israeli leadership from afar at a congressional hearing. “The phone number is 202-456-1414,” he added. Then and now, the number reaches the White House switchboard.
Baker’s views are now out of step with Republican primary campaign orthodoxy, if not with many actual Republican general-election voters.
Baker spoke Monday night at a conference hosted by J Street, an advocacy group focused on U.S.-Israel relations and support of negotiations toward a Palestinian state.
Spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said in a statement that Bush “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.”
Bush, who said he has visited Israel five times, has repeatedly expressed support for Netanyahu and for Israel generally. He tweeted congratulations last week to Netanyahu on his reelection.
Other Republicans see the current division as a way to criticize Obama and burnish their own pro-Israel credentials. Announcing his presidential bid at Liberty University on Monday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) drew long applause criticizing Obama on Israel.
“Instead of a president who boycotts Prime Minister Netanyahu, imagine a president who stands unapologetically with Israel,” Cruz said.
Another possible Republican contender, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), said on the Senate floor last week that Obama is making a “historic mistake.”
“Allies have differences, but allies like Israel, when you have a difference with them and it is public, it emboldens their enemies,” Rubio said.
The sharp critiques could help Republican contenders win over some of the party’s most influential donors. Many top contributors will assemble in Las Vegas next month for the annual spring meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which touted Netanyahu’s appearance before Congress last month. Cruz, former Texas governor Rick Perry, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana are scheduled to address the gathering, as is former president George W. Bush.
Staunch support for Israel is a prime motivator for major GOP donors such as Sheldon Adelson and Norman Braman. Rubio visited Israel with Braman, a wealthy car dealer who is expected to give a Rubio-aligned super PAC as much as $10 million if the fundraising group is formed.
Matea Gold contributed to this report.