But the instant backlash from fellow Republicans that prompted Jeb Bush, the son of Baker’s best friend George Bush, to distance himself underscored just how much their party has changed on the issue of Israel. Where past Republican leaders had their disagreements with Israel, today’s Republicans have made support for the Jewish state an inviolable litmus test for anyone aspiring to national office.
“If you’re a Republican and you hedge on your support on Israel, it’s viewed as having a flawed foreign policy,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican party strategist.
“It’s a requirement for Republicans these days to be very strong on Israel if they’re going to be taken seriously by primary voters.” Any deviation on that, he said, leads to inevitable questions: “If you’re not supporting Israel, then who are you supporting? Are you supporting Iran?”
The Republican support coalescing behind Israel, and particularly its hawkish prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been on display in recent weeks as President Barack Obama has neared a nuclear agreement with Iran that critics call dangerous.
The House speaker, John Boehner, invited Netanyahu to address Congress on the matter while 47 Senate Republicans signed an open letter to Iran warning against making a deal with the president.
The shift in the party’s attitude toward Israel stems from several factors, according to Republicans. These include a greater sense of solidarity in the fight against Islamic extremism since the attacks of 11 September, 2001, increased support for the Jewish state among evangelical Christians and the influence of wealthy donors like Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate. And the more Obama feuds with Netanyahu, the more Republicans feel motivated to come to the Israeli leader’s defence.
“It is remarkable,” said William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine and one of the leading voices promoting Israel’s cause in the US. Netanyahu has become a rallying point for Republicans, he said, adding that Netanyahu would probably “win the Republican nomination if it were legal”.
Kristol, emailing from Israel where he was meeting Netanyahu, described the shift as a result of broader underlying trends in US politics as the political left grows more “European” and the political right grows more “Reaganite”.
He added that “the conservative belief in American exceptionalism is akin to Zionism”. And he said the contrast between Obama’s friction with Netanyahu and former president George W Bush’s strong support for Israel “is pretty dramatic”.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J Street, the liberal pro-Israel advocacy organisation that hosted Baker at its convention this week, said the Republican Party had grown more radical, leaving behind the former secretary of state and others like Brent Scowcroft, who was national security adviser under President George Bush sen, and Colin Powell, another former secretary of state.
“These used to be the centre of the Republican Party,” Ben-Ami said. “I don’t think they’ve shifted. They’re still saying the same thing. The Republican Party of today has moved so far to the right they can’t relate to what these folks are saying.”
In his speech on Monday, Baker said he had “been disappointed with the lack of pro-gress toward a lasting peace” between Israelis and Palestinians and recalled that Netanyahu had once spoken out in favour of a Palestinian state as part of an eventual solution.
“Since then, his actions have not matched his rhetoric as settlement construction has continued unabated and last week, under intense political strain, he announced his opposition to a two-state solution,” Baker said.
“Now, even though he attempted to back away from his statement two days after, I think we would all agree that the short-term prospect for such a solution obviously remains quite bleak.”
Baker added that the US would “never, never, never abandon Israel” and criticised what he called the “political gamesmanship” that has turned the issue into a political football lately. Clear thinking on the difficult issues in the region, he said, “should not be muddled by partisan politics”.
Within minutes, conservatives on Twitter blasted Baker, who had just been listed as an adviser to Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor now poised to run for president. By the next morning, Bush was distancing himself. His spokeswoman said: “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 Netanyahu is unwavering, and he believes it’s critically important our two nations work seamlessly to achieve peace in the region.”
Republican presidents like Eisenhower, Nixon and Bush sen were not always seen as unequivocally supportive of Israel. For decades, throughout the Cold War especially, Republican leaders were viewed as close to anti-Communist Arab allies and the oil industry. They presided over a predominantly Protestant electoral base while Democrats assembled a more urban coalition with lopsided support from American Jews.
Even when Republican presidents supported Israel and its security, they also openly quarrelled with its leadership at times, much as Democratic presidents did.
Eisenhower pressured Israel to withdraw from Egypt after it sent troops into Sinai in 1956 with the support of Britain and France in an effort to secure the Suez Canal and topple the government of President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
President Ronald Reagan defied Israeli objections to sell AWACS reconnaissance planes to Saudi Arabia and supported a United Nations resolution condemning Israel after it bombed a nuclear plant under construction in Iraq without telling the US first.
His successor suspended $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel after it expanded housing settlements in occupied territories.
As secretary of state, Baker gave a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), calling on all sides in the Middle East conflict to face hard truths, including Israel, which he said should stop settlement activity.
Baker even barred Netanyahu, then a deputy foreign minister, from the State Department building after the Israeli called US policy dishonest.
“It is a different Republican Party from those days,” said Dennis Ross, who worked as a top adviser to Baker at the time and went on to work for Obama on Middle East issues.
“When Baker made his AIPAC speech that was seen as so tough at the time in 1989, he drew little criticism from Republicans.”
“Historically it was the Democrats who were closer to Israel than the Republicans,” Ross added. “Now among Republicans, it is not just a possible issue to try to wean voters away but a measure of American reliability with its friends.”
That shift really began in earnest under Bush jun. Although he, too, had his differences with Jerusalem at times – he was the first president to make support for a Palestinian state official US policy – he became known as probably the strongest ally Israel had ever had in the Oval Office.
Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary at the time, recalled a flare-up of violence between Israel and Arabs. He was given talking points with a typical American message for such episodes urging both sides to refrain from violence.
“I took them to Bush and Bush said: ‘No, don’t say that. Just say this: Israel has a right to defend itself’,” Fleischer said. “It was one of those decisions that sent shock waves through the bureaucracy. But that was Bush.”
Bush, and other Republicans, came to identify with Israel’s struggle with terrorism. “September 11 made it vivid, made it real and made it powerful,” said Fleischer, now a member of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s board of directors.
“It happens to them, it happens to us, we’re on the same side. Being pro-Israel is a no-brainer, absolutely moral issue to take inside the Republican Party.”