When the GOP Challenged Israel

The very different world of 1989


Not James Baker

Now that Benjamin Netanyahu has followed up yesterday's speech at AIPAC with an address to Congress today, let's take a moment to flash back to another speech in another era. This earlier political period was, at least arguably, the last time a U.S. president found himself significantly at odds with Israeli policy preferances. It might surprise younger readers to hear that the president in question was a Republican. They might be even more surprised to be told that his name was Bush.

That's George H.W. Bush, of course, not Bush the younger. Here's a New York Times dispatch from May 23, 1989:


Secretary of State James A. Baker 3d said today that it was time for Israel to "lay aside once and for all the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel" and "reach out to Palestinians as neighbors who deserve political rights."

Speaking to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israeli lobby, Mr. Baker for the first time laid out a comprehensive blueprint of the Bush Administration's approach to Middle East peacemaking.

The Secretary of State's speech was striking for the unsentimental and unusually blunt tone with which he addressed the Israelis, for the carefully balanced manner in which he called on both sides to make concessions for peace and for the clear endorsement he gave Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's proposal for elections in the West Bank and Gaza as a basis for breaking the Middle East deadlock….

Although the Secretary of State's remarks were consistent with longstanding American policy on the Middle East, they nevertheless were a departure from the Reagan Adminstration in tone and structure, which both stunned and dismayed many of the 1,200 people in the predominantly Jewish, pro-Israeli audience.

In tone, the speech lacked many of the usual laudatory emotional references to Israel as a beleaguered and strategic American ally, which were standard during the Reagan Administration, especially when officials were speaking to Aipac, as the lobby is known.

In structure, the speech was almost clinically balanced between what it called on Israel to do and what it called on the Palestinians and Arabs to do. Many Aipac members later complained about the evenhandedness of the speech, an approach they fundamentally reject.

That Times piece was produced by Thomas Friedman, who apparently could write with clarity in those days. But if it's hard to imagine Friedman filing straightforward news reports built around information rather than bizarre metaphors, it's even harder to conceive of a prospective Republican secretary of state taking a tone like Baker's today, let alone doing so at an AIPAC meeting.

Yet he did, and he stood behind his words. Even after the Palestine Liberation Organization sided with Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, the Bush administration successfully pushed for Palestinian peace talks in the war's wake. (Speaking as someone who was a college student at the time: This really, really disoriented the campus left.)

A quarter century later, Baker's appearance at AIPAC feels deeply alien. Another quarter century from now, Netanyahu's remarks this week may feel alien as well. Political bonds aren't always as permanent as they seem at the time.