The possible nomination of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense will represent a litmus test as to whether President Barack Obama is poised to resume his anti-Israeli campaign, despite supporting Israel during Operation Pillar of Defense and – only last week – refusing to join the formal condemnation of Israel at the UN Security Council over the Jerusalem and E1 building approvals.
One should not underestimate the significance of the appointment of a man like Hagel to such a key post. He represents one of the most hostile antagonists of Israel in the mainstream political arena. Some of his views have even been compared to the extremist policies promoted by Pat Buchanan, the former Republican radical isolationist.
For example, Hagel has questioned the patriotism of the American Jewish community – accusing them of displaying dual loyalties – proclaiming that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” and that “I am a United States senator, not an Israeli senator.”
His indifference and even hostility toward Israel has been completely out of sync with mainstream congressional attitudes. He was one of four senators who refused to sign a Senate letter supporting Israel during the second intifada. During the Second Lebanon War he blamed Israel and Hezbollah equally for the conflict. He subsequently rebuffed efforts to persuade the European Union to ban Hezbollah as a terrorist group. In 2009 he urged Obama to engage in direct negotiations with Hamas. Earlier this month the Atlantic Council, which he chairs, published a front page article titled “Israel’s apartheid policies.”
He has unfailingly opposed sanctions or military action against Iran, warning that a nuclear Iran was inevitable and “continued hostile relations between the US and Iran will have the effect of isolating the United States.” He even refused to endorse the designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist entity.
Hagel supported unconditional engagement with rogue states, stating “engagement is not surrender. It is not appeasement.”
He held both Assads (father and son) in high regard. In 2008, together with Senator John Kerry (now designated to become secretary of state), he co-authored an article in The Wall Street Journal titled, “It is time to talk to Syria,” in which he stated, “Syria’s leaders have always made cold calculations in the name of self-preservation and history shows that intensive diplomacy can pay off.” As late as 2009 he was still urging the US to engage in dialogue with Syria.
Hagel also favors reducing what he described as the “bloated” defense budget – unusual for a candidate who would overview the Pentagon.
Based on this grotesque political track record, even the liberal Washington Post editorial board urged Obama to reject the nomination on the grounds that it was totally inappropriate for such a sensitive position to be headed by a person harboring views which would be regarded as “near the fringe of the Senate.”
Hagel is supported by the wrong people. These include the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), described by the FBI as an unindicted co-conspirator of Hamas, and also cited as an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood in America.
Stephen Walt, co-author of the notorious book The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, which mimicked classic anti-Semitic stereotypes, said that Hagel’s nomination would be excellent because “unlike almost all of his former colleagues on Capitol Hill, he has not been a complete doormat for the Israeli lobby” and is “skeptical about the use of military force against Iran.” He also said that the appointment would represent Obama’s “payback to Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Executive director of J Street Jeremy Ben-Ami endorsed Hagel as “a fine choice” and “friend of Israel.” He complained that “somebody of Chuck Hagel’s stature and significant record of national service is being slandered.”
Peter Beinart condemned the White House for emboldening the “pro-Israel right” by failing to defend Hagel.
While public protests against the appointment have until now been somewhat muted, there have been criticisms.
Senior Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens stated that Hagel’s appointment would confirm his belief that Obama is not a friend of Israel and that “Perhaps the 63% of Jewish Americans who cast their vote for Mr. Obama last month might belatedly take note.”
In fact, Hagel’s nomination will demonstrate whether pro-Israel Jewish Democrats who voted for Obama carry any weight within the party or are now cynically taken for granted as automatic supporters irrespective of how the Democratic Party behaves toward the Jewish state.
Interestingly enough, in 2009, after Hagel was named co-chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, Ira Forman, then executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council (and subsequently appointed Obama’s 2012 Jewish outreach coordinator), felt impelled to state that “if Hagel was taking a policy role, we’d have real concerns.” Forman currently declined to comment on the far more significant role for which Hagel is currently being considered.
Ed Koch, a passionate Zionist and former Democratic mayor of New York who nevertheless endorsed Obama in the elections, said that Hagel “would be a terrible appointment...and would give comfort to the Arab world that would think that President Obama is seeking to put space between Israel and his administration.”
Chief Executive of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) Mort Klein called on President Obama to withdraw the nomination of one of the most consistently hostile political critics of Israel. The ZOA summed up Hagel as “a frightening and dangerous apologist for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as for the terrorist regime of Iran, while being arguably one of the most vicious and hostile critics of Israel.”
Anti-Defamation League Director Abe Foxman – who those on the right frequently accuse of deferring unduly to the liberal establishment – stated that Hagel’s record on Israel and the US-Israel relationship “is at best, disturbing and at worst, very troubling. The sentiments he has expressed about the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism in the genre of Professors John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt and former president Jimmy Carter.”
AJC Executive Director David Harris pointed out that as far back as 1999, Hagel was the only senator who refused to sign a letter urging then-Russian president Boris Yeltsin to take action to quash burgeoning anti-Semitism. He noted that the concerns the AJC had about Hagel 13 years ago remain today.
If nominated, Hagel’s confirmation in the Senate will presumably be challenged. However, despite holding views which conflict starkly with mainstream Congress foreign affairs attitudes, rejecting him may be complicated by the fact that he is a former Republican senator and a popular, highly decorated war hero.
But there should be no illusions. This is a watershed and litmus test of Obama’s attitude to the Jewish state. Should Hagel’s appointment be confirmed it would be perceived as a signal of the president’s determination to revive his earlier efforts to distance the US from Israel and that we are likely to face massive problems during the course of this administration.
To appoint as secretary of defense a man who has consistently opposed sanctions as well as military action against Iran would also undermine Israel’s confidence that Obama was sincere when throughout the elections he repeatedly vowed that Iran would never become a nuclear power under his watch.
The writer’s website can be viewed at www.wordfromjerusalem.com. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org