In light of the opposition generated when former senator Chuck Hagel’s candidacy
for defense secretary was initially mooted, most analysts predicted – mistakenly
– that president Barack Obama would not proceed with the appointment.
decision to appoint such an extreme isolationist to this position sends a
chilling signal about the broad direction of Obama’s foreign policy during the
next four years.
But there are particularly disconcerting connotations
relating to American Jews and Israel.
For a start, by appointing a person
with such a consistent track record of disdain for Israel, it is evident that
president Obama has no inhibitions or concerns about alienating and distressing
the vast majority of Jews who voted for him and who he now takes for
Obama is nominating a man who accused “the Jewish lobby” of
disloyalty, of harboring dual allegiances and acting as a fifth column by
supporting Israel. The views are similar to the anti- Semitic stereotypes
described by authors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in their notorious book,
The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.
Beyond this, Hagel’s senatorial
voting record in relation to Israel – even declining to endorse Senate
resolutions broadly supporting Israel – would place him as one of the most
hostile senators in recent times. What makes Hagel’s nomination as defense
secretary even more alarming is that he also has a consistent track record of
totally opposing any actions against Iran, including sanctions.
months prior to the election, president Obama repeatedly pledged that he would
not merely “contain” Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but would ensure that it would
never develop a nuclear bomb. Yet Hagel explicitly promoted a policy of
“containment” as opposed to military action.
Given this context, one is
entitled to query how Obama could appoint Hagel whose record on this issue was
so diametrically opposed to his own stated position? Or has Obama’s position
changed? What sort of message does this send to Iran? The Iranian state-owned
Press TV referred to Obama’s nomination of the “anti-Israeli ex-senator Chuck
Hagel as the next defense secretary” pointing out that “he has consistently
opposed any plan to launch military strikes against Iran.”
Foreign Ministry suggested that it suggested potential “practical changes” in US
foreign policy which would bring about an improvement of relations between
Washington and Tehran.
Obama was certainly aware that prominent
mainstream Democrats were opposed to such an appointment. The New York Times
conceded that even “some Obama aides had doubts about the wisdom of the choice”
and the liberal Washington Post made it clear that it considered Hagel an
inappropriate nominee for the position.
Alan Dershowitz, who supported
Obama during the election, stated that the appointment would send a mixed
message to the mullahs and embolden those who assumed that Obama was bluffing,
thus increasing the likelihood of needing to resort to the military option. He
maintained that the Hagel nomination was “not only a mistake for Israel” but “a
mistake for America, a mistake for world peace.”
He added that the move
would undermine Israeli confidence in Obama’s commitment to ensure that Iran
never become a nuclear power and would reinforce their fears that they were on
Ed Koch, former Democratic New York mayor – who, also endorsed
Obama – cynically told the Algemeiner that he had anticipated that the president
would renege on support for Israel but “it comes a little earlier than I
thought”. He said that that the nomination “will encourage the Iranian nuclear
project and the jihadists” in the belief that “America is beginning to desert
Israel,” adding: “I’m sure the Arabs are drinking orange juice and toasting
Hagel’s good health.”
The American Jewish leadership is deeply
AIPAC did not formally comment on the issue, stating that
“AIPAC does not take positions on presidential nominations.”
is no doubt that the leaders who need to maintain access to the Pentagon were
privately anguished and bitterly opposed to the Hagel
Interestingly, the nonpartisan heads of major Jewish
organizations uncharacteristically condemned Hagel’s views
ADL head Abe Foxman initially accused Hagel of statements
“bordering on anti-Semitism.”
After the nomination, whilst reiterating
that Hagel would not have been his first choice, he said that he “respects the
president’s prerogative” but still requires to be “convinced” that Hagel’s
positions were in fact “misunderstood.”
The American Jewish Committee’s
David Harris remarked that “we have concerns” and urged the Senate to “fully
probe” the nomination.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, head of the Simon Wiesenthal
Center, said that the Hagel appointment sent the wrong message to the Iranian
mullahs and called on him to apologize for his “hateful statements” on
In contrast, when trial balloons about Hagel were initially
floated, Jews on the left aggressively promoted his candidacy.
Times columnist Tom Friedman lauded Hagel as an ideal candidate, dismissing his
former hostility towards Israel and offensive remarks regarding the Jewish
lobby. He also lambasted Jewish critics, who he accused of either being
motivated or manipulated by the Israeli far right, having the chutzpah to label
them as McCarthyists for daring to question Hagel’s political bona
Friedman’s fellow columnist Roger Cohen described Hagel as “a
quite a strong friend of Israel” and castigated the unrepresentative
“well-organized and remorseless” extreme right wing Jewish leaders who endorse
those who “propel Israel into repetitive many wars of dubious strategic value”
of being behind the campaign against Hagel’s nomination.
were expressed by Peter Beinart in his Open Zion blog who effectively campaigned
for Hagel’s candidature. J Street launched a slogan “Smear a Bagel not Chuck
Hagel” and was supported by the Israel Policy Forum and Americans for Peace
The National Jewish Democratic Council, which in 2007 had alleged
that Hagel had “a lot of questions to answer about his commitment to Israel,”
stated that notwithstanding having “expressed concerns in the past, we trust
that when confirmed former senator Chuck Hagel will follow the president’s
unrivaled support for Israel.”
The reality is that the vast majority of
Jews, including Democrats, are deeply distressed with the choice. Dershowitz
claims that 95% of the Jewish community opposes the appointment.
while Jews have a particular reason to dislike Hagel’s approach, his selection
has far wider global implications. There are concerns that Obama is renewing his
former policy of “engaging” rogue states and appeasing Islamic
There will undoubtedly be some tough cross-examination in the
Senate and Hagel will in all likelihood play down or modify some of his previous
positions. He already insists that his remarks have been distorted and that his
statements always represented “unequivocal, total support for
But whilst his confirmation is far from a certainty, with the
Democrats controlling the Senate, the odds are in his favor.
government has, correctly, not commented on what is clearly a US domestic issue.
But we should be under no illusions. If Hagel’s appointment is confirmed, the
newly appointed defense secretary will have a clear track record of appeasing
the Iranians, reaching out to Hamas and being highly critical of pro- Israeli
influence in Washington.
It will signal that Israel’s relationship with
the Obama administration may be more turbulent than we had hoped.The
writer’s website can be viewed at www.wordfromjerusalem.com.He
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