Kerry and Hagel: Hardly Israel’s preferred choices

Analysis: US President Barack Obama's probably choices for the top US cabinet posts may worry Israelis.

John Kerry and Chuck Hagel 390 (photo credit: Reuters)
John Kerry and Chuck Hagel 390
(photo credit: Reuters)
If, as widely expected, US President Barack Obama later this week nominates Sen. John Kerry as secretary of state and former senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, then those already worrying about US-Israeli ties under a second Obama term will have even more to worry about.
Less because of Kerry, even though he is considered a man of independent ideas on the Middle East who feels – thanks to his many years in the Senate working on foreign policy – that he knows perhaps better than Israelis themselves what is good for them, and more because of Hagel.
Hagel, a former Nebraska senator, is a Republican. But he is what some described as a Brent Scowcroft Republican, a so-called “country club” Republican not endowed with the pro-Israel reflexes that so many officeholders in the Republican party have come to possess since the days of Ronald Reagan.
Rather, Hagel is a Republican with a problematic voting record on Israel.
One sign that worries about Hagel may be well-founded is that one of those backing his appointment is Stephen Walt, co-author with John Mearsheimer of a book bashing both Israel and AIPAC, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.
In his blog Friday on the Foreign Policy website, Walt said appointing Hagel would be a perfect way for “Obama to pay back [Prime Minister] Binyamin Netanyahu for all the ‘cooperation’ Obama received from him during the first term, as well as Bibi’s [Netanyahu’s] transparent attempt to tip the scale for [Republican presidential candidate Mitt] Romney last fall.”
In his piece listing the “top five reasons” Obama should pick Hagel, Walt wrote on his blog, “Unlike almost all of his former colleagues on Capitol Hill, he hasn’t been a complete doormat for the Israel lobby. In the summer of 2006, for example, he incurred the lobby’s wrath by calling for a joint cease-fire during Israel’s war with Hezbollah.”
Walt wrote that Hagel has been “outspoken in calling for the United States to be more evenhanded in its handling of the peace process, and he’s generally thought to be skeptical about the use of military force against Iran.”
“Generally thought to be skeptical about the use of military force against Iran” might be an understatement.
In his 2008 book, America: Our Next Chapter, quoted Friday on the Foreign Policy website, Hagel wrote of Iran, “Isolating nations is risky. It turns them inward, and makes their citizens susceptible to the most demagogic fear-mongering.”
Hagel prefers engagement.
“Distasteful as we may find that country’s rulers, the absence of any formal governmental relations with Iran ensures that we will continue to conduct this delicate international relationship through the press and speeches, as well as through surrogates and third parties, on issues of vital strategic importance to our national interests. Such a course can only result in diplomatic blind spots that will lead to misunderstandings, miscalculation and, ultimately, conflict.”
In that book, he also raises the idea of living with a nuclear Iran, an idea Obama has on many occasions roundly rejected.
“The genie of nuclear armaments is already out of the bottle, no matter what Iran does,” he wrote.
“In this imperfect world, sovereign nation-states possessing nuclear weapons capability (as opposed to stateless terrorist groups) will often respond with some degree of responsible, or at least sane, behavior. These governments, however hostile they may be toward us, have some appreciation of the horrific results of a nuclear war and the consequences they would suffer.”
In a May interview with Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin, Hagel said, “The two options – attack Iran or live with a nuclear-armed Iran – may be eventually where we are. But I believe most people in both Israel and the United States think there’s a ways to go before we get to those. I think Obama is handling this exactly the right way. I can understand differences between Obama and the Israeli prime minister, but we have differences with all our allies.”
In 2001, Hagel was one of two senators who voted against renewing the Iran-Libya sanctions act, in 2007 he voted against placing the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corps on America’s list of terrorist organizations and in 2008 he voted against Iran sanctions.
Other problematic positions taken by Hagel include being one of only four senators in October 2000 who would not sign a letter of support for Israel during the second intifada, being only one of 12 senators in 2006 who refused to sign a letter calling on the EU to place Hezbollah on its terrorist lists and signing a 2009 letter – after he retired from the Senate – urging Obama to negotiate with Hamas.
William Kristol of the conservative Weekly Standard wrote Friday that when Hagel was appointed to an advisory board at the beginning of Obama’s first term, Ira Forman, Obama’s 2008 campaign’s Jewish outreach director and former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, acknowledged, “If [Hagel] was taking a policy role, we’d have real concerns.”
“Well,” Kristol wrote, “secretary of defense is a policy role.”
Kerry, in comparison to Hagel, has a spotless voting record on Israel. Yet he too is causing some anxiety because of his affiliation with the Center-Left of the Democratic party, not these days perceived as widely sympathetic to Israel’s arguments.
Unlike outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, perhaps burned by experience trying to get the Palestinians and Israel to negotiate, Kerry – even though he is a long-time senator and chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee – does not have the experience of being involved “in the trenches,” and as a result may not understand the limits of what may be achieved.
The concern among some is that Kerry may come to the State Department convinced he knows what is best for Israel and set about “rediscovering the wheel.”
Clinton, who lived through Obama’s setbacks in the Middle East, was mellowed – perhaps jaded – to some extent by those setbacks, and adjusted her expectations accordingly. This learning curve will start anew with Kerry.
While Kerry – who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2004 – always voted for Israel in the Senate, he never was perceived as a leader on pro-Israel issues. He also broke with conventional wisdom at times, leading him – for instance – to place a lot of time and energy during the end of the Bush administration and the early days of Obama’s first term trying to engage with Syria.
Of the three names mooted for the job of secretary of state a few weeks ago – Kerry, US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon – Israel, according to a senior diplomatic source, was rooting for Donilon, someone considered as having a good rapport with the Prime Minister’s Office and a good and sympathetic understating of Israel’s position and concerns.
For better or worse, forget Donilon. Jerusalem – it seems – is going to have to get used to working with Kerry... and, quite possibly, with Hagel.