The Hagel lesson

Hagel indeed proved to be highly supportive of Israel.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (R) and US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meet in Halifax (photo credit: ARIEL HERMONI / DEFENSE MINISTRY)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (R) and US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel meet in Halifax
The turnaround was remarkable, and somewhat embarrassing. At the end of 2012, mainstream pro-Israel groups severely criticized US President Barack Obama’s decision to nominate Chuck Hagel as defense secretary. Hagel, a Republican, was accused of being antagonistic towards Israel and overly sympathetic to Palestinian demands.
Twenty-two months later, after tendering his resignation – reportedly under pressure from the Obama administration – Hagel is being widely praised among pro-Israel groups as a true friend of Israel.
Indeed, some of the same mainstream Jewish organizations that expressed reservations – on occasion quite hysterically – about Hagel’s controversial political views on the Jewish lobby, Yasser Arafat, the root causes of instability in the Middle East, and other issues, are now quiet.
The ADL – previously skeptical about Hagel’s Israel track record – has since come around to being a Hagel fan. In a press release wrapping up Hagel’s short stint as defense secretary, the ADL noted Hagel’s “energetic stewardship of America’s commitment to Israel’s security in a dangerous region.” It added that Hagel’s support “has been vital as Israel has faced unprecedented threats. His hands-on engagement to ensure that our ally, Israel, can live in safety and security and maintain its rightful place in the community of nations will have a lasting impact,” the ADL said.
Hagel’s Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who has maintained a strained relationship with US Secretary of State John Kerry – particularly after his derogatory comments describing Kerry as “messianic” in his insistence on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – had only words of appreciation for Hagel.
“Chuck Hagel is a true friend of Israel,” Ya’alon said in a tweet Monday illustrated by photos of Hagel and Ya’alon embracing. “His contributions to Israel’s defense infrastructure and Israeli relations with the United States were great and very substantive,” said the Hebrew-language tweet.
Hagel indeed proved to be highly supportive of Israel.
When the White House held up weapons transfers to Israel during Operation Protective Edge over concern about Palestinian civilian deaths, our government managed to get the weapons directly from Hagel’s defense department, according to The Wall Street Journal.
And when nearly every senior national security official failed to make time for Ya’alon during his visit to the US last month – in part as a result of the fallout from the Kerry comments – Hagel met with him.
Some of the organizations that originally attacked Hagel quite viciously must now be quite embarrassed by their behavior. This is not to say that the leaders of Jewish organizations should refrain from public criticism of a candidate if they believe they have a good reason to do so. However, there is a feeling that too often leaders of American Jewish organizations are overly zealous in their indictment of US politicians who express views on Israel or the Palestinians that deviate even slightly from conventional pro-Israel thinking.
One may take offense at Hagel’s comments on the Jewish lobby, articulated in an interview with veteran Middle East diplomat and pundit Aaron David Miller, that “the political reality is that... the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.” One may think Hagel is nodding to the thesis put forward by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M.
Walt that a “Jewish lobby” essentially runs US foreign policy when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But Hagel might simply be expressing his own subjective feeling. In any event, one need not jump to the conclusion that Hagel harbors anti-Israel or anti-Jewish sentiments or that he would ever dream of using his position as defense secretary to harm relations between the US and Israel. At the very least, when Jewish organizations use their political connections to attempt to influence the appointment of someone like Hagel, they should be willing to acknowledge that these attempts can be intimidating for those against whom they are deployed.
It should also be noted that, when Jewish organizations turn out to be so wrong about their diagnosis of a particular candidate – as they were with Hagel – they end up paying a price. The next time they attempt to campaign against a nomination they will inevitably be less convincing. It would, therefore, be prudent to save clout and credibility for the truly important battles. The nomination of Hagel, it turns out, certainly wasn’t one of them.