Chuck Hagel and Israel
THE nomination of Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel as the next secretary of defense has become the focus of public debate in Washington. Critics in the United States began grumbling over Obama’s choice and some Republican senators have threatened to filibuster his confirmation vote.
Much of the debate has nothing to do with the question whether Hagel is fit for the job. Apparently he is! But many observers see his attitude toward Israel and the Israel lobby as problematic. On more than one occasion, Hagel criticized the impact of the Israeli lobby on American foreign policy. He used the term “Jewish lobby” to refer to the pro-Israel groups despite the fact that the support for Israel in the United States is not confined to the American Jews. Later on, he apologized for using the term Jewish lobby and said that he should have used the term pro-Israel lobby. And yet, he never retreated from his opinions on the role of the Israeli lobby.
Not surprisingly, Hagel is not alone in criticizing the role of the pro-Israel lobby in formulating American foreign policy toward the Middle East. Just a few years ago, two prominent academics published a book attacking the negative role played by the Israeli lobby in Washington’s foreign policy toward Iraq and the wider Middle East. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt make the case that were it not for the Israeli lobby, the United States would not have invaded Iraq in 2003.
There is no evidence that Hagel is anti-Israel. His criticism of Israel’s policies and the pro-Israel forces in the United States stems from his understanding of American national interest. Some, including Aaron David Miller, argue that Chuck Hagel referred to a fact when he talked about the disproportionate impact of the Israeli lobby on the Congress. A few years ago, Hagel made it perfectly clear that “the political reality is that … the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”
Some critics accuse Hagel of harboring anti-Semitic sentiments. This is hardly true, according to Aaron David Miller. In Aaron Miller’s words, “Hagel talked about the issue of domestic political pressure. Most sitting senators and congressmen don’t. But it’s a fact: The pro-Israeli community or lobby has a powerful voice. It does not have a veto over American policy but it has a powerful voice. To deny that is simply to be completely out of touch with reality.”
That said, pro- Israeli forces are not monolithic with regard to Hagel’s nomination. Some organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee wrote to members of the Senate to convince them to block Hagel’s appointment. On the other hand, the Washington-based J Street organization defended the nomination of Hagel dubbing the campaign against his nomination as “outrageous smear campaign.”
While AIPAC — the strongest pro-Israel organization — has yet to come up with a statement, the National Jewish Democratic Council endorsed the nomination of Hagel despite his past with Israel. “While we have expressed concerns in the past, we trust that when confirmed, former Sen. Chuck Hagel will follow the president’s lead of providing unrivalled support for Israel — on strategic cooperation, missile defense programs, and leading the world against Iran’s nuclear program,” the National Jewish Democratic Council said.
President Obama is keen on his pick of the secretary of defense. It is as if Obama is shifting from his team of rivals — that characterizes his first term — to a team of allies. Apparently, both Obama and Hagel see eye-to-eye on key strategic issues. But will the appointment of Hagel as a secretary of defense be seen as a game changer in the relationship with Israel? In fact, Hagel will take his cues from Obama and the latter’s will reigns supreme. The appointment of secretaries is meant to help the president in carrying out his responsibilities. While Hagel will have an access to the president, in the end policies will be set by the president himself.
Here in the Arab region, many have already made a link between the nomination of Hagel and the appointment of John Kerry as a secretary of state and a possible change in the relationship with Israel. This observation is not accurate. The support for Israel’s survival and security is bipartisan. Of course, there are different opinions as how to help revive the peace process. But to read too much into the nomination of a certain politicians is over-simplistic. And yet, it remains to be seen how Obama is going to deal with Israel in his second term when he will be not concerned about re-election. Both Hagel and Kerry are expected to be subordinate to the president’s vision and strategy.