By Larry Gordon
The fascinating thing about whether or not former Republican senator Chuck Hagel becomes the next U.S. Secretary of Defense is what the determining factors in the process will be.
The implications are somewhat staggering when one considers what the purview of an American defense secretary is in this day and age. There is so much on that person’s plate. There is the ongoing implosion in Syria, the Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, the instability and unpredictability of so much of the Arab world, the need to cut the overwhelming American defense budget, extricating American forces from Afghanistan, and so on.
But what Mr. Hagel will have to answer for most when he appears at confirmation hearings before the U.S. Senate is how he feels about Israel and Jews. Apparently, as a senator, Hagel was wont to refer to the American Israel Political Affairs Committee as “the Jewish lobby” instead of the Israel lobby, and he said on record that others in DC find that “the Jewish lobby” is “intimidating.” While those terms may seem innocuous and even interchangeable, the fashion in which Mr. Hagel used the terms generated, and is once again generating, real concern.
It is important to note that AIPAC ostensibly exists to promote support on the part of the American Jewish community and elected officials in Washington for a strong and independent State of Israel. More than anything, it is about keeping attention on the fact that a strong Israel is vital to American strategic interests. When an elected senator—or any official—like Hagel tries to marginalize the strategic importance of the U.S.–Israel relationship by referring to AIPAC as “the Jewish lobby,” it conjures up the stereotypes associated with the canard of Jewish power and influence in the American political process.
So the phrase “Jewish lobby” may seem simple and just used for identification purposes, but in this second term of Barack Obama and with the agenda he is suspected by many of harboring, the selection of Mr. Hagel for such a prominent foreign-policy position raises both eyebrows and concern for many.
Additionally troubling is the Hagel remark when he was in the Senate saying that he was a United States senator, not a senator representing the State of Israel.
Critics of Mr. Hagel, such as William Kristol, the Fox News analyst and founder of the Emergency Committee for Israel, feel that for a series of reasons Hagel is not qualified to serve as Secretary of Defense. Kristol cites Hagel’s comments about the Jewish lobby and his position on whether to allow the Iranian nuclear program to go forward. Hagel has voiced the opinion that he would prefer that the U.S. not intervene too extensively in the Iranian nuclear issue.
Elliot Abrams, a former Deputy National Security Advisor for George W. Bush, went even further in his personal criticism of Mr. Hagel when he told NPR last week that he believes Chuck Hagel seems to be an anti-Semite who has “some kind of problem with Jews.” And Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said last week that Hagel’s is “an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel.”
So there are really two things going on here. The first is the question of the suitability of Mr. Hagel to serve in such a prominent and influential post at this particular time in history, and what, if any, his issue is with the political activities of American Jews and the way those actions interface with American support for Israel. On top of this, are we off-base if we assume that Mr. Obama’s selection of Mr. Hagel to serve as defense secretary is reflective of what the president would like his policies to be over the next four years?
So, what is the worst-case scenario and what is it that motivates the president to make an appointment that will only serve to exacerbate an already volatile situation between Israel and her Arab neighbors? Amongst other things, it seems that for Barack Obama there is no end to the political gamesmanship and manipulative motivations. As we saw on the issue of tax increases and health-care coverage, it is routine for Mr. Obama to express a position on a matter and then go ahead and implement a policy that results in the exact opposite.
Despite much of the Arab world being anywhere from plain unstable to up in flames, the president and his advisers (like plenty of other presidents before him) can only seem to focus on the issue of Israel and her situation vis-à-vis the land that the country exists on. Despite the sad state of affairs in all too many countries around the world, it seems that this administration has no time or interest in anything but what Israel might do to protect itself from Iranian designs and what size homes are being built for Jews and the international status of the property they are being built upon.
Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon jumped into the fray on Monday when he said that it was all right for Palestinians to set up outposts on disputed land but not for Jews to do so. It’s an astounding position for any diplomat to take, but it really did not get a lot of attention. Now if he had said Jews had rights to the land and not the Arabs, this would have been a completely different matter.
So is Chuck Hagel dangerous for Israel if he wins the vote in the Senate and becomes the next U.S. defense secretary? He cannot be any more or less dangerous than President Obama himself is. After all, a cabinet secretary only does the bidding of the president, nothing more and nothing less. If anything is clear on these matters, it is not that Mr. Hagel and his contrarian foreign-policy ideas need be of concern, but rather that the question should be what the president’s designs for the U.S.–Israel relationship are.
The Hagel nomination and the fact of a second Obama administration probably impact more on the State of Israel than any other country in the world. Less than a week before Israelis go to the polls, speculation is rife as to what type of ruling coalition needs to be cobbled together by Mr. Netanyahu. The sentiments of the everyday Israeli seem to indicate the preference for a significantly right-leaning government. But unlike any other world government, in Israel the leader needs to keep at least one eye on what is expected of him by the U.S. as he seeks to put together a government to protect the people of Israel and their quality of life.
A Netanyahu government that includes himself, Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman, HaBayit HaYehudi’s Naftali Bennett, Shas, United Torah Judaism, and others who think along the lines of a strong Israel—that is, not considering indulging in an artificial and saccharin peace process—is not what the current administration wants to see.
They understand that Mr. Netanyahu is strong and popular and that he will be the next prime minister in Israel. The U.S., in the form of Mr. Obama and others who think like the president and Mr. Hagel, would prefer an Israeli government that includes the likes of Tzipi Livni of HaTenuah and Shelly Yachimovich of Labor. And that is because those two subscribe to the circular and meaningless rhetoric that flirts with the idea of removing settlements and dividing Jerusalem.
Does Washington understand that talk of that nature is just a lot of bluster without any concrete plan behind it? At this stage of the game it seems that there is little else expected from any of the parties except to engage in the talk of no more building in the territories and the creation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. And if all Washington wants is peace-loving oratory about two peoples living side by side and so on, Mr. Netanyahu may not be able to resist delivering that to them. The only drawback is that those providing the political wind gusts have designs on Mr. Netanyahu’s job.
All this will be played out over the next few weeks while Washington entertains and considers adding Chuck Hagel and his controversial views to the mix. There has to be significant pressure on the likes of New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and how they are going to vote on the nomination. Schumer, especially, is one of the highest-ranking Democrats in the Senate, with an unquestioned and dedicated commitment to Israel’s safety and security. He said after meeting with Hagel that he would support his nomination for the defense post. Asked whether he thought that Hagel was just making comments to win over support from the New York senator, Schumer said he does not believe that is the case and that Hagel recognizes the strategic importance of continued strong support by the U.S. for Israel.
On the matter of Hagel’s reference to AIPAC as “the Jewish lobby,” Schumer says that in his meeting with the nominee at the White House, Hagel said that he regretted making that remark.
On Tuesday the New York Times reported on comments by Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi from 2010 where he was recorded urging Egyptians to “nurse our children and grandchildren on hatred” for Jews and Zionists. He stated further, “The bloodsuckers who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers are the descendants of apes and pigs.”
It is now being said by both Egyptian and American officials that Morsi really didn’t mean what he said and that he now regrets making those remarks. Sure he does. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.