Grass roots activists from the country’s most well-known pro-Israel group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), are voicing increasing frustration at the organization's passive approach to President Barack Obama’s nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) as Secretary of Defense.
Hagel has taken a number of positions highly critical of Israel and accommodating towards Iran. He has also attacked the so-called “Jewish lobby” in the past, and famously said: "I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator." The Anti-Defamation League called the remarks and their meaning "borderline anti-Semitic."
In the days following Hagel’s nomination, despite reports of AIPAC’s neutrality, several sources indicated that they expected AIPAC to lobby members of the Senate quietly. It is now apparent that AIPAC will not engage on the issue.
AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittman would not comment in detail except to note: “Our position remains the same as it always has been. AIPAC does not take positions on presidential nominations.”
AIPAC has over 100,000 members across the country, and individual members of AIPAC with ties to lawmakers who may be reaching out to the Hill are doing so not on behalf of the organization. However, one disappointed source informed Breitbart News that prominent AIPAC donors with close ties to Democrats in the Senate had not been asked to call their contacts on Capitol Hill to urge a “no” vote.
The lack of public opposition by AIPAC has led to increasing frustration among AIPAC’s more hawkish members, and to cheers from Israel’s loudest critics in Washington.
MJ Rosenberg, a former foreign policy analyst for Media Matters who left after coming under criticism for antisemitic rhetoric, wrote a glowing column for Al Jazeera: “Obama defeats the Israel lobby.” The Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart predicted that AIPAC would emerge “among the big losers” in the confirmation fight as it was “outflanked” by new and more aggressive groups.
Conservatives have, indeed, led the way in criticizing AIPAC’s apparent acquiescence, noting that its bipartisan strategy is threatened by the increasing prominence of anti-Israel criticism among Democrats and the left in general. Defeating Hagel would require support from Democrats, but they have increasingly fallen in line behind the President, with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, typically a pro-Israel hawk, delivering his conditional support last week in a statement released detailing a meeting with Hagel in which he expressed views quite different than his previous statements and record in the Senate.
Hagel has yet to address a statement some have seen as a justification of Palestinian terrorism, in which he told the Associated Press that he blamed Israel for the impasse in the peace process, adding, "desperate men do desperate things...that is where the Palestinians are today." Asked about the remarks by David Gregory on NBC's Meet the Press, former Secretary of State Colin Powell refused to adress the comments, saying that he does not believe in moral equivalency and suggesting Gregory ask Hagel what he meant.
Nominations are also seen as tough fights, since the Senate is traditionally reluctant to turn down presidential picks for senior Cabinet posts. Nonetheless, major opposition has emerged among Senate Republicans, and several Democrats have yet to express support for Hagel.
Looking beyond AIPAC's stated policy of lobbying for or against Presidential nominations, another possible explanation for AIPAC’s passive approach is that in the event Israel attacks Iran on its own, AIPAC would likely wish to lobby the administration to assist Israel with logistics and re-supply efforts. It may, therefore, be keeping its powder dry--and keeping its connections open with the White House.
Meanwhile, pro-Israel activists have been left to wonder at its silence.