Surprisingly little attention has been paid to former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s 2008 memoir, America: Our Next Chapter. In it, Hagel lays out his thoughts on a wide range of issues, including the Israel-Palestinian conflict and Iran, to which he devotes one chapter each. Hagel’s attempt to describe the origins and history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict reveals that he does not know the facts–and fills the void with anti-Israel bias.
Hagel identifies the origins of the conflict by claiming: “the Arab-Israeli standoff was first set in motion by the Balfour Declaration of 1919 promising the Jewish people a homeland and the Arabs their own independent states.” (68). That is not what the Balfour Declaration says. It refers only to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” with regard for the “civil and religious rights” of other communities.
The conflict arose not from the Balfour Declaration, but from the Palestinian Arabs’ utter rejection of any form of Jewish self-determination in the area–a rejection that became radicalized and violent under the influence of Palestinian leader (and Nazi collaborator) Hajj Amin Al-Husseini. Hagel’s revisionist history undermines the legitimacy of Israeli sovereignty in international law, while muting the extremism of the Palestinians’ response.
It is not the only time Hagel downplays Palestinian extremism. He blames the “lack of aid and investment” (81) to the Palestinians as the reason that Hamas took over Gaza in a violent coup in 2007. Not only do Palestinians receive a huge amount of international aid, but in Gaza Palestinians wasted and destroyed the aid and assistance they received, most notoriously in the case of donated greenhouses, which were looted.
Perhaps most disturbing of all–because of its implications for Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense–is his version of the Second Lebanon War. Hagel makes no secret of his opposition to the 2006 war, calling it an “overreaction” by Israel, and describing Israeli attacks on terrorist positions and weapons caches as “relentless aerial bombardment of Lebanon for twenty-six straight days” (78), as if Israel had bombed indiscriminately.
Hagel calls Israel’s response a “military retaliation,” making no military or moral distinction between Hezbollah and Hamas rocket attacks against civilians on the one hand, and Israeli attacks on terrorists on the other. He also calls Israel’s response “disproportionate,” a term that has a specific meaning in the international law of war, which Hagel either does not understand or deliberately misinterprets to delegitimize Israel’s self-defense.
In international law, an attack is described as “proportionate” if it has a legitimate military purpose and if the amount of force used does not exceed what is necessary to achieve that purpose. In the propaganda battle waged against Israel at the time, however, critics claimed Israel was using “disproportionate” force simply because it was more effective at killing the enemy (who happened to be hiding, illegally, among civilians).
There is one other meaning of the term “disproportionate,” and it is specific to the U.S. armed forces. In the wake of the Gulf War in 1991, General Colin Powell (now one of Hagel’s vocal supporters) established what became known as the Powell Doctrine. It dictated that in the very limited circumstances where military force ought to be used, it should be “disproportionate” to the force used by the enemy, in order to ensure victory.
If Hagel does not believe in the legitimacy of military responses to terror, or rejects the use of overwhelming force when necessary, he ought to be disqualified from serving as Secretary of Defense. If he rejects the use of such force only when it is carried out by Israel in self-defense, then he has an anti-Israel bias that cannot be overcome by a conciliatory letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) or a pleasant meeting with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY).
What is clear is that Hagel does not understand the origins and legitimacy of Israel any better than President Barack Obama does. The president alarmed Israelis in his Cairo speech to the Muslim world in 2009 when he described Israel as if it were created to compensate for the Holocaust. He ignored the ancient and continuous Jewish connection to Israel, as well as the nation-building efforts of Zionist pioneers prior to World War II.
President Obama recently told pro-Israel activists: “I have Israel’s back.” Yet he has undone that commitment by nominating Chuck Hagel. In the darkest hour of the Second Lebanon War, Hagel chose to join the chorus of anti-Israel criticism rather than standing up for Israel’s sovereign right of self-defense. Two years later, in his memoir, Hagel made it clear why: he believes, falsely, that Israeli sovereignty is the root of the problem.