Why Israel is Worried: The Case Against Hagel

Why Israel is Worried: The Case Against Hagel

Pro-Israel Democrats who have, in the past, defended President Obama have been able to cite continued close cooperation between the U.S. and Israel on defense issues. With former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) presiding at the Pentagon, that may change. 

That is specially so since Hagel is expected to preside over reductions in the size and strength of the military. Weapons systems, such as those the U.S. is developing with Israel, tend to be easier to cut than personnel.

Israel is certainly worried: news of Hagel’s nomination led hourly news on Israel’s Army Radio on Jan. 7. ABC News reported that Israeli officials placing their hope in the idea that “one person doesn’t determine policy.”

Yet in the Obama administration, one person does determine policy, to an almost unprecedented degree–namely, President Obama himself. And Obama’s troubled record on Israel is cause for concern. Indeed, his choice of Hagel threatens to make support for Israel a wedge issue between the political parties, unless pro-Israel Democrats find the courage to challenge Hagel’s candidacy.

(In that sense, Hagel’s nomination is a reminder of why Washington remains divided: because President Obama keeps insisting on dividing it.)

The best attack against Hagel’s views on Israel was made by Democrats–specifically, by the National Jewish Democratic Council, which blasted Hagel’s “Questionable Israel Record” in 2007. 

Now that President Barack Obama has nominated Hagel as his new Secretary of Defense, the NJDC is scrambling to defend Hagel by citing what it calls President Obama’s “unquestionable” pro-Israel credentials.

Leaving aside that bit of circular reasoning, there is actually a case for Hagel on Israel, albeit a weak and ultimately futile one. It is this: that Hagel consistently voted for foreign aid for Israel; that while he opposed sanctions on Iran, he voted for softer measures, such as the Iran Nonproliferation Act; that while he refused to pressure Palestinian leaders to stop terror, he cosponsored legislation to promote Palestinian democracy.

The problem for Hagel, as Democrats once pointed out, is that these few exceptions are overwhelmed by the many cases in which he stood outside the bipartisan consensus of support for Israel and opposition to Israel’s enemies–especially Hamas, Hizbollah, and the Iranian regime. 

When Hagel claims that he has not taken “one vote that matters that hurt Israel,” he is telling the truth–or a version of it, depending partly on what “matters.” The reality is that votes on legislation are a poor way to judge legislators on Israel, because so few bills are directly relevant, and those that are tend to be noncontroversial.

That is why pro-Israel groups like AIPAC employ other means to put legislators on the record, such as congressional resolutions or bipartisan letters to the administration on key policy issues. 

That is where Hagel’s record is at its worst. With a few exceptions, Hagel opted not to co-sponsor or sign onto straightforward statements supporting Israel.

The worst and most inexplicable omission was Hagel’s refusal to co-sign a letter to President Bill Clinton in October 2000 expressing solidarity with Israel as it absorbed the violence and shock of a new Palestinian intifada. (The only other refusals were Sens. Abraham (R-MI) and Gregg (R-NH), both representing states with large Arab-American communities, as well as the late Sen. Byrd (D-WV), a persistent critic of Israel.) 

Hagel was also one of only five Senators not to sign a subsequent letter initiated by then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) calling for a re-evaluation of relations with the Palestinian Authority.

Hagel has defended his failure to support “certain resolutions and letters” by contending that they were “counter-productive and didn’t solve a problem.” 

Yet he did not apply that policy to all such “resolutions and letters.” 

Hagel co-signed a letter to President-elect Obama during the Gaza War of 2008-9, urging him to seek dialogue with Hamas, even as the Palestinian terror group was raining rockets into Israel, desperately trying to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible. Hamas has not moderated its demands or methods since then, and continues to reject direct talks with Israel, as well as Israel’s right to exist.

What “matters” most may be Hagel’s position on Iran–the most consistent feature of Hagel’s foreign policy record, including his voting record in the Senate. 

Hagel repeatedly opposed sanctions on Iran and other rogue regimes, including Libya and Cuba. One reason was political: Hagel’s rural constituents in agricultural Nebraska wanted to sell food to foreign markets. Yet another reason for Hagel’s position was philosophical: a belief that isolating anti-American regimes would alienate them further.

Hagel began taking that position to an extreme as he shifted his position on the Iraq War, which he voted for and then opposed. In 2007, for example, Hagel wrote to President Bush urging direct negotiations with Iranian leaders. By then, the absurdity of engaging the Tehran regime was apparent to all but the far left. Yet it was the same position then-Sen.Obama backed (“without preconditions“) in a presidential debate that July (and which he and adviser Susan Rice spent the rest of the campaign denying.)

That shared enthusiasm for negotiations above all else, born out of shared opposition to the Bush administration’s newly interventionist foreign policy, is the basis for Obama and Hagel’s shared worldview.

(There is little other common ground: Hagel voted for the big defense budgets he will now have to cut; he backed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; and he opposed abortions for female members of the armed forces in military facilities.)

Hagel’s antipathy towards “neoconservatives” also provides the context for his infamous complaint in 2006 about the “Jewish lobby.” Opponents of the Iraq War had begun pointing to a so-called “Jewish lobby” or “Israel lobby” (the term preferred by professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, who popularized the phrase that year) that had allegedly taken control of the administration and pressured the U.S. to go to war in Iraq. 

For Hagel, as for the left, opposition to Bush’s foreign policy became an end in itself. He had argued in 2000 against an “arbitrary” deadline for withdrawing troops from Kosovo, yet in 2007 he backed Democratic efforts to impose such a deadline for withdrawing troops from Iraq. 

It is because of Hagel’s fight against the “neoconservatives” that he became a hero to the left, as well as a mentor for Obama during the latter’s brief sojourn on Capitol Hill.

Obama opposed the “neoconservatives”–but also seems to have admired them, rather grudgingly, for having created an alternative set of policy ideas that was ready at an opportune moment. Obama has expressed similar respect for Reagan, whom he disliked but who reset the framework of political debate for decades. 

That is a model for what Obama hopes to do–namely, to shift American policy debates radically leftward.

With regard to Israel, for example, Obama has already created new preconditions for talks that exceed what even the Palestinians themselves had hoped to demand, such as a freeze in construction in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem that happen to lie across the old 1949-1967 armistice line. He has worked in tandem with the radical J Street lobby to build support for his positions in Congress and the media.

That is precisely why critics of Israel have greeted Hagel’s nomination with enthusiasm. Andrew Sullivan, for example, has been willing to dismiss the controversy over Hagel’s anti-gay statements and applaud his nomination as a blow to the “Greater Israel lobby.”

The Hagel nomination must be considered alongside Obama’s other two foreign policy picks: John Kerry as Secretary of State, and John Brennan for the Central Intelligence Agency. Kerry has a habit of coddling America’s enemies; Brennan, despite pursuing the Bush-Obama drone program, has a soft spot for jihadist Islam. 

Hagel is particularly important to this triumvirate because he is a Republican, creating a false sense of bipartisan consensus around Obama’s unorthodox approach. Indeed, his nomination may have been in the works for a long time. Hagel is the subject of a new book, for instance, to be published in July, entitled Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward. One blurb comes from John Podesta, the left’s key policy architect in Washington, D.C.

All three have weak policy records; Middle East expert Barry Rubin calls them “stupid.”

Yet they were chosen because they share Obama’s vision for a humbler, noninterventionist America, in spite of the lessons of 9/11, and in spite of the security consequences for Israel and other U.S. allies.


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