Chuck Hagel And Israel: The Wrong Question

by Mitchell Plitnick

Chuck Hagel is not exactly my kind of guy. Hagel is an old-school Conservative Republican and his voting record in the Senate lines up pretty well with that image. He was poor on civil rights, favored the rich in economic matters, generally opposed abortion, voted against campaign finance reform, and, despite later opposition, he voted for the Iraq War. Yet the dominant question around his still-only-rumored nomination for Secretary of Defense is how pro-Israel he is.

Hagel is a Realist who would have been quite comfortable on the foreign policy teams of Dwight Eisenhower or George H.W. Bush. Ironically for liberals and leftists, that conservative-Republican school is often much closer in practice to our foreign policy ideals than so-called liberal Democrats tend to be. But in 2012’s version of conservatism, that stance makes him a dangerous character. This is especially true with regard to the issue of US policy toward Israel, where Hagel, while certainly being far from a peace activist, advocates an interest-based, non-ideological approach.

And that is really the nub of the issue. Even for many defenders of Hagel’s nomination, the question of what is best for Israel is a central one. It seems obvious that when considering a Cabinet position in the US government, the questions should be confined to what is best for US interests, whatever each individual thinks those interests might be. But in the bizarre world of Washington around this issue, somehow that is not the case.

President Obama’s potential nomination of Hagel as his next Secretary of Defense can be a complicated question for advocates of Palestinian rights and a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Hagel represents, on this one issue, something close to the best attitude we could realistically hope for in the upper levels of Washington. He advocated that the US call for an immediate cease-fire in the 2006 war on Lebanon; he supports the US talking with Hamas; he opposed listing Hezbollah as a terrorist group so they could be spoken with openly; and he opposes military action against Iran. As far as they go, these are certainly positions most of us can agree with.

But they are also the positions that have brought sharp attacks on Hagel, and that’s not surprising; they are positions with which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vehemently disagrees. And what Bibi disagrees with, his friends in the so-called “Israel Lobby” in Washington will zealously attack. Thus, Hagel is anti-Israel, maybe even anti-Semitic.

The tactic is tried and true. AIPAC has remained notably silent on Hagel, allowing the attacks to come from the neoconservative circles, represented by Bill Kristol, Elliot Abrams and others of their ilk. It is a sad comment on the state of political discourse in the United States that, despite their monumental foreign policy failures during the George W. Bush administration, the neocons’ views are still given considerable weight in Washington. And against that weight is Barack Obama, who showed himself in his first term to be a weak leader who tries to avoid confrontation. A December 23 report in the National Journal indicated that Obama may be caving in to the pressure on Hagel.

This is distressingly familiar. In Obama’s first term, he nominated Chas Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council. Freeman, a critic of Israeli policies but, like Hagel, a supporter of Israeli security and the alliance (although not the “special relationship) between Israel and the United States, came under fierce attack and eventually withdrew from consideration for the post. The attacks on Freeman were initially based on his views on Israel, but later were organized as well around his “close relationship” with the Saudi government and a comment he made about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China, which was made in a private e-mail and, according to Freeman, taken out of context.

Hagel, too, has come under fire for other reasons, most notably a remark he made about the 1998 appointment of James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg, the first openly gay ambassador in US history. Hagel questioned the appointment, calling Hormel “openly and aggressively gay,” a remark which, as it should, angered LGBT folks everywhere. But Hagel has had fourteen years to reconsider his views, and in that time a lot of education has happened with many people. Hagel issued an apology and it is worth noting that James Hormel’s initial skepticism of the apology has received a great deal more media coverage than his subsequent statement that the apology was “significant.” Hormel, in a post on his Facebook page, said “I can’t remember a time when a potential presidential nominee apologized for anything. While the timing appears self-serving, the words themselves are unequivocal — they are a clear apology. Since 1998, fourteen years have passed, and public attitudes have shifted — perhaps Sen. Hagel has progressed with the times, too…Sen. Hagel stated in his remarks that he was willing to support open military service and LGBT military families. If that is a commitment to treat LGBT service members and their families like everybody else, I would support his nomination.”

The Human Rights Campaign also recognized Hagel’s apology as significant and closed the book on the issue, but that has not made it go away. No one in Washington, whatever they might say in public, believes the controversy over Hagel has anything to do with his beliefs on LGBT rights any more than anyone here believed that the controversy over Freeman had anything to do with China. This is all about Israel, and, more to the point, the far-right Likud agenda which drives not only the majority in the Knesset but virtually the entirety of the Israel Lobby in the United States.

It is worth noting that the tiny Log Cabin Republican organization suddenly came up with enough funding to take out a full page ad in the New York Times of December 27, denouncing Hagel as “wrong on gay rights, wrong on Israel, wrong on Iran.” It’s not much of a mystery where they got the money to do this.

The Wrong Response

Some have chosen to defend Hagel by arguing that “No, no, no. he really is pro-Israel.” There is some reason for optimism on this point, as one of the leading “liberal hawk” voices on Israel, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg defended Hagel on this basis. But voices that are expected to be more liberal on this issue have also used Hagel’s pro-Israel record as the basis for their defense of him. The Center for American Progress, which has, in the past couple of years, been purged of most of its most critical voices on this issue, came up with a list of pro-Israel statements by Hagel, and J Street, naturally, based its entire defense of Hagel on this point.

While there is certainly some merit to exposing the neocons’ distortions of Hagel’s record, in opposing their efforts by claiming Hagel is really pro-Israel only reinforces the idea that Israeli approval of top US officials is a worthy litmus test for such appointments. Of course, even the neocons won’t explicitly claim that US officials should meet Israeli/Israel Lobby approval, but in practice this is not only what they believe, in practice, it may not be absolute, but the Lobby’s voice on such appointments carries a great deal of weight.

This is not a left or right, peace or war issue. Peace and Palestine solidarity activists have no illusions about the potential for individuals who share our views to be appointed to Cabinet positions in the US government. But that hardly means we need to continue to tolerate an environment, which has persisted in Washington for too many years now, where a neoconservative view of the US-Israel relationship can, if not actually exercise a veto, make appointments to Cabinet posts very difficult if they don’t approve of the candidates.

This time, the Lobby’s actions have stirred some significant responses. Americans for Peace Now managed to oppose the smear campaign against Hagel without pleading his “pro-Israel” bona fides, but on the merits of his qualifications. So did a list of retired US diplomats, including several former Ambassadors to Israel. Andrew Sullivan launched a spirited attack on the neocons’ tactics here in the Daily Beast.

In the New York Times, Tom Friedman split the difference, both defending Hagel as being good for Israel and arguing that this is not the proper basis for deciding on a Secretary of Defense. Long-time Jewish affairs DC correspondent James Besser points to the cliff the Lobby is heading towards by taking shots at people like Hagel. On the other hand, the conservative Cato Institute also blasts the Lobby’s campaign against Hagel.

All of this adds up to a strong case for Obama to stand up and pick Hagel. Several Senators, most notably Republican Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have implied that Hagel would have a difficult road to confirmation. But the reality is that there is a great deal of backing for Hagel, he is well-respected in the Senate, Republicans would look very silly if they vote en masse against one of their own and Democrats will have a tough time opposing Obama on this. In other words, the reason the Lobby is going at this so hard now is that this is when Hagel is much more vulnerable.

This is a real opportunity to deal the Lobby a big loss. One doesn’t have to like Chuck Hagel to see the value in that.