Hagel and Israel: Looking back, looking ahead

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Credit: Monica A. King.

WASHINGTON, DC—For former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, who came under heavy criticism from some Jewish groups and from legislators on both sides of the political spectrum for his record on Israel during a historically tight battle for confirmation, an official security relationship with the Jewish state now begins.

Despite an attempted filibuster by members of his own Republican party, Hagel garnered enough bipartisan support to be confirmed as Secretary of Defense in a 58-41 Senate vote last week. No previous defense secretary, however, had been confirmed with more than 11 opposing votes.

Criticized for saying “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” in Washington, DC in an interview with former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller for Miller’s 2008 book, The Much Too Promised Land, Hagel apologized for that comment in a letter to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), which had been critical of Hagel when he was being considered for the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board in 2009, accepted his apology as sincere.

Miller told JNS.org that he did not expect the ensuing controversy when Hagel referenced the “Jewish lobby” during their interview, because he knew Hagel “was one of the more honest, outspoken members of Congress.”

“And that kind of clarity and honesty—and I interviewed many members of Congress for that book—you just don’t find,” Miller said Sunday at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference. “So what struck me about that, it was Hagel’s honesty. And he regrets now using the word ‘Jewish lobby.’ I don’t use it because it’s inexact, and it shuts people down, and since my job is about addition rather than subtraction, I’m not interested in not having people listen to me.”

“But no, I didn’t think, ‘Whoa, this is some sort of extraordinary hot scoop [when Hagel made his comment],’” Miller added.

Chuck Hagel in Iraq. Credit: Lance Cpl. Casey Jones.

Some of Hagel’s critics call him “soft” on Iran, interpreting his position on the Islamic Republic as inherently dangerous both to the United States and Israel as Iran moves closer to attaining nuclear capability. In his Senate confirmation hearing, Hagel mistakenly supported a U.S. Iran policy of “containment,” and the Atlantic Council think tank he chaired last December published a policy paper predicting that Iran “should be viewed as a potential natural partner” for the U.S.

JNS.org spoke with several pro-Israel leaders who looked back on the Hagel confirmation fight and ahead to his tenure as Secretary of Defense, and what that tenure might mean for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Christians United for Israel (CUFI) had brought more than 400 activists to Capitol Hill to lobby against Hagel’s confirmation.

“It was an uphill battle, one we were likely to lose,” David Brog, CUFI’s executive director, told JNS.org. “We thought it worth fighting because we believed the effort would have an influence by drawing a line, brightly and clearly, regarding what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.”

Brog said, “Those lines are now drawn both for the Secretary of Defense and the administration and for Congress as well.”

“The brighter the lines, the easier it will be to recognize if they are ever crossed,” he said. “Everyone is on notice in DC and ready and watching.”

Is Brog concerned that concerned that the efforts of CUFI and other pro-Israel groups to oppose Hagel’s confirmation will negatively impact the U.S.-Israel relationship? He responded with another question.

“Is Hagel willing to subvert the best interest of his country with a personal vendetta?” Brog asked.

“I have no reason to believe he would be so petty as to dismiss the greater interest of his country… CUFI debated only about policy,” he said. “We never called out his personal beliefs: it was an exercise of freedom of speech, well within the American tradition… There is a difference between CUFI’s principled opposition and the opposition of others who went further than evidence permitted.”

Kenneth Bialkin, chairman of the America Israel Friendship League (AIFL), told JNS.org that political commentary is “not a subject of the AIFL mission,” and instead offered his personal point of view on Hagel.

“We move on and hope for the best,” he said.  

Bialkin noted that the friendship between the U.S. and Israel “is grounded on solid principles.”

“We have a long history of shared interests, [the relationship] has great depth and a common philosophy,” he said. “I think we have to look forward toward a continuation of that and should do everything we can to deepen and strengthen that relationship.”

Asked if he expected policy changes amid Hagel’s confirmation, Bialkin responded, “Both the President and the new Secretary of Defense have assured everyone that nothing will change. There is no reason to expect otherwise."

“People are free to express their points of view and air their opinions,” Bialkin said. “Now that the voting has occurred, we pitch in together and go forward.”

Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), was strongly opposed to Hagel’s nomination in the public sphere and claims he was told to “sit down and shut up” about the topic, but refuses to identify who told him to do so.

“I can’t say [who told me to be silent about Hagel],” Klein told JNS.org. “It was a private conversation—they are people you would know in a minute.

“They told me I’m making it a Jewish issue—which is bad for the Jews,” he said.

“We’re in this business to promote Jewish interests,” Klein said, adding, “Too many Jewish organizations have forgotten their mission and feel it more important to maintain access for access sake.”

Klein believes Hagel’s confirmation “would not have been a done deal” if Jewish organizations had joined together in stronger opposition to the nomination.

Hagel “showed enormous incompetence” during his confirmation hearing and “lacked an understanding of the issue,” according to Klein.

B’nai B’rith International, in a Feb. 21 statement (before Hagel’s confirmation), said it is “troubled that Hagel, during his confirmation hearings, undermined the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” The group also noted that Hagel “underestimates the threat of the Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah.”

“Hagel was in the minority when 88 of his then-Senate colleagues called on the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization,” B’nai B’rith said.

Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) founder Sarah Stern, in an op-ed for Israel National News, wrote that Hagel was “unable to explain away the clear contradictions between his past positions and his current positions” when questioned on those positions during the confirmation hearing.

“His poor performance is suggestive that he was far from convinced of the merits of the arguments he was proposing, and was instead merely exhibiting a clear case of ‘confirmation conversion,’” Stern wrote. “His hearing performance proved embarrassing even for many Hagel supporters.”

The NJDC, offering its congratulations to Hagel following his confirmation last week, said, “We were encouraged by and applaud Senator Hagel’s statements during the nomination process in strong support of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and against a policy of containment as well as his clear understanding of the importance of achieving the two-state solution. We know Secretary Hagel will support President Obama on these issues that are critically important to the Jewish community.”

Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said Israel “looks forward to working closely” with Hagel.

“Under the Obama administration, security ties between the United States and Israel have been superb,” Oren said. “We are fully confident that those bonds will grow stronger still as our countries continue to meet common challenges to our security.”

—With reporting by Jacob Kamaras

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Posted on March 4, 2013 and filed under Israel, News, U.S..