Potential defense secretary under fire for record on Israel

Click photo to download. Caption: Former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, potentially the next Secretary of Defense. Credit: U.S. Senate.
Click photo to download. Caption: Former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, potentially the next Secretary of Defense. Credit: U.S. Senate.

The front-runner to become President Barack Obama’s new Secretary of Defense continues to come under fire from Democrats and Republicans alike for what critics call a record that is unsupportive of Israel.

The candidate, former U.S. senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), currently chairs the Atlantic Council think tank, which on Dec. 11 published a column titled “Israel’s Apartheid Policy” (

“Chuck Hagel’s dismal record on issues affecting the Middle East stands in sharp contrast to the stated policies of our nation and he would be the wrong choice for America’s next Secretary of Defense,” U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) said in a statement.

Hagel in 2008 infamously said the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people here [in Washington, DC],” and is still drawing condemnation for that statement four years later. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said Tuesday that he knows of no “Jewish lobby” and hopes Hagel “would identify who that is,” the Weekly Standard reported. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said Hagel will “have to answer” for his Jewish lobby comment if nominated for defense secretary.

“I don’t agree with that statement [by Hagel],” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said, according to the Weekly Standard. “If he is nominated, there’ll be a hearing. His entire public record and all his public pronouncements will be reviewed as a part of that process. And we’ll move on from there.”

Hagel is co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and serves on the Secretary of Defense’s Policy Board, and while in the senate was part of the Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees. When Hagel was being considered for the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board appointment in 2009, Ira Forman—then executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), and in 2012 the Obama campaign’s Jewish Outreach Director—opposed the move.

“If [Hagel] was taking a policy role, we’d have real concerns,” Forman said at the time, according to the Washington Free Beacon.

NJDC also doubted Hagel’s credentials in 2007, when the senator was considering a run for president, saying he “has a lot of questions to answer about his commitment to Israel.”

Hagel has taken a “long list of actions” exhibiting his “failure to support Israel,” the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) said Dec. 14. Choosing him for Secretary of Defense would be “a slap in the face for every American who is concerned about the safety of Israel,” RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks said in a statement.

RJC pointed to a number of letters signed by most other senators, but not Hagel: an August 2006 letter asking the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization (12 senators did not sign), a November 2001 letter asking President George W. Bush not to meet Yasser Arafat until Arafat took steps to end violence against Israel (11 senators did not sign), and an October 2000 letter in support of Israel (four senators did not sign).

A letter Hagel did sign in March 2009 urged Obama to directly negotiate with Hamas, RJC added.

The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) expressed concern over a September 2011 interview Hagel gave the Financial Times, in which he said: “The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated … so I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.”

JINSA also noted Hagel’s recent statement that the U.S. has “minimal ability to influence the outcomes” in Egypt or Syria, adding that he called for the Arab League, rather than the U.S. or NATO, to lead possible military intervention in Syria.

“Given the turmoil in the Middle East and the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, Hagel’s views on this critical region are particularly alarming,” JINSA said.

Hagel took a direct shot at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in 2008, telling former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller, in a quote that appeared in Miller’s book, The Much Too Promised Land, that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” in Washington. Hagel has also said he is “a United States senator, not an Israeli senator.”

Hagel’s criticisms of the U.S.-Israel relationship have drawn praise from Stephen Walt, co-author of The Israel Lobby—a 2007 book Walt wrote with John Mearsheimer that has been panned by critics as prime fodder for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In an online post for Foreign Policy, Walt counted the following among his top five reasons that Hagel should be chosen as defense secretary: “Unlike almost all of his former colleagues on Capitol Hill, he hasn’t been a complete doormat for the Israel lobby.” Walt also commended Hagel for the fact that he is and he is “generally thought to be skeptical about the use of military force against Iran.” While serving as a senator, Hagel once called a military strike against Iran “not a viable, feasible, responsible option.”

Additionally, Walt used his endorsement of Hagel to slam Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and vouch for a conspiracy theory about Israel’s involvement in November’s American elections, writing of a Hagel appointment: “And what better way for Obama to pay back Benjamin Netanyahu for all the ‘cooperation’ Obama received from him during the first term, as well as Bibi’s transparent attempt to tip the scale for Romney last fall?”

Former Democratic New York City Mayor Ed Koch told The Algemeiner that Hagel “would be a terrible appointment” because it would convey the message to the Arab Obama is seeking “to put space between Israel and his administration.”

Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, wrote in an op-ed that Hagel “has accrued a record on Capitol Hill as an apologist for Iran and anti-Israel terrorist groups and for relentless hostility to Israel.”

Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary magazine, wrote that the potential Hagel appointment “is not so much about Hagel as it is about Obama.”

“Putting a man with [Hagel’s] views about Israel and its enemies in charge at the Pentagon gives the lie to the election-year Jewish charm offensive that helped the president win re-election,” Tobin wrote. “The sounds of celebrating among Israel’s American foes as well as in Tehran makes it clear that any idea that this president will go to the mat on Iran was wishful thinking on the part of Jewish Democrats.”

U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (R-RI), however, defended the former Nebraska senator’s appointment on the basis of his time as a Vietnam veteran.

“Chuck Hagel has the experience as a combat veteran with two purple hearts and an understanding that the decisions that are made in Washington ultimately are carried out by young men and women across the globe,” Reed told Politico. “That is a very important intellectual, emotional asset.”

Some Jewish Democrats in the Senate either defended Hagel’s candidacy or said it was too soon to rush to judgment on him.U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Hagel would be “very well-qualified” for defense secretary, despite his disagreement with Hagel’s “Jewish lobby” comment.

U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said they have questions about Hagel, but that it is too soon to say whether or not they would support his nomination, The Hill reported.

Additionally, a Hagel appointment “should be welcomed by anyone frustrated by years of war and foreign meddling, and out-of-control spending at the Pentagon,” Christopher Preble—vice president of the Cato Institute think tank—wrote in a Dec. 13 online post. Hagel “understands war, and doesn’t take it lightly,” according to Preble.

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