It’s a different ballgame now.
After President Obama announced his selection of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, pro-Israel activists and mainstream Jewish groups toned down criticism of the controversial choice to lead the Pentagon, who analysts say is now a prohibitive favorite to win confirmation.
Most Jewish groups have made clear they will not lobby against Hagel’s confirmation in the Senate, leaving the floor for only smaller groups on the right wing of the Jewish community to attack the former Nebraska Senator as anti-Semitic and unfriendly to Israel.
The shift came as Obama transformed the Hagel fight by officially announcing his choice of Hagel to replace Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense. Obama also selected his counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan to head the CIA.
Obama portrayed Hagel as a hard-headed patriot who would think twice before putting Americans in harm’s way.
“Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction,” Obama said at the White House. “He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that’s something we only do when it’s absolutely necessary.”
With Hagel’s nomination made official, political analysts predict he will be confirmed by the Senate, despite what is bound to be a set of heated confirmation hearings.
Jewish activists were unhappy with the choice but fell in line with their traditional reluctance to challenge a president’s right to pick his cabinet members.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, widely seen as the lobbying group Hagel spoke about in his 2007 remarks referring to the “Jewish lobby” that has “intimidated lawmakers,” notably refrained from taking any stand, either public or private, regarding Hagel’s nomination.
“AIPAC does not take positions on presidential nominations,” said the lobby’s spokesman Marshall Wittmann in an email to the Forward. Capitol Hill sources confirmed that they had not heard from AIPAC on the issue.
“AIPAC’s perspective is that they need to work with the next defense secretary,” explained Steve Rosen, a former lobbyist with the group. “They can’t just look from a standpoint of how you feel about a nomination but also from the day after and how you learn to work with Hagel.” Rosen, who is a critic of Hagel, added that as Secretary of Defense, Hagel and his deputy and assistants will have significant influence on many issues the pro-Israel lobby deals with daily, including foreign aid, procurement, military cooperation and defense technology.
For those following the work of the pro-Israel lobby, this is standard procedure. AIPAC, both due to its bipartisan nature and because of its long term interest in working with top cabinet members involved in foreign policy and national security on issues relating to Israel, prefers to sit out on explosive debates of this kind.
Other Jewish groups have also relaxed their criticism, stressing the need to move forward rather than dwell on whether Hagel is worthy of the post. The Anti Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, in a statement issued Monday said that while Hagel would not have been his first choice, “I respect the President’s prerogative.”
Foxman told the Forward on Monday he did not change his views on Hagel, since he had never flat-out opposed the nomination.
“We never said we were going to fight him,” he said, adding that “from the moment that [Obama] announced it, this is a different reality.”
Foxman, who was widely referred to as the first Jewish leader to speak out against Hagel, stating that the Nebraska Senator’s comments on the Jewish lobby “border on anti-Semitism”, explained he did not accuse Hagel of being anti-Semitic. “In the world we live in, one cannot be nuanced,” he said.
The only mainstream Jewish group to actively address the Senate on Hagel has been the American Jewish Committee, which in a letter urged Senators to “fully probe” Hagel.
One veteran pro-Israel lobbyist noted that history has shown that early anxiety about candidates for cabinet positions has at times proven to be unfounded. Such was the case with George Schultz and with Warren Christopher, two former secretaries of state initially feared to be anti-Israel due to their business ties with the Arab world. Both turned out to be strong supporters of Israel. On the flip side, Casper Weinberger, a Reagan administration nominee that did not raise any concerns with the pro-Israel lobby, turned out to be the most problematic defense secretary in the eyes of Israelis and their supporters in the United States.
Hagel’s candidacy for the top Pentagon position was leaked to the press nearly a month ago, allowing critics to dominate the field before an official announcement was made. Over the weekend, the White House sprang into action, reaching out to Jewish leaders of major organizations in a set of phone calls informing them of the upcoming announcement. Calls were made by White House chief of staff Jack Lew, the administration’s most senior Jewish official who is well regarded by Jewish leaders, and by top advisors on the national security team including Denis McDounough, Tony Blinken and Ben Rhodes.
“We have an ongoing dialogue with the Jewish community on a range of issues, including this one,” said a White House official. “We continue to underscore that the President’s unprecedented support for Israel’s security will continue under the next Secretary of Defense.”
In the conversations, described by one Jewish activist as “a courtesy call,” members of the White House team spoke about Hagel’s qualities as a leader able to shape the Pentagon’s future and stressed that President Obama is the one who makes foreign policy decisions.
At the White House and among Senate Democrats, the feeling Monday was of guarded optimism, as they sensed Jewish objection to Hagel has significantly subsided. “At the end of the day,” said another White House official, “it seems as if folks walked up to the abyss, looked over, and decided that it is something they will not go to the mat for.”
The officials acknowledged, however, that confirmation hearings will be tough and that Hagel will be questioned on his views regarding Iran, Israel and Hamas. Hagel himself already launched his damage control campaign with an interview to the Lincoln Journal Star in which he vowed to “set the record straight” and to fight “falsehoods and distortions” about his record. He argued that there is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli.”
But the battle is far from being over. While the Jewish mainstream may have chosen a practical route of avoiding public criticism in order to ensure future relations with Hagel, groups on the right and left ends of the community are still deeply involved in the fight. Hagel has won ringing endorsements from J Street and Americans for Peace Now as well as a cautious and somewhat belated show of support from the National Jewish Democratic Council.
On the right, attacks on Hagel nomination only intensified following Obama’s formal announcement. Leading the pack were the Republican Jewish Committee and the Emergency Committee on Israel, which launched a website dedicated to taking on Hagel because of his positions regarding the Middle East.
“Tell your Senator Chuck Hagel is too extreme to be Secretary of Defense,” the Emergency Committee urges its supporters, conveniently offering a link with the senators’ contact information and suggested talking points, including: “Hagel’s history of making reckless, anti-Semitic and anti-gay remarks have drawn overwhelming fury from Jewish and gay-rights groups.”
“It is OK for Jewish groups to say they have concerns, but what they shouldn’t do is say that he is disqualified because one comment or another,” said Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at the Ploughshares Fund and a supporter of Hagel’s nomination. He noted, however, that an open discussion during the confirmation hearing on Hagel’s views on Israel should bring him to clarify his views.
“If done in a constructive way, they’ll have the ear of the next secretary of defense,” Rubin said.
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.