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Hagel, the Israel Lobby and Kerry’s Peace Bid

Chuck Hagel introduced at confirmation hearing by ex-Sen. Sam Nunn, Jan. 31, 2013. Image by Getty Images

The Daily Beast just posted a magazine-length article by yours truly looking back at the Chuck Hagel confirmation battle and the role (or lack thereof) of the Jewish community and the notorious “Israel lobby” in the affair.

What’s surprising about the whole affair, on close reexamination, is how absent the Jewish advocacy community was from the whole thing. It’s also critical for what it shows about the evolution and prospects of Secretary of State Kerry’s Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.

If the Republicans had hoped they could join forces with the vaunted Israel lobby to shoot down the president’s nominee, they learned that they were firing blanks. In retrospect, it’s apparent that the Israel lobby had never even shown up for the fight.

Looking back a half-year later, the entire episode might hardly be worth a second glance, except for this: the Hagel confirmation represents a crack in the decades-old working alliance between the Jewish pro-Israel advocacy community—the Israel lobby—and the Republican right. It’s just possible that the crack will prove wide enough for a secretary of state to drive a Middle East peace initiative through.

The article takes a particularly close look at Hagel’s January 31 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. To my mind, what went on there is a portrait in miniature of the evolving relationship between the Jewish community and the Republican Party:

Consider the scene that morning: Hagel, seated at the witness table, was flanked by two former committee chairmen, Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican John Warner. This in itself was irregular; by Senate custom, nominees are introduced at confirmation hearings by the two senators from their home state. But that couldn’t be arranged for Hagel. One of the Nebraskans, Mike Johanns, was an old friend and ally, but the other, the newly elected Deb Fischer, was barely on speaking terms with the nominee. When she first ran for the seat last fall, Hagel had endorsed her Democratic opponent, his old friend (and fellow Vietnam veteran) Bob Kerrey. As Hagel’s hearing began, Fischer sat in her newcomer’s seat near the end of the dais, glaring at him.

(L-R) Sens. Carl Levin, Jim Inhofe and John McCain at Chuck Hagel confirmation hearing, Jan. 31, 2013. Image by Getty Images

At the center of the dais, facing the nominee, sat the committee chair, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan. One of the chamber’s most senior members, he was also the longest-serving Jewish member and for decades the one most respected by his colleagues on matters of Israeli and Jewish community concern. It was his job to steer the nomination safely through the committee and out to the Senate floor. This he did deftly and with determination.

Sitting to Levin’s left was the committee’s ranking Republican, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. It was his job to lead the tough questioning from the minority. Before getting to questions, though, Inhofe announced that his own mind was already made up: he “would not be supporting his nomination.” His reasons: Hagel’s record on Israel, Iran and nuclear disarmament—and his “staunch” support for “the misguided policies of the president’s first term.” In effect, the president couldn’t have Hagel precisely because it was Hagel whom he wanted.

A devout, self-described “Christian Zionist,” Inhofe was also the closest thing the upper chamber had to an outright theocrat. He’d once called church-state separation the “largest hoax ever played on the American public” (to be precise, he’d called global warming “the second-largest hoax ever played on the American public, after separation of church and state”). In 1998 he sponsored a failed “religious freedom” amendment to the Constitution that, in the words of the Anti-Defamation League, threatened to “Christianize America” and “jeopardize the ability of non-Christians to live free of religious coercion.” To see Inhofe take the helm of a Republican-Jewish alliance to defend the honor and interests of the Jewish community was to understand, in effect, that no such alliance existed.

In fact, looking back over the Hagel confirmation battle from the beginning, it quickly becomes apparent that the Israel lobby was never in the fight—that is, if by Israel lobby we mean the network of mostly Jewish American organizations and influentials that defends Israel’s interests and advocates for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. On the contrary, the campaign was launched by a small group of Jewish Republican Party cutouts—ethnic party outreach arms, support groups and loyal media boosters. It grew to include broader Republican political circles, along with a small group of pro-Likud and pro-settler Jewish hard-liners. But except for a brief media flurry, the opposition never managed to engage the mainstream organizations that speak for American Jews and lobby on their behalf. The narrative that dominated the public debate, of a showdown between the Obama administration and the Israel lobby, was almost entirely fictional. …

Here’s my bottom line:

The White House showed what it can do when the president has his mind set on something. Moreover, the continuing antics of Republicans on Capitol Hill has deepened the alienation of Jewish voters. Jewish lobbyists and advocates who might think of getting in bed with Republican lawmakers to pressure the administration on foreign policy are thinking twice about how their members and donors will react.

It may be coincidence that Secretary of State John Kerry finally succeeded this spring where others before him have failed in softening Israel’s stance toward peace negotiations. But then again, nothing in Washington is coincidence.

But there’s lots more there. Worth a read, if I may say so…

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