A number of Jewish community activists are sending warning signals to the White House about a leading candidate to become President Obama’s choice for the next Secretary of Defense.
Former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, who reportedly is President Obama’s top pick for replacing Leon Panetta at the Pentagon, has a long record of tensions with the pro-Israel community. And now, after a period of rumblings below the surface, a high-profile Jewish communal leader has fired off a strong salvo in opposition to Hagel’s prospective selection.
“Chuck Hagel would not be the first, second, or third choice for the American Jewish community’s friends of Israel,” Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman told Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin December 18. “His record relating to Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship is, at best, disturbing, and at worst, very troubling. The sentiments he’s expressed about the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism in the genre of professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, and former president Jimmy Carter.”
Foxman’s comments follow several attacks on Hagel from Jewish activists on the right of the political spectrum, such as Noah Pollack of the Emergency Committee for Israel, as the possibility of his nomination has emerged. But even beyond the hardcore right-wing, Hagel has not been viewed as a strong supporter on issues of concern to many who align with the positions taken by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the large, establishment pro-Israel lobby.
Media reports are full of examples of his departures from AIPAC’s views: Hagel opposed Senate legislation toughening sanctions on Iran; he called for increasing efforts to negotiate with Tehran; and, in general, refrained from supporting the use of sanctions as a means to pressure other nations.
The Hagel doctrine, as far as such a doctrine exists, views engagement as the most important diplomatic tool. He is also a harsh critic of using American military power for the purpose of “nation building,” a hot button issue a decade ago that now seems to be off the table.
On the website for his book, The Much Too Promised Land, Aaron David Miller, a top Middle East advisor to four presidential administrations, offers an interview with Hagel in which the former senator says, “The political reality is that… the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.” Hagel then gives an account of a meeting he had in New York with a group of supporters of Israel who were, he said, pushing the United States to attack Iran. When a couple of participants said he wasn’t supportive enough of Israel, Hagel replied, “Let me clear something up here if there’s any doubt in your mind. I’m a U.S. Senator. I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a U.S. Senator. I support Israel… But my first interest is, I take an oath to the constitution of the United States. Not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel.”
Hagel is an independent not only on issues relating to Iran. In 2009, after leaving the Senate, the Republican politician, who has often broken with his party on foreign affairs, signed a letter urging the administration to open talks with Hamas, a U.S.-designated terror organization ruling the Gaza Strip.
“It is a matter of fact that his record on these issues puts him well outside the mainstream Democratic and Republican consensus,” Josh Block, CEO of The Israel Project and a former AIPAC spokesman told the Daily Beast. Other anonymous Jewish sources were all over the web blasting Hagel’s potential nomination, but only few spoke on record. The Republican Jewish Coalition was quick to denounce Hagel, despite his party affiliation, calling his possible nomination “a slap in the face for every American who is concerned about the safety of Israel” while the National Jewish Democratic Council did not take a stand. J Street has thus far been the only Jewish group to express support for the nomination. Hagel was a keynote speaker at J Street’s first Gala event.
But the clear displeasure among mainstream Jewish groups will not necessarily translate into action aimed at torpedoing Hagel’s nomination, if and when announced. AIPAC has always been careful not to publically confront high-level nominations (even when policy expert Chas Freeman was nominated for head of the National Intelligence Council, AIPAC did not openly lobby against him, leaving the field for other activists.) It is also not clear if the Jewish community will be united in any effort to thwart Hagel’s nomination. In 2007 Hagel was invited to speak at the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and, according to reports received a warm welcome and was showered with compliments.
With Jewish Democratic members of Congress expected to support the nomination (Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services committee already gave his blessing) and without a major effort led by AIPAC, it could be difficult for opponents of the Hagel nomination to make inroads beyond the community’s right-wing circles.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was 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.