U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is set to visit Israel later this month for the first time since taking office, Army Radio reported.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak held talks at the Pentagon today on issues including Syria and Iran, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said.
It was Hagel’s first meeting with a foreign counterpart since he took office as secretary of defense.
During today’s meeting with Barak, Hagel expressed his strong commitment to Israel’s security, including maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge and continued U.S. support for missile and rocket defense systems in spite of fiscal constraints, Little said.
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 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.
Jewish groups are seconding the call of Senate Republicans for further review of defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, whose controversial past comments on Israel continue to be unearthed, before a final vote is held on his confirmation.
A 58-40 Senate vote on February 14 delayed a final yes or no vote on the former Nebraska senator’s appointment. Sixty votes were needed to proceed.
The Washington Free Beacon reported last week that Hagel said the U.S. State Department “is an adjunct to the Israeli Foreign Minister’s office” during a 2007 speech at Rutgers University, a remark that alarmed major Jewish groups.
Roz Rothstein, CEO of the pro-Israel education group StandWithUs — which first expressed its concern about Hagel in a Jan. 9 statement — tells JNS.org that Hagel’s comment at Rutgers “implies that he may buy into very troublesome ideology that accuses Jews of controlling the government, the media, and so on.”
“One would expect that this raises a red flag, so I am sure he will be given an opportunity to explain exactly what he was thinking when he made such an egregious statement,” Rothstein said.
The American Jewish Committee (AJC) is now joining the chorus of those publicly expressing their concern about Hagel.
“Chuck Hagel has served this country, and his state, with distinction, as we have had the privilege to tell him in person,” AJC Executive Director David Harris said. “But in light of his complex record in the Senate and controversial statements he has made since his public service on strategic and political affairs — notably grappling with the range of pressing Middle East issues — AJC believes that further Senate deliberation is called for before any final vote is taken.”
Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) Executive Director Matthew Brooks demanded a response from Hagel to his Rutgers comment, saying, “Senate Republicans are right to insist that final action on this nomination not be rushed.” Hagel previously came under fire after the revelation of 2008 remarks to Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller that “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here (on Capitol Hill).”
AJC’s Harris said regarding Hagel’s controversial comments, “we feel it especially important that Senator Hagel be given a full opportunity to clear the air, so that the Senate can have a more thorough picture of the nominee’s views.”
The AJC’s warning on Hagel is a sign that mainstream Jewish groups—not just partisan groups such as the RJC—are increasingly concerned about Hagel.
“AJC is a strictly non-partisan organization,” Harris said. “We speak up now only out of concern for policies we deem vital to our nation and central to our organizational mission.”
Before the AJC’s statement, Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) President Mort Klein last week called out Jewish groups, including the AJC, for not only declining to publicly oppose Hagel’s nomination, but also contacting him personally to stop ZOA’s opposition of the nomination because making Hagel a “Jewish issue” is “bad for the Jews,” the Jerusalem Post reported.
“I was called by major Jewish leaders, personally called, and [they] told me to stop our campaign against Hagel,” Klein told the Post.
Klein says Jewish organizations had been slow to express concern about Hagel publicly because they are “frightened of making an issue seem more important to Jews than others.” He said “AJC, AIPAC, ADL [and] the Conference of Presidents never came out and said we oppose this man [Hagel] because he is horrible on Iran, he is horrible on terrorism, horrible on Israel, horrible on fighting radical Islam.” AJC, then, made its statement on Hagel on Feb. 15.
Hagel chairs the Atlantic Council think tank, which in December published a column titled “Israel’s Apartheid Policy” as well as a policy paper predicting that Iran “should be viewed as a potential natural partner” for the U.S. He did not sign various pro-Israel letters backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) while he served in the Senate, but did sign a 2009 letter asking Obama to directly negotiate with Hamas. But in his Senate confirmation hearing, Hagel said, “No one individual vote, no one individual quote or no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record.”
If true, the newly revealed 2007 comment by Hagel that the U.S. State Department “is an adjunct to the Israeli Foreign Minister’s office” is “part of a very troubling pattern with Chuck Hagel,” according to RJC’s Brooks.
“We continue to believe that America can do better than Chuck Hagel and that the Senate should reject this nomination, but at the very least, Senator Hagel needs to address this report before the Senate can responsibly vote whether to confirm him,” Brooks said.
Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense is already coming under a lot of attack – especially from those who are concerned that he may turn his back on Israel. Now, a video from comments he made during a book tour in Nebraska in 2008 puts him back in the hot seat.
Hagel tells his audience of his concerns – not that Iran might attack Israel with nuclear weapons – but that Israel might attack Iran.
“If Israel gets backed up enough into a corner,” Hagel said, “and Israel uses a tactical theater nuclear weapon, ah, you want to talk about seeing some things unravel in the world.”
By ALAN EISNER
The furor that has surrounded the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be President Obama’s secretary of defense has shed a searing light on the way some political lobbies operate these days in Washington.
Some seem to take their cue from a classic Monty Python sketch,“Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition!” In that immortal skit, a cardinal lists his main weapons in exposing heretics as “fear, surprise and ruthless efficiency … and an almost fanatical devotion to the pope.”
The United States has entered a period of hyper-partisan politics dominated by powerful interest groups which herd politicians into obedience using both carrots and sticks. The carrots are political support, campaign dollars and the promise of a quiet life with no anxiety about losing their seats. The stick is fear, pure and simple.
Like the Catholic Church in the era of the Inquisition, today’s big political lobbies are united by their insistence on ideological purity and total loyalty to their causes, whether domestic or foreign, economic or social.
When it comes to Israel, the standard is simple. Either, politicians lend their support to almost every action the Israeli government takes or they risk being labeled as untrustworthy. The thinking seems to be, “You are either with us 100 percent of the time – or you’re against us.”
This is course was Hagel’s great sin – not that he does not support Israel’s security or the US-Israel alliance or Israel’s qualitative military edge or deepening military cooperation between the two nations. He endorses, and has always endorsed all of these, in deed as well as in word.
But Hagel is the rare politician who insists on thinking for himself, in weighing each congressional vote and letter on its merits and in opposing actions which he regards as damaging to Israel’s own long-term interests and to the US-Israel relationship. In that regards, he is much like President Obama himself. And for right-wing neoconservative zealots who demand unquestioned and unquestioning obedience, that is unacceptable.
Fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion – we’ve seen all of these in the Hagel nomination battle. Well before he was formally nominated, his opponents and critics launched a blistering series of personal attacks on the former senator, criticizing him as not being sufficiently pro-Israel or insufficiently anti-Iran – and in some cases characterizing his views as verging on anti-Semitism. Groups and individuals circulated talking points on Capitol Hill taking past votes and quotes from years ago out of context, distorting some and blowing up others to absurd degrees. Jewish communal leaders who should have known better weighed in. Suddenly, the nomination seemed to be in grave danger.
AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill, did not take a formal position either for or against the nomination. However, several AIPAC allies have been prominent in the fight to defeat Hagel. Backed by big money, they have run TV and newspaper ads and kept up a barrage of criticism – but this time, it’s not working.
Although perhaps they should have seen this assault coming, Hagel and his allies seemed unprepared and it took them a few days to get organized. This was the most dangerous phase of the campaign, when it appeared possible that President Obama would pull the nomination and opt for a safer choice.
But the right-wing miscalculated. Former secretaries of state, US ambassadors to Israel, foreign policy experts and Jews from Nebraska who had known him for years lined up behind Hagel. Obama stood firm. One by one, key senators began falling into line. The anti-Hagel campaign is turning into a major defeat for its backers – and this has real implications for the future of US politics and for Israel advocacy in the United States. Hopefully, it will encourage politicians across the board to feel free to defy those who seek to remove their ability to think for themselves on issues regarding Israel.
The battle over Hagel is a gut-check moment for America. If indeed, as now looks likely, he is confirmed, some big lobbies, including AIPAC, may have to re-examine how they do business. They may actually have to make their case on its merits. Fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency and an almost fanatical devotion to the cause may not cut it any more.
Alan Eisner is J Street’s new vice president of communications.
There were plenty of good candidates to pick from for the post of next U.S. Secretary of Defense. For President Obama, Chuck Hagel was the natural choice. He’s a Republican, a clear isolationist, a proponent of extensive defense budget cuts, and opposes involvement in overseas adventures (including in Iran).
And lest we forget—he also has “original ideas,” as described by Obama, which are expressed by his openly critical stance towards Israel and “the Jewish lobby.”
If that weren’t enough (although it is enough for the current administration), the former Nebraskan senator’s appointment is a virtual slap in the face to Obama’s foes in the rival camp, those who espouse hawkish policies. In short, Hagel meets all the criteria required by the president in his second term. If Hagel wouldn’t have existed—Obama would have invented him.
Hagel will need to pass a Senate confirmation hearing before moving into his new office at the Pentagon. It won’t be so simple. Obama knows this appointment isn’t a quick sell. This is also why he chose him.
The Republican senator from North Carolina, Lindsey Graham, expects Hagel to be the most anti-Israel defense secretary in U.S. history. Israel has many friends in the House of Representatives, and they will make sure to make their opinions heard before Hagel’s appointment is approved.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) believes the appointment is “the worst possible message Obama could have sent to Israel and other allies in the Middle East.” We can add, as Sen. Graham said, “it’s also the message the White House is sending Iran, at the worst possible time.”
Why then has Obama chosen Chuck Hagel of all people? It’s enticing to think he did so to irritate Israel, but we shouldn’t give him that much credit.
Obama presented Hagel on Monday and outlined the reasons for selecting him. The U.S. president spoke of a warrior, one who lives and breathes the mud on the battlefield. Hagel is from there. Hagel is also someone who opposed, as did Obama, the war in Iraq. Hagel also joined Obama on tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama doesn’t believe in war. Hagel believes in it even less. “War is the last resort,” is Hagel’s credo.
In a Utopian world filled only with good, there is a place for a defense secretary like Hagel. In a world where nuclear centrifuges spin without rest in dangerous countries like Iran, this is a Utopian selection for Secretary of Defense that, to our regret, has become the reality under Obama.
The French Foreign Ministry, the Quai d’Orsay, would for years say that even if by some mistake a pro-Israel foreign minister was appointed, then not to worry, the clerks at the ministry would be sure to “get him on track.” All that’s left for Israel is to hope that its many friends in Congress ensure the continuation of good relations.
After reports that President Obama plannned to nominate former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) said that despite expressing concerns about Hagel in the past, it believes Hagel will “followthe President’s lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel—on strategic cooperation, missile defense programs, and leading the world against Iran’s nuclear program.”
When it comes to putting pen to paper, where has Hagel previously stood on foreign policy matters pertaining to Israel and the Middle East? In his 2008 book, The Much Too Promised Land, Miller recounted a conversation with Hagel as follows: “The American Israel Public Affairs Committee comes knocking with a pro-Israel letter, Hagel continued, and ‘then you’ll get eighty or ninety senators on it. I don’t think I’ve ever signed one of the letters’—because, he added, they were ‘stupid.’”
Hagel, who served in the Senate from January 1997 to January 2009, was telling Miller the truth about his letter-signing history. Below are the highlights of letters signed by large majorities of the U.S. Senate, noting whether Hagel signed or not.
Letter: Asking President Obama to open direct talks with Hamas leaders
Number of signatories: 10 (former and current policy officials, not only serving U.S. senators)
Hagel: Signed (after he had already left the Senate)
Letter: Reiterating Israel’s right to self-defense, calling on the U.S. to stand strongly with Israel at the UN, and urging pressure on Arab states to do more to support Israeli-Palestinian talks
Number of signatories: 77
Hagel: Did not sign
Letter: Request for “no direct aid and no contacts with any members of a Palestinian Authority that does not explicitly and unequivocally recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce terror, and accept previous agreements”
Number of signatories: 79
Hagel: Did not sign
Letter: Asking the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization
Number of signatories: 88
Hagel: Did not sign
Letter: Asking President George W. Bush to place pressure the Palestinian Authority to ban terrorist groups from participating in Palestinian legislative elections
Number of signatories: 73
Hagel: Did not sign
Letter: Supporting Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and calling on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to “act decisively to assert his control over the disparate, armed groups in Gaza and the West Bank”
Number of signatories: 77
Hagel: Did not sign
Letter: Asking President Bush not to meet Yasser Arafat until Arafat took steps to end violence against Israel
Number of signatories: 89
Hagel: Did not sign
Letter: Expressing support for Israel after the start of the Second Intifada
Number of signatories: 96
Hagel: Did not sign
Resolution: Opposing the unilateral declaration of an independent state by the Palestinians
Votes in support: 98
Hagel: Voted yes
Letter: Asking President Bill Clinton not to pressure Israel into accepting a peace proposal with the Palestinians “which is known to be unacceptable.”
Number of signatories: 81
Hagel: Did not sign
Letters and signatories obtained from the archives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Jewish Virtual Library