Something curious is taking place. The nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense came under fire from the friends of Israel even before it was certain that President Barack Obama would name him to the post. Hagel demonstrably has no particular animus towards Israel but he, while senator, refused to kowtow to the Israel Lobby, failing to sign on to letters and position statements, saying that he was first and foremost a United States Senator, not a representative of a foreign power. He also favors negotiations with Iran to end the nuclear standoff, which critics immediately latched onto as a sign of weakness and a further indication that he did not have Israel’s back. Bill Kristol, head of the Emergency Committee for Israel, quickly piled on to the Hagel nomination, followed by the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin and Charles Krauthammer, convicted Iran contra felon Elliot Abrams, reliably liberal Rachel Maddow, Harvard’s own Israel firster Alan Dershowitz, Mitt Romney adviser Dan Senor, and Johns Hopkins’ Professor Eliot Cohen. Several critics, including the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka, accused Hagel of being anti-Semitic and Islamophobe Pamela Geller described him as a "Jew hater." Transplanted American now-living-in-Israel Caroline Glick somewhat more confusingly wrote that he "hates Jews that think that Jews have rights." Major Jewish organizations including the Anti-Defamation League and The American Jewish Committee, quickly followed suit, with ADL’s Abe Foxman saying "the sentiments he’s [Hagel’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" while the AJC’s David Harris added "We’re not in the opposition camp, we’re in the concerned camp. We’re going to count on the Senate to examine, as it must, key issues of concern."
At that point a number of prominent American Jews who normally avoid any open criticism of the Israel Lobby became concerned and began to push back, noting that there was nothing to be alarmed about in Hagel’s record and that the perception that Jews as a group were blocking a qualified presidential appointment might create an unwelcome backlash. The counter-critics included prominent spokesmen like Thomas Friedman, Richard Haas, Joe Klein, Richard Cohen, Nick Kristof, David Ignatius, Aaron David Miller, and Peter Beinart and their view would appear to reflect the majority opinion of American Jews, though characteristically not the views of the leading Jewish organizations which are closely aligned with Israel’s right wing government and to major donors like Sheldon Adelson. To provide some space for the counterattack and to steer it away from being a Jewish issue, some Hagel supporters began to note that much of the opposition to the appointment was also coming from other sources, including disgruntled Republicans out to "get" Obama and defense contractors fearing budget cuts. Christian Zionists, whose unflinching support for both Israel and military spending is linked to their desire to hasten the end of the world and bring about the battle of Armageddon preceding the second coming of Christ, are also on the list.
While applauding the efforts of many Americans to pull out the stops in support the Hagel nomination, I would nevertheless argue that the attempt to identify some kind of rainbow coalition in the opposition to Hagel is pretty much a canard. It really is all about Israel, at least in the minds of most of those who seriously are seeking to block the nomination. Consider for a second whether Hagel would be facing any serious opposition at all if it were not for the claim that he is anti-Israel and not predisposed to use force against Iran. And bear in mind that Iran is really a subset of the Israel issue since it is Benjamin Netanyahu who is driving the belligerency even though the Iranians do not actually threaten the United States in any serious way. Consider also who is providing the muscle and the money to attack Hagel. It is organizations like Bill Kristol’s the Emergency Committee for Israel that was able to place a full page ad in the New York Times on Tuesday denouncing Hagel as the "anti-Israel nominee for Secretary of Defense." The ad was signed by former New York City Mayor Ed Koch as well as two currently serving Democratic Congressmen, Shelley Berkley of Nevada and Eliot Engel of New York.
Christian Zionists might not like the Hagel nomination but they are not to my knowledge placing similar full page ads in leading newspapers, nor are they appearing on television talk shows, to which they have little or no access. Nor do they have the political pull to command the presence of hundreds of congressmen at their annual conference, as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is able to do. Defense contractors likewise are not attacking Hagel because they know that it will be a collective White House decision where and when to cut spending and Hagel will merely be the implementer of the policy. They also understand that while budget cuts are coming no matter who is Secretary of Defense because the government is running out of money they will continue to benefit from large military appropriations, even if the spending will not be growing dramatically as it has for the past eleven years.
No, the heart of the opposition to Hagel is in the hands of the ad hoc groups pulled together by Bill Kristol and others, to include fellow travelers in congress like Senator Mark Kirk, who explains why he will oppose Hagel while trying to appear high minded: "I am concerned about his past record and statements, particularly with regard to Iran and the U.S.-Israel relationship." Kirk’s staff assistant Richard Goldberg has meanwhile been running an email campaign against Hagel consisting of multiple messages sent daily to fellow congressmen and friends in the media while Senator Lindsey Graham, who has already described Hagel as "very antagonistic toward the state of Israel," leads the charge openly from the friends-of-Israel right where he is joined by a "deeply troubled" Senator Kelly Ayotte who wants to see a "fearful" Iran. It is Kristol and company as well as the politicians they have in their pockets who have the ability to appear on television to tell the American people why they should reject Chuck Hagel. They are the ones with the money, the organization, and the media savvy to lead the fight against someone whose fealty to Israel is not sufficiently established, not Pastor John Hagee and his mewling evangelical flock in Texas. For Kristol and his associates it is indeed all about Israel and it always has been. Every nominee to a senior defense, intelligence, or security council position must be vetted and judged by whether or not they are completely committed to support the Israeli government, no matter what it does and no matter what the impact would be on American interests. That is what Bill Kristol and his friends are all about.
And for those who still doubt that it is all about Israel, I would suggest a little history lesson. In 2004 Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission, admitted that the Iraq war was fought to protect Israel, which he described as "the threat that dare not speak its name." He meant that if there had not been the connivance of the Pentagon’s friends of Israel in creating a false weapons of mass destruction narrative coupled with the fulsome support of the Lobby a war on behalf of Israel would never have been endorsed by the American people. And it is also useful to review what happened to the last brave soul who dared to put American interests ahead of those of Israel. That was Chas Freeman who was proposed as Chairman of the National Intelligence Council during President Obama’s first term in 2009. Freeman had an exemplary record as a public servant and was known to be an independent thinker willing to reconsider and challenge orthodox policies. Freeman had served as Ambassador to China and Saudi Arabia and was regarded as something of an Arabist, which immediately made him suspect to the usual crowd in congress and the media. For that he was immediately attacked by Israel’s friends, in what was described as a "thunderous, coordinated assault." The critics frequently pretended that they were actually opposing Freeman’s views on China and his close personal ties to the Saudis, just as Hagel is now being falsely pilloried because he lacks management experience and because his wartime service in Vietnam will color his judgments. But no one was really fooled regarding Chas Freeman – it was all about Israel. Freeman, realizing that the debate over his views would become a distraction, asked that his name be withdrawn.
What it comes down to is that we live in a country where nearly everyone is willing to sell out if the price is right and, for the moment, Israel’s friends hold many of the cards. Being openly and enthusiastically a friend of Israel is a sine qua non on the path to power in Washington. In fact, Chuck Hagel recognizes that reality. He has recently apologized for his "errors" on Israel and Iran in an attempt to defuse the opposition to him. And only last week Senator Rand Paul, who some of us had hoped might break with the foreign policy consensus, visited Israel to burnish his presidential credentials. While there he did everything that he was expected to do and more, saying that Israel’s settlement policies are "none of our business" before adroitly backing away from cutting aid to Tel Aviv by noting that a bankrupt America would not be a good ally. "This does mean that we have to reassess who to give aid to, and when we do reassess that, I would begin with countries that are burning our flag and chanting ‘Death to America.’ No one is accusing Israel of that." So if Rand has his way a gaggle of Muslim countries will get the boot while aid to "good ally" Israel will be untouchable.
Far better that Senators Paul, Lindsay Graham and Ron Kirk should stop worrying about what is good for Israel. They might instead emulate the Chuck Hagel who once upon a time was willing to declare that he was actually an elected official representing the United States and its people. Congress is the heart of the problem, funding and providing political cover for Israel’s completely illegal settlement policies as well as the iron fist apartheid-like control of the West Bank and Gaza. As a consequence, the U.S. is widely and rightly blamed for underwriting what Benjamin Netanyahu does and is no longer respected or considered credible, but I guess for all politicians who want to become president real bad it’s considered worth it. Well, I won’t be voting for any of them. The Israel Lobby wields enormous power in Washington, but many Americans are becoming tired of having their affairs micro-managed in Tel Aviv. Blowback is beginning and I would hate to see a bunch of esteemed Senators finding themselves on the wrong side of history. That would be a real shame.