Hagel nomination would be a gut check for pro-Obama Israel supporters

Wednesday, December 5, 2012
By: Noah Silverman, RJC Congressional Affairs Director

A report from Reuters has now confirmed what Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin had discovered last month - that President Obama is considering former Senator Chuck Hagel for a top national security post, likely Secretary of Defense.

Rogin reported that Hagel was "being vetted."  Presumably, that vetting process includes consultations with a range of interested parties.  And presumably, that includes pro-Israel advocates.  Let's hope that anyone on the receiving end of such a query responds forthrightly that for the President to elevate Hagel to a position of trust would be construed as a gesture of indifference - if not outright contempt - toward Jewish Americans and every American who supports a strong U.S.-Israel alliance.

In the past, Jewish leaders have made their concerns about Hagel clear.  The last time President Obama had to pick a new Defense Secretary, in 2010, a report by the Washington Jewish Week included red-flag quotes from numerous community sources - including pro-Obama Democrats:

    • D.C. Jewish community professional who is in contact with the White House: "I have to think that the mainstream Jewish communal organizations would have meaningful problems with it"


    • Washington PAC Director and former AIPAC Executive Director Morris Amitay: "Hagel would be in a position to reinforce the worst aspects of the administration's current Middle East policies, which would be very dangerous for Israel"


    • A longtime Jewish political operative: "Given his long, questionable record and the clear problems his nomination would cause -- not to mention the volumes of criticism by other Democrats for his rank hostility to Israel -- it is hard to believe that the White House would want to make such a risky choice at precisely the time we are asking the Israeli to 'trust us' on Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict."


    • Democratic operative who campaigned for Obama in the Jewish community: "If he was in fact appointed, I would find his appointment difficult to reconcile with my views of the administration."

osts, "including secretary of homeland security, director of national intelligence, and ambassador to China.")

If Obama does end up nominating Hagel for one of these key positions, we'll see if NJDC and other administration-friendly folks in the pro-Israel camp have the integrity to reiterate their concerns.

In fact, some of the most forceful criticism of Hagel's record on issues of concern to American Jews and other pro-Israel Americans has come from the National Jewish Democratic Council, "the national voice of Jewish Democrats."

When Hagel considered running for President in 2007, NJDC signaled that they planned to call him to account for a record that included numerous departures from the pro-Israel mainstream.  To wit:

    • In August 2006, Hagel was one of only 12 Senators who refused to write the EU asking them to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization.


    • In October 2000, Hagel was one of only 4 Senators who refused to sign a Senate letter in support of Israel.


    • In November 2001, Hagel was one of only 11 Senators who refused to sign a letter urging President Bush not to meet with the late Yasir Arafat until his forces ended the violence against Israel.


    • In December 2005, Hagel  was one of only 27 who refused to sign a letter to President Bush to pressure the Palestinian Authority to ban terrorist groups from participating in Palestinian legislative elections.


    • In June 2004, Hagel refused to sign a letter urging President Bush to highlight Iran’s nuclear program at the G-8 summit.


    • And here’s what the anti-Israel group, CAIR wrote in praise of Hagel: “Potential presidential candidates for 2008, like Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Joe Biden and Newt Gingrich, were falling all over themselves to express their support for Israel. The only exception to that rule was Senator Chuck Hagel…” [Council on American-Islamic Relations, 8/28/06]

And Hagel's history of pronouncements and other actions is, if anything, even more alarming.  Hagel wrote in a 2002 op-ed in the Washington Post that the President Bush erred in refusing to meet with Yassir Arafat and that Arafat and his support for terrorism against Israel were not the real issue. He wrote: "...we cannot hold the Middle East peace process hostage by making Yasser Arafat the issue.... Palestinian reformers cannot promote a democratic agenda for change while both the Israeli military occupation and settlement activity continue."

With respect to Iran, Hagel has argued that, "Whether we like it or not, there will be no peace or stability in the Middle East without Iran's participation."  And he has explicitly ruled out the military option Obama has supposedly 'kept on the table.'

In a devastating 2010 post on Commentary's blog, Jennifer Rubin called attention to more problematic items in Hagel's record.

    • "In 2006, when Hezbollah’s attacks provoked Israeli retaliation and the war in Lebanon, Hagel screeched for the president to demand an immediate cease-fire, arguing it was essential in order to 'enhance America’s image and give us the trust and credibility to lead a lasting and sustained peace effort in the Middle East.' Our credibility, in his eyes, depends on the United States’s preventing Israel from defending itself."


    • In 2009, "Hagel signed a letter urging Obama to open direct negotiations with Hamas..."


    • "In 2007 Hagel wanted to open direct, unconditional talks with Iran. (“It could create a historic new dynamic in US-Iran relations, in part forcing the Iranians to react to the possibility of better relations with the West.”) In 2007 he voted against designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization."


Rubin went on to quote an account of an incident that suggested Hagel's stances reflected not just substantive disagreements - but also  more visceral sentiment:

In an interview quoted in Aaron David Miller’s book on the peace process called The Much Too Promised Land, Hagel said: “The political reality is that … the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here."

Hagel then described a meeting he had in New York with a group of supporters of Israel, one of whom suggested Hagel wasn’t supportive enough of Israel. Hagel said he responded: “Let me clear something up here if there’s any doubt in your mind. I’m a United States Senator. I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States Senator. I support Israel. But my first interest is, I take an oath of office to the constitution of the United States. Not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel."

This led Rubin to predict that "Hagel is a nominee who would thrill the Walt-Mearsheimer Lobby."  In apparent confirmation of this prediction, anti-Israel commentator M.J. Rosenberg opined on Twitter that it "would be great" if Obama picked Hagel for a high-powered administration post.

Similarly, a Hagel admirer interviewed by Rogin emphasized his expectation that a Cabinet appointment would afford Hagel a more prominent perch from which to continue "feeding tough-love messages to Obama... on the Middle East" something the source said Hagel had been doing from the outside "for some time."  And naturally, the notoriously Israel-averse former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski endorses Hagel as someone who could help Obama "follow through" notwithstanding "the influence of lobbies" and other annoying impediments.

The Reuters report suggests that picking Hagel would somehow demonstrate bipartisan goodwill on Obama's part, but undercuts this by admitting that since his retirement from the Senate, "Hagel has been a big critic of his own party." Indeed, Hagel's only endorsements have been endorsements of Democrats, notably 2010 Senate candidate Joe Sestak and 2012 Senate candidate Bob Kerrey, who was running in the state Hagel once represented in the Senate. (In both instances, voters declined to take Hagel's suggestion.)

Interestingly, the Nebraska Republican party offered evidence that Hagel's Republicanism is of the in-name-only variety - a photograph of Hagel's lawn, with signs touting Obama and local (Virginia) Democrats on prominent display. Asked about the signs at the Kerrey endorsement press conference in Nebraska, Hagel gamely responded that his wife put up the signs, but he didn't protest too much.  Indeed, he took the occasion to slam the GOP yet again.

How much will pro-Israel groups protest if Obama taps Hagel despite all the problems in his record?  It will be a real gut check moment.

In 2010, NJDC's then-Executive Director Ira Forman defended the Obama administration's decision to appoint Hagel to an advisory panel, but seemed to draw a red line in an interview with the Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb:

He suggested that NJDC would publicly oppose Hagel's nomination for a position with more authority. "If [Hagel] was taking a policy role, we'd have real concerns," Forman said. And Forman indicated that his group would oppose Hagel's appointment to any position that had influence over U.S.-Israel relations.

Based on Hagel's record, it's clear those 'real concerns' are greatly warranted.  (How seriously the administration will take them is a separate question; Rogin reports that Hagel has already been offered important p