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Hagel Nomination Focused Much Needed Attention on the Role of the Pro-Israel Lobby in Influencing Policy

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring - Summer 2013

When Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska, emerged as a front-runner to be President Barack Obama’s next Secretary of Defense, the pro-Israel lobby rushed to the barricades to oppose his nomination. The arguments against Hagel were the same ones it usually employs against anyone who challenges the policy of the Israeli government: charges of being “anti-Israel” and, far worse, “anti-Semitic.”  
In the Dec. 18, 2012 Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens wrote a column with the headline, “Chuck Hagel’s Jewish Problem.” Stephens, a strong supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and a former Jerusalem Post staff member, said that Hagel was unacceptable because he had noted in the past that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.” Beyond this, Stephens wrote, “it suggests that legislators who adopt positions friendly to that lobby are doing so not from political conviction but out of personal fear.”  
Sen. Hagel was hardly alone in pointing out the malevolent influence upon U.S. Middle East policy of AIPAC and other organizations — such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) — which repeatedly present themselves as speaking for all Jewish Americans when, in reality, they have no mandate to do so. Members of Congress who in any way criticize Israeli policy have been targeted by AIPAC, often successfully. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman pointed out, the standing ovation Prime Minister Netanyahu received from Congress did not represent genuine support for his policies but was, instead, “bought and paid for” by the pro-Israel lobby. This, in turn, serves to silence those who would in any way differ with the positions the Israeli government pursues.  
Blind Support  
The fact is that blind support for the policies of any foreign government, even a close ally, can be destructive if that country is pursuing questionable policies — or those that are not in the U.S. national interest. Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and an Orthodox Jew, urged the U.S. not to “reward” Israel’s continuing policy of settlements in the occupied West Bank.  
Another reason for the Israel lobby’s strenuous opposition to Hagel was his general foreign policy perspective. He raised serious concerns about the war in Iraq and expressed concern about a pre-emptive war with Iran. Rather than debate such policy differences, the lobby seems to prefer the pursuit of personal attacks, such as charging those with whom they disagree of “anti-Semitism.”  
The Wall Street Journal’s Stephens wrote that “prejudice — like cooking, wine-tasting and other consummations — has an olfactory element” and that when it comes to Hagel “the odor is especially ripe.” Abe Foxman, executive director of the ADL, stated that Hagel’s views about the Israel lobby “border on anti-Semitism.” The Weekly Standard quoted an unnamed Senate aide as calling Hagel an “anti-Semite.”  
Hagel an “Anti-Semite”  
Elliott Abrams, who, when he served in the Reagan State Department, misled Congress about the government’s involvement with the Salvadoran military, the Nicaraguan Contra group and other Central American authoritarian leaders, such as Gen. Efrian Rios Montt of Guatemala, recently found guilty of genocide and “crimes against humanity,” called Hagel an “anti-Semite” who “seems to have some kind of problem with Jews.”  
Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was so extreme in his characterization of Hagel that Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, distanced his organization from Abrams and termed his statements not only false but “over the line.”  
Elliott Abrams’ mindset reflects that of his wife, Rachel Decter Abrams, the daughter of Midge Decter and stepdaughter of Norman Podhoretz, long time editor of Commentary. She is a board member of the Emergency Committee for Israel, which led the campaign against the Hagel nomination. In a message tweeted by Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, Rachel Abrams called on Israel to “round up … the slaughtering, death-worshipping, innocent-butchering, child-sacrificing savages who dip their hands in blood and use women — those who aren’t strapping bombs to their own devils’ spawn and sending them out to meet their seventy-two virgins by taking the lives of the school-bus-riding, heart-drawing, Transformer-doodling, homework-losing children of Others — and their offspring — those who haven’t already been pimped out by their mothers to the murder god — as shields, hiding behind their burkas and cradles like the unmanned animals they are, and threw them … into the sea, to float there (as) food for sharks.”  
Discussing Elliott Abrams’ role in the campaign against Chuck Hagel, Eric Alterman, writing in The Nation (April 1, 2013) notes that, “At no point did Rachel’s husband seek to disassociate himself from these hateful sentiments.”  
Tactic Is Not New  
The tactic of labeling critics of Israeli policy as “anti-Semitic” is hardly new. In 2009, Charles W. (“Chas”) Freeman, Jr., a respected diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1992, was named by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair to chair the National Intelligence Council in the first Obama administration. After weeks of bitter attacks from pro-Israel groups, Freeman withdrew his name from consideration, charging that he had been the victim of a concerted campaign by “the Israel lobby.”  
Writing in The Daily Beast, Peter Beinart, author of “The Crisis Of Zionism,” asked what evidence those who charged Hagel with “anti-Semitism” could produce: “The first is Hagel’s statement four years ago that, ‘the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here’ … Aaron Miller, the well respected former peace processor from a distinguished Jewish Cleveland family who quotes Hagel as saying that, also calls him ‘a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values’ … Miller himself writes that ‘political pressures have taken a serious toll by conditioning a key branch of the American government (Congress) to be reflexively pro-Israel.’ Maybe Miller has a Jewish problem too.”  
John Judis of the strongly pro-Israel New Republic, pointed out that Hagel opposed the Iraq war and pushed for the two-state solution and an end to settlements, the reason for heated opposition to him: “Hagel’s critics include the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is funded by gambling mogul and greater-Israel proponent Sheldon Adelson; the Zionist Organization of America, which is also opposed to a two-state solution, and a sundry collection of fellow travelers, including The Weekly Standard, Commentary and the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin. ‘Hagel made clear he believes in the existence of a nefarious Jewish lobby that secretly controls U.S. foreign policy,’ one Republican aide told The Weekly Standard. ‘This is the worst kind of anti-Semitism there is.’”  
Honorable Man  
Judis reported that, “I know something about Hagel. I spent several months talking to him and to people who know him for a profile I wrote for The New Republic in 2007 when he was considering running for president. I can’t confidently say he would make a good or great secretary of defense, but I can say with confidence that he is an honorable man who served with distinction as a senator and that his foreign policy views, including his positions on Israel and its American lobby are, if anything, a reason to support rather than oppose his nomination … He has energetically backed ‘the peace process’ and a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine. This last position is what is causing Hagel trouble. He stands accused of recommending that the U.S. talk to individuals, groups and countries that are seen as enemies of Israel.”  
M.J. Rosenberg, a longtime observer of the Israel lobby, described the assault upon Hagel as “unprecedented.” He declared: “Never before has virtually the entire organized Jewish community combined to stop a presidential cabinet appointment because it deems the potential nominee insufficiently devoted to Israel. Of course, below the cabinet level, the lobby has been manning the barricades against critics of any Israeli government for decades. The onslaught against Hagel is unique, however, because the reason for it is not merely that he opposes the rush to war with Iran and favors negotiating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The reason is because he dared to refer to the existence of the Israel lobby … In short, Hagel is an anti-Semite because he stated that ‘the Jewish lobby’ both exists and ‘intimidates.’ It is true that it was impolitic to use the term ‘Jewish lobby’ rather than ‘Israel lobby’ although the very same people criticizing Hagel for using the former term objected just as vehemently when Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer used the latter in their book on the subject … In any case, the term Jewish lobby is accurate when one refers to organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, etc. They are Jewish organizations and not AIPAC, the registered Israeli lobby.”  
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of J Street, lamented that, “There is a very systematic effort going on … It is simply beyond disturbing to think that somebody of Chuck Hagel’s stature and significant record of national service is being slandered in this way.”  
War as Last Resort  
Chuck Hagel still has shards from a Viet Cong mine embedded in his chest, 44 years after his infantry squad walked into a booby trap in the Vietnam jungle. “I remember thinking to myself, you know, if I can ever get out of all of this, I am going to do everything I can to assume that war is the last resort that we, a nation, a people, calls upon to settle a dispute,” he told an interviewer for the Library of Congress’ Vietnam History Project in 2002. “The horror of it, the pain of it, the suffering of it. People just don’t understand it unless they’ve been through it.”  
To charge a man such as Hagel with “anti-Semitism” in an effort to silence public debate about U.S. Middle East policy tells us far more about his critics than it does about Hagel.  
“The Israel lobby is bad for the Jews,” Rosenberg argues. “It suggests that Jewish Americans put the interests of a foreign country first which is a damnable lie. As every poll shows, Jewish Americans not only don’t vote based on Israel, they are not overly Israel centered at all …”  
According to Beinart, “The Hagel fight is about more than just the Obama administration’s reputation for political acumen. It will shape the climate of foreign policy nominees for years to come … By leaking Hagel’s name but not (initially) defending him, the White House … encouraged major ‘pro-Israel’ groups to pick a fight they might otherwise have ducked.”  
Hagel’s Nomination  
Following weeks of lobby attacks on the potential nominee — in which Hagel’s accusers attempted to downplay the Israel-centric nature of their opposition — President Obama on Jan. 7 officially nominated Hagel to be secretary of defense. Two stories in the following day’s FORWARD indicated the Israel lobby’s seeming change of heart. In “Clearing the Path,” Nathan Guttman described “most Jewish groups (as) backing away from criticism.” Another headline read, “Israeli Officials Warm To Chuck Hagel.”  
The hearings held on the Hagel nomination by the Senate Armed Services Committee focused further attention upon the influence of the Israel lobby in influencing U.S. Middle East policy.  
Time Magazine, reviewing the hearing, asked why the Senators referred constantly to Israel, 106 times, and barely mentioned Afghanistan or the question of military suicides. The Time (Feb.5, 2013) On-Line headline was, “Just Who Do They Represent: At Hagel Hearings, Concern For Israel Tops U.S. Troops In Combat.”  
Author Benjamin Friedman notes that Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), by himself, made reference to Israel a total of 16 times. Sen. Lee never mentioned Afghanistan and the 66,000 U.S. troops there even once. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) mentioned Israel 10 times, without referring to Afghanistan. Similarly, Sens. Roy Blount (R-MO) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) each referred to Israel a half-dozen times — and neither mentioned Afghanistan.  
According to Time, “In nearly 8 hours of interrogation and testimony, Israel and its interests were referred to by the Senate Armed Services Committee a total of 106 times. On the other hand, there were a mere 24 references to Afghanistan and the Americans fighting there …”  
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lamented that the committee focused almost entirely on Hagel’s previous quotes about Israel and did not ask relevant questions about future U.S. policy with regard to Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other regions of the world.  
Dispiriting Lesson  
Editorially, The New York Times (Feb. 5, 2013) noted that, “One dispiriting lesson from Chuck Hagel’s nomination for defense secretary is the extent to which the political space for discussing Israel forthrightly is shrinking. Republicans focused on Israel more than anything … but they weren’t seeking to understand his views. All they cared about was bullying him into a rigid position on Israel policy. Enforcing that kind of orthodoxy is not in either America’s or Israel’s interest … Mr. Hagel … has repeatedly declared support for Israel and cited 12 years of pro-Israel votes in the Senate. But that didn’t matter to his opponents, who attacked him as insufficiently pro-Israel and refused to accept any deviation on any vote … The truth is that there is more honest discussion about American-Israel policy in Israel than in this country … J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group … has argued for a vibrant debate and said ‘criticism of Israeli policy does not threaten the state of Israel.’ In fact, it is essential.”  
During the hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) asked Hagel “to name one person, in your opinion, who’s intimidated by the Israeli lobby in the U.S. Senate?” Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus (Feb. 5, 2013) declared that, “One answer could have been ‘the two of us’; Graham, for example, by asking such a silly gotcha question, and Hagel for not standing up for his past words that reflect the belief of many who have watched the Senate over the years … When Graham asked Hagel to ‘name one dumb thing we’ve been goaded into doing because of the pressure from the Israel or Jewish lobby,’ the answer should have been, ‘a good part of today’s eight-hour hearing.’”  
Time Magazine columnist Joe Klein (Feb. 18, 2013) wrote: “This was a dispiriting event on several levels. Hagel stepped away from the moderate, realistic and candid positions he had taken in the past. He allowed himself to be hectored into submission about his criticism of the Israel lobby, which does indeed bully politicians into ‘dumb’ acts like meaningless expressions of protest of Iranian behavior that Hagel refused to vote for, and on far more serious issues like Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank.”  
“Special Relationship” With Israel  
Discussing the Hagel hearing, Gene Healy, Vice President of the Cato Institute, writes (Washington Examiner, Feb. 5, 2013): “You’d think our defense posture toward China is an important issue, but I count only five references … The ‘special relationship’ with Israel — embraced by everyone at the hearing including the nominee … was special enough to win Israel 106 references … more than any other country. Is Israel really 33 times as important to the U.S. as an emerging superpower with 19 per cent of the world’s population? … Chuck Hagel admires Pres. Eisenhower’s farewell address warning of a burgeoning ‘military-industrial complex.’ Lately, he may be finding Washington’s farewell address equally relevant, ‘A passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils,’ our first president cautioned — chief among them, needless entanglement in foreign quarrels.”  
When Chuck Hagel, despite the best efforts of the Israel lobby, became secretary of defense, the lobby did not, in any sense, retreat or come to the view that its influence appeared to be in decline. Instead, it seemed to be reinvigorated, claiming its own strange kind of victory.  
In an article, “The Value of Fighting Hagel” (Commentary, April 2003), Jonathan S. Tobin, senior on-line editor at Commentary, declared that, “Presidents are rarely thwarted in their nominations for major cabinet posts. Thus, the 58-41 vote that confirmed Chuck Hagel was to be expected.”  
The Israel lobby’s influence manifested itself, in Tobin’s view, in the fact that, “Hagel managed to backtrack on most of, if not all, the positions that had endeared him to those eager to see his nomination as a landmark turn away from Israel.”  
Power Exposed As a Sham  
Still, Tobin admits that, “… this turn of events lends some credence to those who might argue that the Hagel nomination constitutes a tipping point at which the pro-Israel community’s power has been exposed as a sham. If the nomination of a man like Hagel could not strip away a single Democrat from his ranks, then perhaps the ‘Israel lobby’ is more like a paper tiger …”  
Tobin and others want to think that “while it is possible for a self-satisfied ‘maverick’ senator to boast of defying the majority on Israel, a would-be secretary of defense cannot,” they can no longer be as certain of such confidence as they once were.  
And the larger American Jewish community, whose views are not represented by AIPAC and others who speak in its name with no mandate to do so, must do its best to separate itself from such groups. The current examination of the role of the Israel lobby in Washington brought about by the Hagel nomination provides an excellent opportunity to do so.

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