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In light of the opposition generated when former Senator Chuck
Hagel’s candidacy for Defense Secretary was initially mooted, most
analysts predicted - mistakenly - that President Obama would not proceed
with the appointment.
The decision to appoint such an
extreme isolationist to this position sends a chilling signal about the
broad direction of Obama’s foreign policy during the next four years.
But there are particularly disconcerting connotations relating to American Jews and Israel.
For a start, by appointing a
person with such a consistent track record of disdain for Israel, it is
evident that President Obama has no inhibitions or concerns about
alienating and distressing the vast majority of Jews who voted for him
and who he now takes for granted.
Obama is nominating a man who
accused “the Jewish lobby” of disloyalty, of harboring dual allegiances
and acting as a Fifth Column by supporting Israel. The views are similar
to the anti-Semitic stereotypes described by authors Walt and
Mearsheimer in their notorious book “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign
Beyond this, Hagel’s senatorial
voting record in relation to Israel – even declining to endorse Senate
resolutions broadly supporting Israel - would place him as one of the
most hostile senators in recent times. (click here for my previous article)
What makes Hagel’s nomination as
Defense Secretary even more alarming is that he also has a consistent
track record of totally opposing any actions against Iran, including
For six months prior to the
election, President Obama repeatedly pledged that he would not merely
“contain” Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but would ensure that it would never
develop a nuclear bomb. Yet Hagel explicitly promoted a policy of
“containment” as opposed to military action.
Given this context, one is
entitled to query how Obama could appoint Hegel whose record on this
issue was so diametrically opposed to his own stated position? Or has
Obama’s position changed?
What sort of message does this
send to Iran? The Iranian state-owned Press TV referred to Obama’s
nomination of the “anti-Israeli ex-Senator Chuck Hagel as the next
Defense Secretary” pointing out that “he has consistently opposed any
plan to launch military strikes against Iran”. The Iranian Foreign
Ministry suggested that it suggested potential “practical changes” in US
foreign policy which would bring about an improvement of relations
between Washington and Tehran.
Obama was certainly aware that
prominent mainstream Democrats were opposed to such an appointment. The
New York Times conceded that even “some Obama aides had doubts about the
wisdom of the choice” and the liberal Washington Post suggested that
Hagel was critical.
Alan Dershowitz, who supported
Obama during the election, stated that the appointment would send a
mixed message to the mullahs and embolden those who assumed that
President Obama was bluffing, thus increasing the likelihood of needing
to resort to the military option. He maintained that the Hagel
nomination was “not only a mistake for Israel” but “a mistake for
America, a mistake for world peace”. He added that the move would
undermine Israeli confidence in President Obama’s commitment to ensure
that Iran never become a nuclear power and would reinforce their fears
that they were on their own.
Ed Koch, former Democratic New
York Mayor - who, also endorsed Obama - cynically told the Algemeiner
that he had anticipated that the president would renege on support for
Israel but “it comes a little earlier than I thought”. He said that that
the nomination “will encourage the Iranian nuclear project and the
jihadists” in the belief that “America is beginning to desert Israel”,
adding “I’m sure the Arabs are drinking orange juice and toasting
Hagel’s good health.”
The American Jewish leadership is deeply distressed.
AIPAC did not formally comment
on the issue, stating that “AIPAC does not take positions on
presidential nominations”. Yet, there is no doubt that the leaders who
need to maintain access to the Pentagon were privately anguished and
bitterly opposed to the Hagel nomination.
Interestingly, the nonpartisan heads of major Jewish organizations uncharacteristically condemned Hagel’s views unequivocally.
ADL head Abe Foxman initially
accused Hagel of statements “bordering on anti-Semitism”. After the
nomination, whilst reiterating that Hagel would not have been his first
choice, he said that he “respects the president’s prerogative” but still
requires to be “convinced” that Hagel’s positions were in fact
The American Jewish Committee’s
David Harris remarked that “we have concerns” and urged the Senate to
“fully probe” the nomination. Rabbi Hier head of the Simon Wiesenthal
Center said that the Hagel appointment sent the wrong message to the
Iranian Mullahs and called on him to apologize for his “hateful
statements” on Israel.
In contrast, when trial balloons about Hagel were initially floated, Jews on the left aggressively promoted his candidacy.
New York Times columnist Tom
Friedman lauded Hagel as an ideal candidate, dismissing his former
hostility towards Israel and offensive remarks regarding the Jewish
lobby. He also lambasted Jewish critics, who he accused of either being
motivated or manipulated by the Israeli far right, having the chutzpah
to label them as McCarthyists for daring to question Hagel’s political
Friedman’s fellow columnist
Roger Cohen described Hagel as “a quite a strong friend of Israel” and
castigated the unrepresentative “well-organized and remorseless” extreme
right wing Jewish leaders who endorse those who “propel Israel into
repetitive many wars of dubious strategic value” of being behind the
campaign against Hagel’s nomination.
Similar views were expressed by
Peter Beinart in his Open Zion blog who effectively campaigned for
Hagel’s candidature. J Street launched a slogan “Smear a Bagel not Chuck
Hagel” and was supported by the Israel Policy Forum and Americans for
The National Jewish Democratic
Council, which in 2007 had alleged that Hagel had “a lot of questions to
answer about his commitment to Israel”, stated that notwithstanding
having “expressed concerns in the past, we trust that when confirmed
former Senator Chuck Hagel will follow the president’s unrivaled support
The reality is that the vast
majority of Jews, including Democrats, are deeply distressed with the
choice. Dershowitz claims that 95% of the Jewish community opposes the
Yet while Jews have a particular
reason to dislike Hagel’s approach, his selection has far wider global
implications. There are concerns that Obama is renewing his former
policy of “engaging” rogue states and appeasing Islamic extremism.
There will undoubtedly be some
tough cross-examination in the Senate and Hagel will in all likelihood
play down or modify some of his previous positions. He already insists
that his remarks have been distorted and that his statements always
represented “unequivocal, total support for Israel”. But whilst his
confirmation is far from a certainty, with the Democrats controlling the
Senate, the odds are in his favor.
The Israeli government has,
correctly, not commented on what is clearly a US domestic issue. But we
should be under no illusions. If Hagel’s appointment is confirmed, the
newly appointed Defense Secretary will have a clear track record of
appeasing the Iranians, reaching out to Hamas and being highly critical
of pro-Israeli influence in Washington. It will signal that Israel’s
relationship with the Obama Administration may be more turbulent than we