A growing controversy over one of President Barack Obama's
candidates for the top Pentagon job is turning into a test case for the
influence of Israel's most fervent right-wing supporters, some of whom equate
criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.
The man at the center of the dispute is Chuck Hagel, a two-term former Republican senator from Nebraska and decorated Vietnam War veteran.
Right-wing pro-Israel hawks began a campaign to portray Hagel as hostile to Israel and soft on Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah almost as soon as the senator was first reported to be Obama's favorite choice to replace Leon Panetta.
Within hours, the website of the Weekly Standard, the bible of neoconservative hawks, ran an item that accused Hagel of being an anti-Semite. William Kristol, the Weekly's editor followed up with a description of the former senator as a man with "a record of consistent hostility to Israel over the past decade."
Bret Stephens, the influential foreign affairs columnist of the Wall Street Journal, echoed that theme in a column headlined "Chuck Hagel's Jewish problem." He argued that if Obama indeed nominated Hagel, it showed that the president was no friend of Israel.
Others weighing in with expressions of alarm over the prospect of Hagel as defense secretary included Abraham Foxman, the head of the anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group; Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition; and Josh Block, former spokesman of the American Israel Political Action Committee.
Those lining up in his defense include Jeremy Ben-Ami, who heads J-Street, a liberal rival to AIPAC; William Cohen, defense secretary under Bill Clinton; Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter; Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush; and Jack Reed, a Democratic senator who serves on the Armed Services Committee.
Hagel supporters circulated a memo to members of Congress to rebut charges that he is hostile to Israel. Among those cited in his defense is Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush. He is quoted as describing the anti-Hagel campaign as "terribly misguided ... I found him in all the years I served, including as ambassador to Israel, to be a supporter of Israel."
What has been unfolding over the past week is reminiscent of a campaign driven by neoconservatives in 2009 when Charles Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was named head of the National Intelligence Council, a body whose strategic analyses help shape U.S. foreign policy.
The appointment of an outspoken critic of Israeli policies in the occupied territories triggered a furious reaction from pro-Israel hawks. The ensuing dispute between them and Freeman supporters, including senior diplomats and intelligence officials, grew so vitriolic that he withdrew from the position. Obama, just three months into his first term, stayed on the sidelines.
Freeman, who recently published a book entitled America's Misadventures in the Middle East, described the dispute over Hagel as "a disgusting spectacle" that had turned into a test of wills. Hagel's detractors wanted to give the White House second thoughts, he said in an interview with The Daily Star.
That tactic clearly had effect. By the end of the week, the Washington Post's conservative blogger, Jennifer Rubin, wondered, "Is Chuck Hagel toast?"
Obama had been widely expected to announce his nominations for both secretary of state and defense secretary on Dec. 21. He named John Kerry for state, to succeed Hillary Clinton, and left Hagel "hanging in the wind," as Cohen put it. "It's not fair ... People make allegations and marshal opposition and it's very difficult to defend yourself until you are actually named," he told the newspaper Politico.
Administration officials have given no sign that Hagel has been dropped from consideration but they pointed out that he was not the only name on Obama's short list. Another contender is Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense, who would not face the bruising Senate confirmation hearing Hagel can expect if he is nominated.
Much of the case against Hagel is drawn from a book (The Much Too Promised Land) by Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat who has served as an adviser to six secretaries of state and played a key role in efforts to broker Arab-Israeli peace. In a chapter on how domestic politics affect U.S. Middle East policy, Miller describes Congress as "reflexively pro-Israel," with few members of the Senate or the House willing to be critical of AIPAC or Israel.
Hagel was one of those few, Miller writes, and quotes him as saying that Congress "is an institution that does not inherently bring out a great deal of courage. Most of the time members play it safe and adopt an 'I'll support Israel' attitude. AIPAC comes knocking with a pro-Israeli letter and then you'll get eighty or ninety senators on it. I don't think I ever signed one of the letters."
He continued: "The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here [in Congress]. But I'm a United States senator. I'm not an Israeli senator."
According to the Weekly Standard item that kicked off the furor, Hagel's use of the phrase "the Jewish lobby" (instead of "pro-Israel") betrays "the worst kind of anti-Semitism there is." It cited an anonymous Republican Senate aide as saying: "Send us Hagel [to a hearing] and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite."
One of the responses to this came from Justin Logan, director of foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. He wondered how an anti-Semite could have been hiding in plain sight for 12 years at the Senate and later as head of the Atlantic Council, a middle-of-the-road think tank, and teaching at Georgetown University.
"When the facts are on your side, argue the facts," Logan wrote. "When the law is on your side, argue the law. When neither the facts nor the law are on your side, call your opponent an anti-Semite. Such is the neoconservative approach to the marketplace of ideas."
Bernd Debusmann is a former World Affairs columnist for Reuters. This article was written exclusively for The Daily Star.
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