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The Hagel dialectic: Defenders and detractors tussle over Israel record

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The expected nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as the next defense secretary has sparked an outcry from segments of the pro-Israel community.

Media reports in recent days have said that Hagel, a Republican who represented Nebraska from 1997-2009 in the U.S. Senate, is President Obama’s all-but-certain nominee for defense secretary, in line to replace Leon Panetta, who hopes to retire early next year.

The reports have sparked open anxiety about the prospect of a figure who has had a contentious relationship with pro-Israel groups in a post at the very nexus of the defense relationship between Israel and the United States.

“Chuck Hagel would not be the first, second, or third choice for the American Jewish community’s friends of Israel,” Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, wrote in an e-

Sen. Chuck Hagel introduces Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey at the Forum on the Law of the Sea Convention in Washington, D.C., May 9, 2012. (Glenn Fawcett/DoD Photo)

mail to Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin. “His record relating to Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship is, at best, disturbing, and at worst, very troubling. The sentiments he’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.”

Foxman was referring to remarks Hagel made in an interview in which he explained why he did not sign on to letters backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that were endorsed by many of his Senate colleagues. “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” he said. He also said: “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”

Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, would bring to the office bipartisan and military credibility. He refused to back any candidate in 2008 and traveled overseas with Obama, suggesting that the relatively inexperienced candidate had his confidence.

Obama repaid Hagel by naming him co-chairman of the Intelligence Advisory Board, as well as to a number of other advisory positions.

The prospect of a Hagel nomination has set off alarm bells in much of the pro-Israel community, with broadsides aimed at him in conservative publications like the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard and Commentary.

The Republican Jewish Coalition has circulated bullet points noting Hagel’s departures from pro-Israel orthodoxies during his Senate career, including his refusal to sign on to letters supporting Israel and calling for increased isolation of Iran and its surrogate in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

The RJC list resembled a similar one circulated by its Democratic counterpart, the National Jewish Democratic Council, in 2007, when Hagel was briefly considering a run for the presidency.

The NJDC president, David Harris, declined to comment on Hagel last week, saying he would not have anything to say until there was a formal announcement. Hagel is not the only name circulating as a possible defense secretary, although he has gotten the most attention.

Some pro-Israel Democrats have circulated the attack pieces to journalists, reflecting anxieties among hawkish Democrats who had defended Obama against charges that he would distance himself from Israel in his second term.

Hagel, who says he is a supporter of Israel, has questioned the efficacy of Iran sanctions and has called for engagement with Hamas. He has also been outspoken against the prospect of military engagement with Iran.

“I think talking about going to war with Iran in fairly specific terms should be carefully reviewed,” he said in 2010 at a forum organized by the Atlantic Council, a foreign policy think tank that he chairs. “And that’s pretty dangerous talk.”

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), a stalwart supporter of Israel who is retiring from Congress after losing a Senate bid, issued a statement  Tuesday opposing a Hagel nomination.

“The bottom line is that Chuck Hagel’s dismal record on issues affecting the Middle East stands in sharp contrast to the stated policies of our nation and he would be the wrong choice for America’s next secretary of defense,” Berkley said.

Hagel’s Jewish defenders said his independence recommended him.

“Hagel understands the shared values” between Israel and the United States, said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator who is now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “He believes in a special relationship but not an exclusive relationship.”

Miller conducted the interview with Hagel that was cited by Foxman. It was published in his 2008 book, “The Much Too Promised Land.”

Robert Wexler, a former congressman who was a top Jewish surrogate for Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 elections, said that trashing Hagel based on views that did not necessarily jibe with the pro-Israel community would damage Israel’s cause.

“It’s entirely appropriate to question the nominee on their issues related to Israel, and certainly the groups should engage in the political process,” Wexler said in an interview. “But to suggest that an American senator who served his nation honorably is somehow disqualified because he may possess a different point of view regarding what is best for America in terms of engagement with Iran or Hamas — I don’t think is appropriate.”

J Street, the dovish Israel policy group that advocates for an enhanced U.S. role in Middle East peacemaking, also defended Hagel.

“Sen. Hagel was among the first in his party to realize that the U.S. occupation of Iraq had turned into a quagmire that was taking thousands of American and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives without a clear strategic rationale,” J Street said in a statement. “He took a brave stand against the majority in his own party and led a crucial debate that helped pave the way for President Obama to withdraw American troops from Iraq.”

Hagel and Obama are not completely aligned on the particulars of Obama’s defense policy, but broadly they have been allies. As senators, both men were sharply critical of President George W. Bush’s Iraq policies, and on Iran and Syria they have both emphasized negotiation and diplomacy as a critical component in inducing rogue nations to back down from belligerent postures.

Hagel’s positions have time and again landed him on the wrong side of a pro-Israel community noted for its long memory.

The American Jewish Committee noted that Hagel was the lone senator out of 100 that refused in 1999 to join a letter to then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin threatening to cut assistance if he did not take substantive steps to quash anti-Semitism.

“This was an issue of motherhood and apple pie,” the AJC’s spokesman, Ken Bandler, told JTA. “The concern we had 13 years ago still stands today.”

Not helping Hagel’s cause is his prickliness about the role of pro-Israel groups on the Hill. In 2007, he told the Arab American Institute that he had dropped his bid for the presidency because a pro-Israel donor had told him that if he wanted funding his support for Israel should be “automatic.”

“First, I am an American senator,” Hagel said to applause. He also said he would not sacrifice his friendships in the Arab world to please pro-Israel groups. “No relationship should be founded on holding hostage other relationships,” he said.