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Divisive, Israel-centered Battle Royal Looms in Washington as Hagel Appointment Appears Imminent

Sources confirm Foreign Policy report on likelihood of controversial choice for Secretary of Defense; Hagel’s confirmation may inflame Jewish community and harm Israeli interests, whatever happens.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

There are increasing indications that U.S. President Barack Obama plans to push ahead with the appointment of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, setting the stage for a fierce political confirmation battle in which Israel will play a central role.

Although there has been no official statement, informed sources told Haaretz that they have “every reason to believe” the veracity of a Friday report in Foreign Policy, according to which Obama is expected to announce Hagel’s appointment “as early as Monday”. The sources said that several leading figures in the Democratic Party had been informally told that Hagel would be chosen.

If the reports are borne out, the appointment of the maverick former senator from Nebraska is likely to spark an all-out political conflagration that would pit Democrats against Republicans, liberals vs. neocons - and Hagel-supporters against his opponents inside the Jewish community.

Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who broke with his party over the Iraq war, has been criticized in recent days for his lack of executive experience, his gruff attitude toward co-workers and derogatory comments that he made 15 years ago against a gay American diplomat. But it is his attitude toward issues that are of critical concern to Israel, such as Iran and Hamas, as well as statements that his detractors claim show his “animus” toward Israel and its U.S. supporters, that have been the focal point of the bitter debate that has raged in the American media in the wake of leaked press reports of his candidacy.

In addition to conservative columnists such as the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens and the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol and right-wing groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Emergency Committee for Israel, the denunciation of Hagel’s record on Israel has also included mainstream Jewish groups such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL’s Abe Foxman has said that Hagel’s statements on the “Jewish lobby” and on his being “a U.S. senator and not an Israeli senator” – “border on anti-Semitism.”

On the opposite end, Hagel has won the endorsement of the left-wing J Street group and his candidacy to replace the outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been supported by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and author Peter Beinart, writing in his Open Zion blog. Hagel has also won the public endorsement of nine former U.S. ambassadors, including four envoys to Israel, as well as former senators and national security advisers from both political parties.

Although the premier pro-Israel advocacy group, AIPAC, has refrained from commenting publicly on Hagel, the argument over his appointment has also been framed as a “test of the power of the pro-Israel lobby”. From this point of view, AIPAC is facing a potential lose-lose situation: if Hagel is confirmed, it will be viewed as a blow to the organization’s prestige, but if it is denied, it will be portrayed as proof of the lobby’s all-powerful influence on U.S. politics.

The confirmation can also be expected to reignite the debate about Obama’s own attitude toward Israel. The president’s detractors will no doubt point to a Hagel appointment as validation of their claim during the recent presidential campaign that Obama harbors ill will toward Israel and has no intention of confronting Iran’s nuclear program. Hagel’s supporters will counter that Hagel is a fair-minded politician who will implement Obama’s policies and whose only sin was that he refused to endorse the agenda of the right-wing pro-settlement lobby.

One thing seems almost certain: Israel, and its long-term interests, will not be served by the controversy that now seems almost certain to erupt. Thus, it behooves Israeli policy makers to make sure that they are in no way seen to be involved in the upcoming battle royal in Washington.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

U.S. President Barack Obama meeting with co-chairmen of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board former Senator Chuck Hagel at the White House in Washington, October 28, 2009.Credit: Reuters
Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) leaving a news conference in Omaha, Nebraska, March 12, 2007. Credit: Reuters

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