Analysis |

Hagel’s Zealous Detractors Ultimately Guaranteed His Confirmation as U.S. Defense Secretary

The former Nebraska senator owes his appointment to Ambassador Rice, Democratic Senator Schumer and the packs of Israel-swearing critics who hounded him from the start.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel owes his appointment as America’s next secretary of defense to UN Ambassador Susan Rice, New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and to the packs of overzealous mudslingers who hounded him from the moment his candidacy was conceived.

Were it not for Rice’s aborted appointment as secretary of state, President Barack Obama may have decided to cut his losses early on and dump Hagel, just like he abandoned his unjustly maligned UN emissary. But to retreat twice in a row would have been perceived as a major blow to the president’s public standing and prestige.

Were it not for Schumer’s decision to line up behind Hagel, other Democratic senators, Jewish and otherwise, may have considered siding with the opposition. But once he was designated by supporters and opponents as Hagel’s “kashrut supervisor” whose judgment is final, Schumer’s approval of Hagel roped in all the other potential defectors as well.

And were it not for the all-out, take-no-prisoners, truth-be-damned onslaught mounted by Hagel’s detractors – people for whom overkill is an understatement - the debate about Hagel may not have evolved into a straight up-or-down vote of confidence in President Obama and may not have been decided along such strictly partisan lines.

But while the anti-Hagel crowd tried to snatch some sort of moral or tactical victory from the jaws of their resounding defeat in the Senate Tuesday, it is Israel that will once again pay the price for their zealous campaign, supposedly fought in its name.

The disproportionate and often hysterical injection of Israel at the center of the debate that engulfed Hagel, as well as the unwarranted insinuations of his supposed anti-Semitism and “Jewish problem” were no more than a thinly-veiled effort to refight the holy war against Obama that right-wing Republicans had lost only a few months earlier, in the November elections. Unfortunately, well-meaning groups such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti Defamation League appeared at times to be tagging along on this ill-conceived ride.

One did not need to be an anti-Semite or an Israel-hater to feel more than mildly uncomfortable with the wildly disproportionate amounts of time and attention devoted to Israel by so many Republicans in the Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearings. The repeated attempts to elicit oaths of undying allegiance to Israel from Hagel, while ignoring such cardinal military challenges as Afghanistan and jihadi terrorism may have gone over well inside the cuckoo’s nest of rabid, self-styled Israel lovers, but it could not but have elicited embarrassment and even disbelief among most rational observers, including supporters of Israel.

If any corroboration was needed for claims made by Israel’s enemies about its inordinate dominance, influence and sway on Capitol Hill, the hearings provided it, big time.

All of which does not negate the fact that many rational and fair minded supporters of Israel had several good reasons to feel uncomfortable with Hagel’s past positions and with his lackluster and ultimately unconvincing public conversion to those deemed more acceptable in the present.

Israelis would probably have felt more confident in a secretary of defense who had not been so gung-ho to reach an accommodation with Iran, who was not as enamored as Hagel with Syrian President Assad and who did not require convoluted contortions to explain why he had opposed Hezbollah’s classification as a terrorist group.

But in an era of hyper-polarization in American politics, a calm and rational dissection of Hagel’s advantages and disadvantages as defense secretary was not to be. Instead, his confirmation hearings resembled more of a shouting match and his confirmation vote a strong-armed partisan showdown.

Hagel now starts his term in office with the immediate challenges of dealing with massive budget cuts, with or without sequestration, handling the continuing drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan and preparing for two potential military flashpoints in Syria and Iran.

Whatever he may say in public, Hagel would have to be both super-human and super-Zionist – which he isn’t - not to harbor some lingering resentment for the cruel and unusual ordeal that he was forced to endure, much of it in Israel’s name, in order to reach the Pentagon. It is a sentiment that he will be able to share, unfortunately, with his immediate superior at the White House.

But there is a saying in Hebrew that may now be apt at least for the optimists among us– “ze ma yesh, ve’im ze nenazeach”. This is what we have, and with this we will have to win.

Chuck Hagel in the spotlight at the Senate hearing.Credit: AP

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