Israel lobby rails against Pentagon
favorite By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - Neo-conservatives and leaders
of the powerful Israel lobby are mobilizing their
forces in what looks like an all-out campaign to
pre-empt the nomination by President Barack Obama
of an outspoken former Republican senator and
decorated Vietnam War hero to replace Leon Panetta
as secretary of defense.
The campaign was
launched last week after senior White House
officials leaked word that Chuck Hagel, who also
co-chairs the President's Foreign Intelligence
Advisory Board (PFIAB), was
likely to get the nomination
whenever, as expected any time, Panetta formally
announces his retirement.
steam in the past few days with prominent neo-cons
leading the charge against the former Nebraska
If Obama goes ahead with the
nomination, it could signal a key shift in US
Middle East policy, if only because Hagel, a
Republican realist in the tradition of former
president Dwight Eisenhower and secretary of state
James Baker, has been a forthright critic of some
of Israel's policies and a consistent advocate of
diplomatic engagement with Iran.
observers would see his nomination as "payback" to
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who
clashed repeatedly with Obama during his first
term over Jewish settlement expansion in the West
Bank and his repeated threats to attack Iran.
Netanyahu also made little secret of his
preference for Republican Governor Mitt Romney in
last month's presidential election.
among neo-conservatives and the more mainstream
Israel lobby in Washington that Obama intends to
exert real pressure on Israel in his second term
appear to be motivating the burgeoning campaign
against Hagel's possible nomination.
goal, therefore, is to convince Obama that he will
pay an excessively high political cost if he goes
through with Hagel's nomination. If the nomination
goes forward, most observers believe it will be
very difficult to defeat given the reluctance many
senate Republicans would feel about rejecting one
of their own (despite the fact that Hagel endorsed
Obama for the presidency in 2008).
main charge leveled so far against Hagel, who also
chairs the influential Atlantic Council think
tank, is that he is "anti-Israel" - some go so far
as to call him "anti-Semitic" - and that he has
repeatedly expressed skepticism about carrying out
a military attack against Iran if it fails to bow
to Western demands that it curb - or, preferably,
in Israel's view - abandon its nuclear program.
"Hagel certainly does have anti-Israel,
pro-appeasement-of-Iran bona fides," wrote William
Kristol, editor-in-chief of The Weekly Standard,
in the magazine's lead editorial this week.
"While still a senator, Hagel said that 'a
military strike against Iran, a military option,
is not a viable, feasible, responsible option',"
noted Kristol, a co-founder of the
neo-conservative Project for a New American
Century (PNAC), which played a key role in beating
the drums for war against Iraq one decade ago,
and, more recently, the controversial Emergency
Committee for Israel (ECI).
He was joined
on Tuesday by two other prominent
neo-conservatives known for their strong support
of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party - Elliott
Abrams, a fellow at the Council on Foreign
Relations who served as George W Bush's top Middle
East aide, and Bret Stephens, who writes the
"Global View" column in the Wall Street Journal.
Noting that Hagel had once explained to a
friendly interviewer that "the Jewish Lobby
intimidates a lot of people up here [in
congress]," Stephens suggested that the use of
that expression smelled of anti-Semitism,
particularly in light of his criticisms of Israel
during the second Palestinian intifada and
its 2006 war in Lebanon, and his opposition to
various sanctions imposed on Iran.
Hagel's Jewish lobby remark was well in keeping
with the broader pattern of his thinking," wrote
Stephens, who went on to quote from an interview
Hagel conducted with a retired US Mideast diplomat
in 2006 as alleged evidence of the former
senator's anti-semitism or hostility to Israel.
"I'm a United States senator, not an
Israeli senator," Hagel told Aaron David Miller.
"I'm a United States senator. I support Israel.
But my first interest is I take an oath of office
to the Constitution of the United States. Not to a
president. Not a party. Not to Israel."
While such a statement would appear
uncontroversial on its face, Stephens' charges
were nonetheless echoed by Abraham Foxman,
director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a
pillar of the more-conventional Israel lobby.
"Chuck Hagel would not be the first,
second, or third choice for the American Jewish
community's friends in Israel," Foxman told
neo-conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer
"His record relating to Israel and
the US-Israel relationship is, at best,
disturbing, and, at worst, very troubling," said
Foxman, who added that Hagel's sentiments about
the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism.
Still, Foxman, who, unlike the
neo-conservatives, tries to remain scrupulously
non-partisan, told The Times of Israel he would
not oppose the nomination if it went forward.
The American Israel Public Affairs
Committee (AIPAC), the most influential pro-Israel
lobby group, has so far kept a discreet silence,
although a former longstanding spokesman, Josh
Block, who now heads The Israel Project, strongly
denounced Hagel for his opposition to sanctions
against Iran and his refusal to sign various
letters and resolutions against Iran, Hezbollah,
and Hamas that were favored, if not drafted, by
In some ways, the latest campaign
is reminiscent of that carried out against Chas
Freeman, a highly decorated retired ambassador,
who was appointed to chair the National
Intelligence Council early in Obama's
administration only to withdraw from consideration
after an intense campaign against him by leading
neo-conservatives and the Israel lobby.
that case, however, they focused less on Freeman's
criticism of US policy toward Israel than on his
allegedly close ties to the Chinese leadership.
With Hagel, of course, the stakes would be
much higher given the importance of the Pentagon
in policy-making, particularly in the Middle East,
where Obama, consistent with Hagel's own views, is
trying hard to lighten the US footprint in order
to "pivot" US military forces more towards the
Also, unlike the Freeman
case, Hagel's foes will find it difficult to use
other non-Mideast issues to mobilize opposition to
his possible nomination. Frank Gaffney, head of
the hardline neo-conservative Center for Security
Policy (CSP), denounced Hagel in a Washington
Times op-ed Tuesday for his early skepticism about
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his belief that
the Pentagon was "bloated", and his support, along
with other Republican realists, for gradual
argument is that if, as expected, Obama nominates
Senator John Kerry as secretary of state, putting
another older white male at the top in the
Pentagon would defeat the president's belief that
his cabinet should be demographically diverse.
In the very short time since the Hagel
controversy has erupted, a number of prominent
Jewish voices have spoken in his support,
including Miller, who told the Daily Beast's "Open
Zion" blog, "Hagel is a strong supporter of
In addition, former US
ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer told Politico
that the criticism directed against Hagel was
"terribly misguided", while the "pro-peace,
pro-Israel" J Street lobby group said Hagel "would
be an outstanding choice" to head the Pentagon.
Most observers believe much now depends on
whether prominent senators closely tied to the
Israel lobby on either side of the aisle speak out
So far, Republican Senators
McCain and Lindsay Graham, whose views generally
reflect those of the neo-conservatives and who
played a key role in rallying opposition to
Obama's possible nomination as secretary of state
UN Ambassador Susan Rice, have promised to grill
Hagel on his "Jewish lobby" remarks if he is
nominated but have not said they would necessarily
oppose him, as they did with Rice.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign
policy can be read at lobelog.com.