Although President Obama hasn’t yet officially nominated anyone to replace Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel (R – Neb.) seems to be the frontrunner. After his name was floated in a trial balloon to test the political winds, Hagel was immediately targeted for grounding for statements he made regarding Israel and its influence in Washington. Rather than call into question Hagel’s actual qualifications, the nature of the attacks on him prove the very point he was making about the pernicious influence of Israeli hardliners in American politics.
Hagel — a decorated Vietnam War veteran — spoke about the influence of the “Jewish lobby” (although it would be more accurate to call it the Israeli lobby, and he did indeed use this phrase elsewhere), and the growing calls for war with Iran. Hagel had the temerity to tell one Iran war supporter that first and foremost, he was a U.S. Senator, not an Israeli one.
In light of those comments, Hagel has been called an “anti-Semite” by some, including one very brave top Republican Senate aide, who preferred to lob that ugly charge from behind a wall of anonymity.
Meanwhile, endless war advocate and reflexive Israel supporter, William Kristol — who’s never served in the military, but is always advocating some war or another — took to the pages of the Weekly Standard to smear the former Army Sergeant as having “anti-Israel, pro-appeasement-of-Iran bona fides.”
And then there are former Hagel’s former senate colleagues Lindsey Graham (R – S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I – Conn.). Like Kristol, Graham and Lieberman (who thankfully has only a week left in the senate) always seem to be in pro-war mode. Graham recently said on Meet the Press, “I like Chuck, but his positions I didn't really quite frankly know all of them, are really out of the mainstream and well to the left of the president.”
Lieberman has expressed similar sentiments.
The row over Hagel’s potential nomination exemplifies a very nasty and debilitating reality of U.S. foreign policy: to be considered politically viable in most cases, one must be unwaveringly pro-Israel, and never criticize the actions of the Israeli government no matter how well-founded or thoughtful the criticisms are. The influence of the pro-Israel lobbying organizations such as the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee is beyond question, and AIPAC is consistently regarded as one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington.
Worse, there is a very dangerous prevailing orthodoxy in today’s political climate that says that the interests of the U.S. and Israel are one and the same. As Hagel intimated, this is not always the case, and right now he is paying the price for his very honest assessment that by and large, is an uncontroversial opinion in the foreign policy community, as unconditional support for Israel is a key motivator behind anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. Woe to the politician who makes public that straightforward assessment, lest he be accused of being an anti-Semite.
By far the most embarrassing manifestation of the Israeli lobby’s influence in U.S. politics was the reaction to a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he addressed the U.S. Congress in 2011. During that speech, he received no fewer than 29 standing ovations. In a review of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism, Scott McConnell explained the mechanics behind them:
“Each member of Congress had a single gallery pass to give out, and most gave theirs to their largest AIPAC donor. With the hall packed with supporters, Netanyahu received one thundering ovation after another. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who as head of the Democratic National Committee plays a key role in party fundraising, used arm motions to signal to her colleagues when to stand and applaud, and they rose and clapped at Netanyahu’s most controversial statements.”
That, in a nutshell, conveys the cravenness of the U.S. Congress, which has repeatedly and in bipartisan fashion, passed innumerable pieces of pro-Israel legislation in lop-sided votes — in many cases merely to show gratuitous support of no real consequence whatsoever.
The most ironic part of this sorry episode is that Hagel actually has a strong pro-Israel record, as Think Progress notes. One would assume that having that kind of record would insulate its owner from charges of anti-Semitism, but one would be wrong. That Hagel is a target of the Israel-first crowd in the U.S. is a stark testament to the plain truth that criticism of the Israeli government in any form is simply unacceptable in American political discourse.