In backing Hagel, mainstream news organizations call out the Israel lobby

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The last 24 hours have seen major support for Chuck Hagel as a possible Defense Secretary originating from many mainstream venues, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Chris Matthews on Hardball. The Times piece by James Besser, formerly of the Jewish Week, and the New Yorker piece by Connie Bruck are both ringing endorsements; if anything could convince Obama that the Jewish community has his back in naming Hagel, you’d think this kind of support will.

The theme of the mainstream pro-Hagel arguments is, Only the Israel lobby is against Hagel, but we’re against the Israel lobby! Because the Israel lobby is a rightwing fringe that supports the settlement process. Of course, this brings up a definitional question, What is the Israel lobby and what does it stand for? but I’ll get to that at the end.

First a wrapup. The opposition. The Log Cabin Republicans (gay organization) is running a full-page ad in the New York Times opposing a Hagel nomination. And Christians United for Israel is urging folks to write to their Senators to oppose Chuck Hagel.

The greatest threat to our security and that of our front-line ally Israel is a rising and potentially nuclear Iran. Yet Senator Hagel has demonstrated a troubling blind spot towards this threat. In the Senate, he repeatedly opposed economic sanctions on Iran intended to stop its nuclear program.

By the way, CUFI’s spokesman is named Ari Morgenstern, who tweets that Hagel is not an anti-Semite.

At the Atlantic, Robert Wright notes that Hagel has gotten a “second wind” and cites a long string of endorsers in the mainstream, including many in the “non-neocon right,” and says Hagel is a defining moment for Obama:

So it’s in Obama’s hands. There’s a lot at stake here–not just whether McCarthyite smears will be allowed to succeed, but whether Obama, in the wake of the Susan Rice episode, will now get a reputation as someone who caves whenever he faces resistance. Some people say Obama will abandon Hagel because he’s too busy dealing with the fiscal cliff negotiations. The truth is that if he doesn’t stand by Hagel he’ll have a weaker hand in the fiscal cliff negotiations, because no one will take his threats seriously. “Defining moment” is an overused term, but this is a defining moment for President Obama.

Now let’s get to the theme, people calling out the Israel lobby. Here is an excellent piece by Bernard Avishai at Open Zion, “Hagel and the Neo-McCarthyites,” in which Avishai attacks the rightwing Jewish establishment for destroying political careers for decades now:

I think it is time to acknowledge, bluntly, that certain major Jewish organizations, indeed, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations—also, the ADL, AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, political groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition, along with their various columnists, pundits, and list-serves—are among the most consistent purveyors of McCarthyite-style outrages in America today. Are there greater serial defamers of public officials in fake campaigns against defamation? Starting with Andrew Young and the late Charles Percy, and on to Chas. Freeman and (now) Chuck Hagel, the game has been to keep Congresspeople and civil servants who might be skeptical of Israel’s occupation and apologetics in a posture that can only be called exaggerated tact.

Fault Israel and you are accused of faulting Jews in our collective state, or, the same thing, overlooking the venality of our enemies—things only an anti-Semite would do and, of all times, in the wake of the Holocaust. This is not a charge anyone in public life wants to suffer or try to deny…

Avishai goes on from that point– “Fault Israel and you are accused of faulting Jews in our collective state”– to explain the semantic absurdity of destroying Hagel for using the words “Jewish lobby.”

Hagel had the brass to call this grass green: Congresspeople will tell you openly that AIPAC has become one of the most feared, and secretly loathed, presences on Capitol Hill. Hagel spoke with thinly veiled contempt—which he came by honestly—of efforts by the Israeli lobby to intimidate dissenting diplomats and legislators. Ah, but he spoke of the power of the “Jewish Lobby”—not the Israeli lobby—which was the opening the lobby’s hallelujah chorus needed to brand him a bigot.

Funny how you disapprove of Israel and you are told you are disapproving of Jews in the collective sense, but when you call the Israel lobby “Jewish” you have crossed the line.

The New Yorker’s Connie Bruck also calls out the Israel lobby in a piece titled, “Chuck Hagel and His Enemies.” Bruck baldly defines the opposition to Hagel as coming from the Israel lobby. When Chuck Schumer stepped away from Hagel last week, I asked why reporters didn’t point out that Schumer had called himself Israel’s guardian at an AIPAC conference. Bruck makes the point: “Charles Schumer (not known for his independence from the lobby) declined to say he would back Hagel…” More from Bruck:

From the moment, Hagel’s name was leaked as a possible nominee for Secretary of Defense—in what was, apparently, a trial balloon floated by the Obama Administration—Hagel’s most vocal critics have been members of what can be called the Israel lobby. Their enmity for Hagel goes back to his two terms in the Senate. A committed supporter of Israel and, also, of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, Hagel did not make the obeisance to the lobby that the overwhelming majority of his Congressional colleagues do. And he further violated a taboo by talking about the lobby, and its power. In his 2008 book, “The Much Too Promised Land,” Aaron Miller interviewed Hagel, whom he described as “a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values.” Miller also wrote, “Of all my conversations, the one with Hagel stands apart for its honesty and clarity.” He quoted Hagel saying that Congress “is an institution that does not inherently bring out a great deal of courage.” The American Israel Public Affairs Committee comes knocking with a pro-Israel letter, Hagel continued, and “then you’ll get eighty or ninety senators on it. I don’t think I’ve ever signed one of the letters”—because, he added, they were “stupid.” Hagel also said, “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” but “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”

Bruck deploys two powerful Jews on Hagel’s behalf and against the lobby. She quotes Gary Ackerman and Dianne Feinstein. Note that Bruck does not object to the term “Jewish lobby.” Objecting to that term would be like objecting to the generalization that evangelical Christians oppose abortion:

The longtime Democratic Representative Gary Ackerman, a pro-Israel stalwart, told me that many in that community have been unhappy with Hagel’s desire that Israel show more flexibility to achieve peace with the Palestinians and that the U.S. negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue—“rather than, you know ‘Let’s bomb them before the sun comes up.’  ” There is room for disagreement on these issues, he continued. But, regarding the attacks on Hagel, he said, “You know, not everybody who disagrees with Israel’s policies is anti-Semitic, otherwise half the Jewish population of Israel would be anti-Semitic!” The bar for that label should be very high, he added, or it loses its meaning—and the fact that Hagel used the phrase “Jewish lobby” certainly didn’t qualify. “The lobby, are they mostly Jews, do they advocate for the Jewish state? Yeah.” Ackerman pointed out that some who have called Hagel anti-Israel and anti-Semitic have defamed President Obama the same way….

Only Senator Dianne Feinstein (who [as opposed to Chuck Schumer] is known for her independence [from the lobby]) defended Hagel, and said he would be “outstanding.” “I think he’s honest and he’s direct and he’s smart,” Feinstein said.

Next, the New York Times gives op-ed space to Jim Besser, formerly of the Jewish Week, to argue in favor of Hagel and also characterize the Israel lobby as a zealous minority of the Jewish community that we must oppose:

American Jewish leaders, who increasingly tremble in the face of a small minority of zealots, whose vision of Israel’s future diverges from that of the majority of American Jews and clashes with core American values of freedom and democracy.

Such extremism is once again on display as the pro-Israel right, including groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel, mounts a furious campaign against the potential nomination of the former Republican senator Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense…

Support for the Jewish state remains strong among both parties on Capitol Hill and across the American electorate, and it won’t disappear anytime soon. But that support will wither if Aipac and other mainstream Jewish leaders don’t forcefully reject the zealots in their midst.

And, in the long run, that can only damage the interests of a vulnerable Israel.

Now here is the Chris Matthews segment last night, with Steve Clemons and Jim Frederick of Time Magazine. Matthews is all over the lot here. He thinks Hagel won’t be nominated–too stiff a headwind–but he wants to make clear that the “Israeli lobby,” as he describes it, includes many Christians: “They may outnumber the Jewish people.” Sorry Chris, Gary Ackerman just told Connie Bruck that the Israel lobby is mostly Jewish! And Matthews says that it is anti-semitic to refer to the “Israeli lobby” as the “Jewish lobby.” 

To use that infelicitous term these days.. Why would he [Hagel] say it that way? And it may sound like a small point…. but to people who learn their lingua of politics, their lingo of politics, it’s important.

The problem with this argument is that journalists should be able to generalize; and actually the American Jewish community has been monolithic on this question. As Avishai points out, support for Israel has long been a litmus test for Jewish organizations, which lobby as Jewish groups. I’m Jewish and support Jewish groups that are critical of Israel, but we are a tiny minority.

Clemons has the best comments on Matthews’s show, and finds that he has to speak about Jews:

“[Hagel has] been basically run over by certain aspects of the American Jewish community, and I think that that’s really who’s been driving the debate. But Tom Friedman I think [in column supporting Hagel] just put a lot of wind in the Hagel sails again”

As for challenging the pro-Israel line, Clemons says: “This is a difficult discussion to have in Washington.” Exactly. The lobby held the line on settlements. When Netanyahu closed off East Jerusalem with settlements– which Matthews now asserts flew “completely in the face of US policy”– well, the voices against Netanyahu in the Jewish establishment were remarkably limited. No one was for any real punishment. The Israel lobby won, and the Jewish organizations were monolithic.

Steve Walt makes that point here, defining the issues more precisely than the other writers I’ve quoted. He says the two-state solution is dead, the Israel lobby killed it years ago. And the Hagel pick is about Iran. Obama’s willingness to stand up for Hagel is a measure of the Israel lobby’s enduring strength:

[T]he United States is incapable of mounting the sort of sustained pressure that might force both sides to compromise. Which means the two-state solution is dead, and it won’t matter whether Hagel gets the nod or not. The $3-4 billion annual aid package won’t be affected, and I’ll bet the United States continues to wield its U.N. Security Council veto whenever it is asked.

This appointment could affect U.S. policy toward Iran, insofar as Hagel’s been skeptical about the wisdom of using military force in the past. He’s hardly a dove or an appeaser, of course; he just recognizes that military force may not be a very good way to deal with this problem. (Well, duh.) If Obama wants to pursue diplomacy instead of preventive war — and he should — the combination of Hagel at Defense and Kerry at State would give him two respected, articulate, and persuasive voices to help him make that case. But if Obama were to decide that force was a good idea, neither Kerry nor Hagel would stand in his way. So in terms of overall Middle East policy in the next couple of years, this appointment may matter less than most people think.

The real meaning of the Hagel affair is what it says about the climate inside Washington. Simply put, the question is whether supine and reflexive support for all things Israeli remains a prerequisite for important policy positions here in the Land of the Free.

Note that Walt mentions the aid package to Israel. Among all the folks criticizing the zealous Israel lobby, no one is for suspending aid to Israel. J Street is against any cut in aid. Connie Bruck’s big source, Gary Ackerman, is aligned with Bruck’s husband, former congressman Mel Levine, as a liberal Zionist who has basically demonstrated “supine and reflexive support for all things Israeli,” as Walt puts it so deliciously.

As Avishai pointed out, no one in US politics was allowed to criticize the settlements, even on the Democratic “left”:

The weight they [American Jewish organizations] have derives from their being able to hold American politicians to endorsing a “special relationship” with Israel, where special means unconditional, so that (as James Baker and Howard Dean discovered) even the desire for “even-handedness” is treachery.

So what it the Israel lobby and how has it changed? The Israel lobby is a loose coalition of advocates who push to preserve the U.S. special relationship with Israel so as to maintain a Jewish state. If you call for boycott, divestment or sanctions in order to punish Israel for its colonial expansion, then you are not in the Israel lobby.

And how has the lobby changed? It’s fractured. And the Hagel battle is being engaged on a line inside lobby territory: the zealots, the Greater Israel crowd, versus the allegedly sensible people who are for the two-state solution. Norman Finkelstein anticipated this in October when he said at the New School that most American Jews don’t want to go against their country on a stated US policy, so when Obama fought with Netanyahu over bombing Iran, American Jews would have to support Obama. They did by 70 percent in the last election, despite all the neocon appeals. Obama therefore has a political mandate from the only community that might support an attack on Iran not to attack Iran, and he could nominate Chuck Hagel with political comfort.

As for the constitutional questions involving Israel/Palestine– is there one state between the river and the sea, and should it be a democracy in which Palestinians have a right to vote? — the Israel lobby is against having such a discussion. Chuck Hagel becoming Defense Secretary could hasten the day when those questions are addressed, but he can’t raise them himself.

(Thanks to Annie Robbins and Susie Kneedler for passing along news items!)

Update: MJ Rosenberg explains why it’s OK to use the term Jewish lobby, in “Yes It’s the Jewish Lobby and It Speaks for 1 Percent of Us”:

Bottom line: the Israel Lobby is the Jewish Lobby. One would be hard-pressed to find a single legislator who kisses up to Netanyahu and AIPAC to please Christians. Not a single constituent organization that composes the lobby is anything but Jewish, starting with AIPAC. The others all have the word “Jewish” in their names. Who are they kidding?

That makes it critical that the overwhelming majority of Jews get the message across that the lobby does not speak for us. And that the lobby isn’t us. AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and the multi-millionaires associated with all of them constitute a lobby of a few thousand people. They are the Jewish (less than) One Percent. And that is all they speak for.

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