Liberal Zionists and neocons battle over Chuck Hagel

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The possible nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of Defense is drawing neoconservative opposition and support from liberal Zionists and realists. In short, the Israel lobby is dividing over Chuck Hagel. Here are some of the latest responses.

In the New York Times, “Comments on Israel by Top Contender for Defense Secretary Are Scrutinized,” reporter Mark Landler highlights the neoconservative opposition to Hagel–

“It is a matter of fact that a record like that is well outside the mainstream of both Democratic and Republican positions on such issues,” said Josh Block, the chief executive of the Israel Project, a pro-Israel educational group.

–but Landler says that the criticism will likely not sink a Hagel nomination. Note that the liberal Zionist group J Street is on Hagel’s side, or seems to be:

Some officials on Capitol Hill predicted that if nominated, Mr. Hagel, 66, would not face anywhere near the opposition that scuttled Ms. Rice’s candidacy. He remains popular among his former colleagues.

But the steady drumbeat of criticism….

“There is a very systematic effort going on, and these things can have an impact,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group, which defends Mr. Hagel.

“It is simply beyond disturbing to think that somebody of Chuck Hagel’s stature and significant record of national service is being slandered in this way,” Mr. Ben-Ami said.

Update: J Street has strongly endorsed Hagel.

Liberal Zionist Dana Milbank in the Washington Post is supporting Hagel:

Hagel would probably be swiftly confirmed by the Senate, and he should be: A man of unassailable military credentials who regards war as a last resort is exactly the sort of person to head the Pentagon.

…It’s fair criticism to say Hagel isn’t sufficiently pro-Israel, although much the same is said of the man who would nominate him. But [Bill] Kristol, and then others, went further, publishing a passage from a 2008 book in which Hagel is quoted as saying: “The political reality is that . . . the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”

That was a dumb phrase — many Christians are pro-Israel and many Jews aren’t — and Hagel said he misspoke (he used the phrase “Israel lobby” elsewhere in the interview). But, as an American Jew who has written about anti-Semitism in political dialogue, I don’t see this as anti-Semitic or anti­-Israel….

Hagel was explaining why he didn’t sign all of those nonbinding letters from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, justifiably calling them “stupid.”

Peter Beinart, a liberal Zionist, is justly angered by the anti-Semitism charge leveled against Hagel by neocon Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal:

Take [Stephens’s] column today entitled “Chuck Hagel’s Jewish Problem,” the first paragraph of which notes that “prejudice—like cooking, wine-tasting and other consummations—has an olfactory element” and that when it comes to Hagel’s statements about Jews “the odor is especially ripe.” Pretty subtle, huh?

So what’s Stephens’ evidence? Two quotations. The first is Hagel’s statement, four years ago, that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.” What Stephens doesn’t tell his readers is that Aaron Miller, the well-respected former peace processor from a distinguished Cleveland Jewish family who quotes Hagel as saying that, also calls him “a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values.” Or that Miller himself writes that “political pressures have taken a serious toll by conditioning a key branch of the American government [Congress] to be reflexively pro-Israel.” Maybe Miller has a Jewish problem too?

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin is busy carrying the water for Abe Foxman. Two neocons, busy as bees. More anti-Semitism charges: 

Abe Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, emails me from overseas on the potential for Chuck Hagel to be picked as secretary of Defense:

“Chuck Hagel would not be the first, second, or third choice for the American Jewish community’s friends of Israel.  His record relating to Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship is, at best, disturbing, and at worst, very troubling.   The sentiments he’s expressed about the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism in the genre of professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt and former president Jimmy Carter.”

John Judis at The New Republic stands up for Hagel, yes at the New Republic, and puts his finger on Hagel’s sins. He opposed the Iraq war, he pushed for the two-state solution and an end to settlements:

[Hagel’s] critics include the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is funded by gambling mogul and greater-Israel proponent Sheldon Adelson; the Zionist Organization of America, which also opposes a two-state solution; and a sundry collection of fellow travellers, including the Weekly Standard, Commentary, and the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin. “Hagel has made clear he believes in the existence of a nefarious Jewish lobby that secretly controls U.S. foreign policy,” one Republican aide told The Weekly Standard. “This is the worst kind of anti-Semitism there is.”

I know something about Hagel. I spent several months talking to him and to people who know him for a profile I wrote for The New Republic in 2007 when he was considering running for president. I can’t confidently say that he would make a good or great Secretary of Defense, but I can say with confidence that Hagel is a honorable man who served with distinction as a senator and that his foreign policy views, including his positions on Israel and its American lobby, are, if anything, a reason to support rather than oppose his nomination.  

…He has energetically backed the “peace process” and a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine.

This last position is what is now causing Hagel trouble. He stands accused of recommending that the United States talk to individuals, groups and countries that are seen as enemies of Israel.

Judis says it all turns on McCain:

The attempt by the Republican Jewish Coalition and The Weekly Standard, which still holds a special grudge against Hagel for opposing the Iraq war, may not succeed in derailing Hagel’s nomination. AIPAC has been quiet to date on Hagel’s potential nomination, and J Street, its liberal counterpart, has actively backed Hagel, who spoke at its 2009 conference. So has Aaron David Miller. One key indicator of Hagel’s chances at confirmation will be whether John McCain speaks out in his favor. The two men used to be very friendly –Hagel was the co-chair of McCain’s presidential campaign during 2000 – but fell out over the Iraq war. If McCain backs Hagel, then Obama may be willing to risk the controversy that the pro-Netanyahu groups are likely to foment. But if the Republicans coalesce against Hagel, as they did against Susan Rice, Obama may worry that the nomination fight will overshadow his efforts to evade the fiscal cliff.  

Oh and some non-Jews have also offered opinions on the matter, in blogs. First Steve Walt worries that Obama will cave, and says that Bill Kristol has resorted to smearing critics because his own position, opposing the two-state solution, has been revealed to be extremist:

President Obama hasn’t shown a lot of backbone on this issue in the past, and it’s possible that Kristol and the other hardliners who are now spewing falsehoods about Hagel will get the White House to blink. It’s also possible that Obama will prefer a less traditional defense and foreign policy team and will opt for somebody else for that reason….

But what this incident really reveals is how desperate Kristol & Co. are becoming. Having conceived, cheer-led, and then bungled the disastrous Iraq war, their credentials as foreign policy “experts” are forever tarnished. They’ve used the “anti-Semitism/Israel-hater” charge so often and so inaccurately that it is losing its power to silence or deter, and defending the “special relationship” will be more and more difficult as Israel drifts rightward and hopes for a two-state solution fade into oblivion. 

These trends will force Kristol and those who share his views to use even more despicable tactics to defend an untenable status quo.

Andrew Sullivan is as usual incisive, landing on Bret Stephens:

Like a kabuki dance, here it comes: the usual vile insinuations; the usual call for the Greater Israel Lobby to kill a nomination because a US Senator actually believe his job is to care first about the security and interests of the US, not Greater Israel; the reflexive equation of opposition to the Netanyahu administration or the settlements or the Gaza wars with pure bigotry. The phrases – “the odor is especially ripe” – are as preeningly self-righteous as they are toxic. You are not allowed, for example, to note that well-financed organized Washington lobbies “intimidate” lawmakers:

[Stephens writes,] “the word ‘intimidates’ ascribes to the so-called Jewish lobby powers that are at once vast, invisible and malevolent; and because it suggests that legislators who adopt positions friendly to that lobby are doing so not from political conviction but out of personal fear.”

Once again, I hope that the firestorm over the phrase, the “Jewish lobby,” will prompt a conversation about Zionism in the Jewish community. Roger Waters used the term “the Israel and the Jewish lobby” at the Russell Tribunal. Shlomo Sand said “the Jewish lobby” and amended himself to say, “the pro-Zionist lobby” last week.

In the Times, Landler wrote, “Critics faulted… his use of the phrase ‘Jewish’ rather than ‘Israel,’ suggesting that all advocates for Israel are Jewish.”

Yes and what about the other question: Are all Jews advocates for Israel? No. The media should be asking that question. Let’s see a show of hands.

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