In choosing Hagel, an antiwar president gets backup from the new Israel lobby

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When Obama nominated Chuck Hagel Monday, I was jubilant for one reason: The military option is off the table, we will not attack Iran.

Obama’s speech endorsing Hagel was defiant and anti-war. His face was mottled, in a way I’ve never seen it before, a signal of age or passion. He paused for emphasis as he spoke of the young people bleeding in the dirt and the mud when we go to war and said Hagel would be on their side. He detailed Hagel’s Vietnam War injuries and the injuries to his brother Tom – events leading to Hagel’s famous Vietnam epiphany, his vow in the helicopter that if he got out of here, he would dedicate his life to making sure this never happened again.

So Obama and Hagel are committed, we will not attack Iran. This was the silent victory of the last election. Obama defied the Israel lobby over its “loose talk” about  attacking Iran, and though Netanyahu and the Emergency Committee for Israel and the Republican Jewish Coalition tried to push Jewish voters to vote for Romney for a strike on Iran, Obama held an overwhelming percentage of the Jewish vote, and– because establishment Jewish opinion re the Middle East is ultimately determinative of US policy– he can govern as an antiwar president. As for Hagel, five years ago he told a liberal Zionist group that that we need to make a “security gift” to Iran and open a special interest section of our embassy in Tehran. He’s going to have to walk that back at the confirmation hearing; but the military option is off the table.

I was surprised Obama had the guts to nominate Hagel, because Hagel is the antithesis of the Israel lobby in our politics. Indeed, I think his nomination represents a power slide by the lobby. It is now split, and the right wing side is losing power by the minute. The Hagel nomination is a neoconservative bloodbath. Because they supported the Iraq war disaster, because they support Netanyahu who our liberal media have turned on. When David Frum said that Chuck Hagel was qualified to serve in the State Department’s Near East Affairs bureau, it was an ethnic crack. He was saying, Hagel is an isolationist and an “Arabist,” of the sort Bill Kristol thought he had successfully purged from the Republian Party. Hagel does seem like a throwback to the James Baker realist school. He doesn’t seem like a philo-Semite. He’s a midwestern Catholic, not particularly sophisticated. [Update, Hagel’s biographer states he was raised Catholic, and is now Episcopalian]

Yet a large portion of the Israel lobby will embrace him. Why are liberal Zionists from Peace Now to J Street to Peter Beinart embracing Hagel? What does this mean for the lobby? Liberal Zionists are supporting Hagel because they know that the traditional Israel lobby, or Status Quo Lobby, has helped to destroy Israel. Peter Beinart, who spoke on behalf of Hagel on NPR yesterday morning and on Chris Matthews last night, wrote a book saying as much: the only way to save the Jewish state is to oppose the rightwing pro-Israel groups in the United States who have allowed Israel to devour the West Bank.

The Matthews segment was a neocon-bash (conveniently ignoring the fact that Beinart had supported the Iraq war), though Matthews announced that he and Beinart and Sam Stein of Huffpo were all prepared to have a war with Iran if we have to, but whatever does that mean? It was chaff. Liberal Zionists will even accept a policy of deterrence—Iran with nukes—if they can only get a two-state solution. And I imagine that Obama in his typical cool way has sent the liberal Zionists signals that he is going to push for two states, or let Europe take the lead, once the next rightwing coalition takes power in Israel and seeks to annex Area C.

The rightwing side of the Israel lobby fears Hagel, and calls him an anti-Semite, but it does not look as if they will go after him. The Forward reports that the major Jewish orgs are going to “relent” on Hagel, that AIPAC will sit on the sidelines because it can’t win and wants to stay on the Defense Secretary’s rolodex.  In the Forward piece, Abe Foxman’s statements are shocking. Yes he said before that Hagel’s views border on being anti-Semitic, but “In the world we live in, one cannot be nuanced.” And now that Hagel’s been nominated, it’s a “different reality.” I.e., we’ll smear you to keep you out. But once you’re in, we’ll defer to power. Still, the American Jewish Committee might campaign against Hagel, and AIPAC’s neoconservative surrogates are still on the trail. Dan Senor, leader of AIPAC’s new technology division, is slamming Hagel. So is Josh Block, the former AIPAC spokesman to whom AIPAC sometimes directs journalists for answers. If the attacks start to draw blood… if someone from the Nebraska Jewish community who Elliott Abrams suggested darkly were dismissed by Hagel when he was senator comes forward with some allegation… well, it’s a whole new ballgame.

For now, though, the neoconservative attacks have only further marginalized the neocons, and Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain will represent an embittered hawkish minority of the Senate. Under pressure from MSNBC, I bet that Chuck Schumer will come on board for Hagel, though he will seek assurances on Iran policy. And Obama will be vague enough about the military option that both Schumer and the anti-war realists will claim they are satisfied.

These are the most important political developments in the Hagel appointment: the solidification of a new J Street-style Israel lobby that wants Obama to push for a two-state solution against Netanyahu, and the acceptance that old-school realists like Hagel are “stakeholders” in our Middle East policy, i.e., they get to have a voice.

You can see the lineaments of the new Israel lobby in the coalition rallying behind Hagel. They act as if Hagel is the greatest thing that ever happened to Israel. Instead of using this moment to try and educate Americans about the occupation and its evils and how much worse those conditions are than Jim Crow, Democrats are jumping over one another to say Hagel loves Israel. Israel-adorer Richard Cohen in the Washington Post had no problem with Hagel: “He could be the necessary corrective to the Netanyahu government’s expectation that anything Israel wants from Washington it’s entitled to get. Nothing Hagel has said about Israel is not said in the Israeli press on a daily basis.” Chris Matthews said the same thing last night: people can say in Israel what Hagel says and get away with it. Oh and Matthews loves Shimon Peres, he said. The night before he said that he has been to Israel many times.

Yousef Munayyer offers  savage insight into the lobby’s reformation. He says that the emergence of J Street was quickly balanced by the emergence of the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI). So AIPAC can offer itself as the middle way. The liberals frame their support for Hagel as he’s a “true friend” to Israel

because he’d offer some tough love to a state hell-bent on suicide-by-settlements… But this is only a “semblance of debate… on a fully Zionist spectrum from the J Street end to the ECI end.

I’m going to hold my nose for this stuff, and hope for a real argument. I want Elliott Abrams to say why he thinks Hagel is anti-Israel, and have Chris Matthews say, what does it matter, he’s an American! I want Hagel himself to explain why he said he’s not a Senator from Israel. I want Kristol and Abrams and Foxman to have to defend the allegation that Hagel is anti-Semitic. I want Steve Walt on television making this important argument:

And it wasn’t just the absurd claim that Hagel was anti-semitic; it was the bizarre suggestion that a key job requirement for the U.S. Secretary of Defense was a deep and passionate attachment to a foreign country. 

Right, when did philo-semitism become dual loyalty? I’d like to hear Hagel bust loose and talk about Palestinian humiliation. I bet that he is like the Republicans of the first Bush presidency, who slammed Israel for its settlement policies, and then lost the White House in part because of that stance.

After Bush came Clinton and Bush the younger, and David Frum exulted that these were “philosemitic” presidencies. The White House was full of neoconservatives. And the neoconservatives brought the Iraq war, because, as Matthews said last night, echoing Walt and Mearsheimer but giving them no credit, the neoconservatives thought the Iraq war would bring peace to Israel and Palestine—the road to Jerusalem went through Baghdad! Though when Matthews and Stein and Beinart later sought to explain Bill Kristol’s power, they said it was because he is charming. Not a word about the pro-Israel money, from Saban to Adelson, that was the brass ring of the presidential campaigns last summer. 

The liberal Zionists’ support for Hagel represents a real cession of power to realists, an understanding that interventionism is not the answer. This makes me jubilant. If there’s one thing this battle has already demonstrated, it’s how primitive the American conversation about Israel is, neocons who say it’s anti-semitic to criticize Israel versus liberals who say that Shimon Peres is a god. No one’s allowed to say Israel’s an apartheid state that’s delegitimizing itself more and more every day. But make no mistake, the Hagel nomination is a step toward bringing that conversation into Washington.

Update: I removed my comment about Hagel’s son being named Ziller and going to a Catholic university as stupid and offensive. Apologies.

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