Abdeen Jabara is a civil rights attorney and the former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. I interviewed him yesterday about the politics of the Chuck Hagel nomination to be Secretary of Defense.
What’s the Republicans’ game?
There was a convergence of different interests among the Republicans to put the heat on Obama through this confirmation process. John McCain had an interest different than Ted Cruz, but I think McCain will be the make or break on this. They’re upset with Cruz’s crudeness, but McCain apparently is trying to use this to put pressure on Obama over Benghazi.
The Republicans generally are still angry about their loss of the election, and in the right wing of the Republicans there’s basically a lot of hatred of Obama, and especially in Texas. And Cruz is a freshman senator who won in an upset victory and he wants to make a name for himself, and he sees this as an opportunity to make some waves. He doesn’t want to go the traditional route of taking years and trudging in the trenches to get seniority. So he’s making a big play of this, and this will help him enormously with the Sheldon Adelsons of the world.
Republicans know they lost because they’re out of date both because of their technology and their messaging, and they can no longer continue to be and to be seen as a white boy’s club. And they’re going through this angst and antics while they try to reconfigure and figure out how they can be relevant again. So you’ve got Cruz, the new face on the block, and the Republican realization that they lost big with Hispanic voters, and they want to be able to somehow make inroads in the Hispanic community. And that’s why they’re not tougher on Cruz than they have been. They don’t want to alienate Hispanics. They have to do something, because the United States has changed. Obama got a greater youth vote this time than in 2008. Not only that, but the number of people who identify with the Tea Party has dropped precipitously. In 2010, 24 percent of Republicans identified with the Tea Party, and now it’s 8 percent.
Before I began taking notes, you brought up the Chuck-Chuck deal, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer’s understanding with Chuck Hagel. Where does Hagel come into all of this?
I think what Hagel’s appointment was essentially about is Iran, and I think it was also about the need to reconfigure the American military for a less ambitious global mission– because the Republicans still want to pursue this idea of American exceptionalism and the shining city on the hill, and Obama has a much more realistic appreciation of the U.S.’s abilities after two failed wars. This hasn’t registered with the Republicans, and the neocons are smarting enormously from their having failed in all their prognostications.
Did you see the latest Harper’s? The open letter to Paul Wolfowitz from Andrew Bacevich– part of it deals with Israel. But most of it deals with how Wolfowitz tried to adopt Albert Wohlstetter’s five principles in terms of America’s involvement in the world, but he added a sixth one: The U.S. must have no distance from Israel, so that Israel would feel comfortable that its security would be guaranteed so that it would make moves to resolve the conflict.
The reason why Hagel didn’t defend anything he said about Israel in front of the committee– I think is because his testimony was directed at the Democratic Party. Because he was able to garner the support of Israel-supporters inside the Democratic Party, he didn’t want to lose that, and he knew that nothing he was going to say in front of these Republicans in the Armed Services Committee was going to satisfy them. So he wasn’t going to justify what he had said in the past, he just wanted to get through the thing and get confirmed. Essentially, he just wanted to make sure that he kept the very solid Democratic support which he had developed.
I read that he had tried to have this meeting with Schumer telephonically, and Schumer insisted on meeting personally, after which Schumer announced that he was satisfied, because he went through all the issues, one by one, and those were his words, one by one. And Schumer’s public remarks didn’t deal so much with Israel as with Iran. He wanted to make sure that Hagel was on board for not opting for a containment policy, as opposed to a complete elimination of any Iranian nuclear project.
So my reading is, basically, they reached an agreement that Hagel would not have anything to do with the Israel issue if he became secretary. That’s my considered opinion. I of course wasn’t there, but I think essentially Hagel’s getting the backing of everyone in the Democratic Party was absolutely essential, and I think ultimately he’s going to get confirmed.
Will we see any change in Middle East policy?
Yes but not because of Hagel.
I think that McCain gave the Cruz element in the Senate a 10-day window to go out and try and gather up more dirt on Hagel. And Cruz of course is getting fed this stuff from some place. And I only can imagine where he’s getting it from. All of our ADC [American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee] conventions were monitored very closely– there were people who would take whole tables at the banquets and sit up front and videotape everything the speakers would say. And we know that the ADL has been monitoring speeches by people who were even slightly critical of Israel for many many years. Somebody’s been doing this, just like is happening with Menendez.
Hagel spoke to the ADC convention, and he didn’t say anything that was very controversial, but politicians in Washington in large part would ahve very little to do with the ADC because they saw it as supporting these terrorists. So that may be what they’re going after, trying to claim that he spoke to the ADC, and bringing that up to smear him.
In the shadows of all this is Sheldon Adelson and people who are associated with him. They want to continue to make trouble for Obama. After this loss of the Republican Party, Adelson said, We’re not going to go away. So the money they have that they can use to support various candidates, which is a total scandal, is still available, and politicians know this.
What about Obama? Is there going to be a change in his policy?
Yes. I think Kerry and Obama seriously want to create some distance between the U.S. and Israel to open up some real possibility of movement. Whether that’s because of changes in the politics of Israel, or more releases of scandals in Israel such as happened with Prisoner X, or whatever, I think there’s a lot more space in this country for a real change. Partly because of this protracted controversy over Hagel, and the sharp light it has put on Israeli influence over American policy, through the Israeli lobby. The last time that anything like this happened was 60 years ago, when the Fulbright committee held hearings trying to get the then Israeli lobby to register as a foreign agent. [Senator J. William] Fulbright wasn’t able to do so, but he held these hearings which were incredible. Nothing has happened in Washington since that time to shine a light on the role of this lobby and the influence it has like the Hagel appointment has. It’s enormously important.
Whether Hagel says one word about Israel after he becomes Defense Secretary, the important thing is that what this lobby has feared is exposure. They have not wanted to be shown for what they are. They have wanted to operate in the shadows and the background and not be able to be seen because it will undermine their ability to operate.
One other time they did brag was when they knocked out Senator Charles Percy [in 1984]. At that time they were crowing about their power. And that’s how they intimidate members of Congress. They target this one and that one.
One of the real tragedies is, that with all this information and attention given to the Israeli lobby, there haven’t been any good investigative articles about how they operate. Nothing about the 30-some-odd pro-Israeli PACs created in various parts of the country. Nothing about the trips that they take these people to Israel. Because the journalists have not been doing their job. And that is the missing piece to this whole thing. Which is why I hope this won’t be ephemeral.
But I am very very encouraged that I think Obama thinks he has some space now that he didn’t have before. The whole BDS movement, the attention sites like yours have gotten– all these things are exciting, it shows there’s movement and interest and real questioning where there has not been for along time.
Do you think there will be a two state solution?
Everybody says that the two state solution is dead. I think the Palestinians are divided on that. I think if there were a real serious effort by the western countries to force a two state solution, it is still possible. Everybody’s saying it isn’t because of the settlements and Israel’s demands for security. Kerry doesn’t think it’s impossible. He said, I think I see a way where we can move forward on resolving this conflict. And he doesn’t mean a single state solution. Obama’s going to Israel, and Kerry knows the region enormously well. He’s highly respected and I believe that they really want to move forward on something in this direction, and I think they have the domestic space to do it.
That is what was lacking in the past. What was lacking was a lack of political will, because they felt they did not have the domestic space for it. I think the American people will support putting pressure on Israel. Obama can go to them and get it. I really think he can.
What is the likelihood of that coming to pass?
Let me put it this way, I don’t want to be a Pollyanna, I don’t want to be overly optimistic. But they all know, all this terrorism is all connected to this stuff, it’s all related. If they want to legitimately end this anti-Americanism that you can cut with a knife throughout the Muslims world, they’re going to have to deal with this issue. This is not just a problem with the Palestinians, or the Arabs, it’s 1.5 billion Muslims.
Trying to isolate the terrorists from the rest of the Muslims has been Obama’s policy since taking office– to see that they don’t have traction in the Muslim world. And this issue, plus the drones, are two big big issues in terms of Muslims’ alienation from the U.S.
What’s the probability of a two state solution?
I’d say 40 to 50 percent in the next few years. People are so disgusted– I know so many people who are so demoralized, that they’re just ready to say, let Israel absorb Palestine and we’ll have a struggle for civil rights inside Israel. But that’s another 20 year struggle.
In 50 years will there be a Jewish state?
That depends on a lot of demographic things. Lots of Israelis are leaving Israel. So it depends on out-migration. And there are no more large Jewish communities outside of Israel– that potential for inmigration is lower. It depends on the birth rate of the Palestinians, and how the right of return issue is resolved, what percentage of Palestinians are allowed to return.
I think that the thing I’m most encouraged about is how many Jewish Americans who in the past didn’t want to touch this with a ten-foot pole are now willing to speak out on it. They were either embarrassed by it, or conflicted by it, but now that is not the case. There are real sharp divisions in the organized Jewish community. That’s something that’s new, and it’s probably the most important thing in terms of giving Obama the political space to move ahead.