Hagel obeyed Senate taboo against criticism of Israel– ‘our most important ally in the entire world’

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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The reviews are in on Chuck Hagel’s performance at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday, and many are saying that he was battered, and unprepared, often on the defensive. Some highlights.

As we noted yesterday, Hagel ate his words on Palestinian grievances and conditions, over and over again. Senator Mike Lee of Utah asked Hagel about an earlier statement that Israel keeps Palestinians “caged up like animals.” Watch him twist in the wind:

Lee: Did you say that?

Hagel: Well I said it and I don’t remember the context or when I said it

Lee: Do you believe today that Israel keeps Palestinians “caged up like animals.”

Hagel: No. If I had an opportunity to edit that like many things…I’d like to go back and change the words and the meaning. No, I think it was the larger context– I’ve said many many things over many years.– the larger context, of frustration and what’s happening, is not in Israel’s interests, [we are trying] to find ways that we can help bring peace and security to Israel.  If I had a chance to go back and edit it I would. I regret I used those words.

Here is Lee (at 6:43) stating that Israel is likely our most important ally in the world, and explaining why American and Israeli interests are identical. I never really heard it expressed this way:

I’d like to talk to you for a few minutes about Israel. Israel is I believe our most important ally certainly in the Middle East and in many respects in the entire world. A lot of people in this body are concerned quite appropriately that that alliance remains strong, about making sure that our interests as Americans are protected abroad.

In “Hagel’s Hell,” New Republic writer John Judis singled out what I did yesterday, Hagel’s exchange with South Carolina Lindsey Graham, in which Graham put the Defense Secretary nominee on the defensive for his comments about the “Jewish lobby” intimidating representatives on Capitol Hill. Hagel had to walk away from the statements, Judis said, because defending his positions would violate a “taboo” on open discussion of Israel/Palestine policy:

Hagel was asked repeatedly about his comments on Israel and on the “Jewish lobby.” The questions revealed the taboo that surrounds any discussion of American policy toward Israel and toward the organizations and individuals that lobby on its behalf….

Graham clearly won this exchange, but by appealing to taboo not truth. I venture to guess that Graham himself knows plenty of Senators or House members who have been intimidated by the pro-Israel lobby, which generously donates to the opponents of politicians that defy it. But Hagel couldn’t name names, or cite “dumb things” without opening up a hornet’s nest of controversy that could doom his nomination in the clubby Senate.

Speaking of that exchange, here is the full quote that Hagel gave to Aaron David Miller about the Israel lobby doing “dumb things”:

“The political reality is that you intimidate, not you — that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. Again, I have always argued against some of the dumb things they do because I don’t think it’s in the interest of Israel. I just don’t think it’s smart for Israel. Now, everyone has a right to lobby; that’s as it should be. Come see your senator, your congressman, and if you can get the guy to sign your letter, great, wonderful. But as I reminded somebody not too long ago, in fact it was a group I was speaking to in New York, and we got into kind of an interesting give and take on Iran. A couple of these guys said we should just attack Iran. And I said, ‘Well, that’s an interesting thought; we’re doing so well in Iraq.’ And I said it would really help Israel. And this guy kept pushing and pushing. And he alluded to the fact that maybe I wasn’t supporting Israel enough or something. And I just said let me clear something up here, in case there is any doubt. I said, ‘I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator.’ I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States — not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that. Now I know most senators don’t talk like I do.”

Judis pointed out that Hagel was battered by McCarthyite tactics on the right, and he noted the effort to tie Hagel to the splendid analyst Chas Freeman, whom the Israel lobby sought to destroy four years ago:

[Texas Senator Ted] Cruz reverted to a time-honored rightwing tactic of guilt by association. He tried to tie Hagel to former American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman who has voiced criticisms of Israel’s right-wing government. But Cruz’s line of questioning, apparently inspired by Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin and William Kristol’s Weekly Standard, fell flat:

Cruz: Are you familiar with an individual named Chas Freeman?

Hagel: Yes

Cruz: He was a vice chairman at the Atlantic Council. Is that correct?

Hagel:  When I became chairman the Atlantic Council, he was one of my board members .. but I never really worked with him, but I know him..

Cruz: And you and he were part of a group that travelled to China. Is that correct?

Hagel: No, that’s not correct.

Cruz: There have been press reports to that effect.

Hagel: Those press reports have been incorrect.  I have never been on any trip with Chas Freeman.

Cruz: There has also been press reports that have described him as helped to defend your nomination?  Is that a correct description?

Hagel:  I haven’t spoken to Chas Freeman in years.. .

Cruz: Is he someone whose judgment you respect?

Hagel: I think Chars Freeman has been a repected public servant for this nation .  There are a lot of different opinions have on different issues…

Cruz: Do you consider his views well well within the mainstream?

Hagel: What views?

Cruz: His views on the Middle East and the Nation of Israel.

Hagel: I am not that familiar with all of his views.

Cruz: Let’s move on to your worldview.

[Judis again] I am sure some readers thought the comparison to Joe McCarthy in the first paragraph was the usual left-wing hyperbole, but those old enough to remember, or who are familiar with, the history, will recognize Cruz’s line of attack as classic McCarthy tactics. Cruz isn’t out to prove Hagel is a communist; only that he has “a greater antagonism toward Israel than any other member of this body.”

More on that taboo. Scott McConnell at American Conservative says it was embarrassing:

Israel, Israel, Israel. Most of the GOPers, plus Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, asked more questions about Israel than all the other nations of the world combined. It’s really a kind of fanaticism–of a sort which could not have been imagined 20 years ago. I would explain this intensity as a reaction to Israel’s decline in moral standing thoughout the Western world; because the special relationship, or the general idea that Israel is a peace-seeking and democratic state is now increasingly doubted, it must be defended with ever growing intensity. Still it’s an embarrassment–that this is presented to all the world as the highest deliberative political body in the United States.

Steve Walt says that the shameless fawning over Israel confirmed everything he and John Mearsheimer wrote 7 years ago:

I want to thank the Emergency Committee for Israel, Sheldon Adelson, and the Senate Armed Service Committee for providing such a compelling vindication of our views.  As Rosie Gray amd Andrew Kaczynski of Buzzfeed noted, at yesterday’s hearing on Chuck Hagel Israel was mentioned 166 times, and Iran (a problem closely linked to Israel) 144 times. Afghanistan was mentioned only 20 times, and the problem of suicides of U.S. troops only twice. Glad to see that those Senators have their priorities straight. No wonder Mark Twain referred to Congress as “the smallest minds and the selfishest souls and the cowardliest hearts that God makes.”

I am sometimes asked if I have any regrets about publishing our book. As of today, my only regret is that it isn’t being published now. After the humiliations that Obama has endured at the hands of the lobby and now the Hagel circus, we’d sell even more copies and we wouldn’t face nearly as much ill-informed criticism.

Over $1 million has been spent on the ad campaign against Hagel, says Lobelog. A group called Secure America Now has played an important role in the campaign, emphasizing the Iran issue. In classic subterfuge, its dossier says nothing about Israel, as such; but Jacob Fenton at the Sunlight Foundation reports that the group behind the ad has a deep commitment to Israel:

[Lawyer Jeffrey] Altman told Sunlight that the group [Secure America Now] was first put together in October, 2010 by Allen Roth, a longtime political aide to [Ron] Lauder, a politically active cosmetics heir who last year quietly underwrote an effort to turn out American voters living in Israel while a number of Republicans, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney, were casting doubt on Obama’s support for the Jewish state…

Allen Roth, the board president, is a longtime activist for right-wing Israeli causes, but his name doesn’t appear anywhere on the group’s web site. … Roth, a board member of the American Conservative Union, is also president of One Jerusalem–a non-profit formed to fight the division of Jerusalem as part of the Israeli peace process. In a 2010 tax filing, One Jerusalem is listed as a “direct controlling entity” of secureamericanow…

Roth is best known, however, for his connections to Lauder, a son of the makeup empress Estee Lauder and one of the country’s wealthiest men: he was worth $3.4 billion last September, according to Forbes. Lauder has been president of the World Jewish Congress since 2007.

Lauder got into politics in the 1980’s. According to the New York Times, he “was rewarded for his campaign fund-raising with an appointment as deputy assistant defense secretary in the Reagan administration and, three years later, by being named ambassador to Austria”. In 1987, he founded The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which “seeks to revitalize Jewish identity” especially in Europe where Jews survived the holocaust and communism…

Although Roth and Lauder have worked together on right-leaning Israeli causes for decades, there’s no way to know whether Lauder’s money is backing Secure America Now–or any of the other secretly-funded groups working to influence U.S. politics. “I’m not going to tell you who the donors are,” said Altman. But, he added, the self-described grassroots group doesn’t rely on a single benefactor.”There are lots of them,” Altman said.

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