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Hagel and Israel

Former Israeli official Alon Pinkas writes that the attacks on Chuck Hagel as "anti-Israel" are unfounded and do not serve the US-Israel relationship.
U.S. President Barack Obama (C) meets with co-chairmen of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE)(R) and former Senator David Boren (D-OK) and senior leadership of the intelligence community in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington October 28, 2009.    REUTERS/Jim Young    (UNITED STATES POLITICS)

Even by the ugly and depressing standards of Washington's [un]civility and character assassination as a beltway hobby, the recent attacks on former Senator Chuck Hagel seem venomous and iniquitous.

The fact that Washington has a readily available thesaurus for such phenomena: "Borked", "Swift-Boated" and, lately, even "Riced," says it all.

It is fine, acceptable and necessary to conduct a debate on past and present positions and policy preferences of a candidate to be Secretary of Defense.

It is, however, quite another thing to tag, brand, defame and distort his record. It is even worse to do what some, hiding behind the anonymity of "Concerned Jewish Leaders" or "The Pro-Israel Community," have done:  labeling Hagel as Anti-Israeli, and then stepping it up, almost casually, as an Anti-Semite.

Chuck Hagel is neither: He is not anti-Israeli and he is not an anti-Semite.

In fact, if I were him I would lodge a complaint with the Anti-Defamation League, asking their assistance and support for being unfairly called an anti-semite.

I have met Chuck Hagel three times while he was a US senator. All three meetings were with Ehud Barak, Israel's current Defense Minister. The first meeting was when Barak was Foreign Minister, after the assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzakh Rabin. The next time was when Barak was Chairman of the Opposition, and the third when he was a private citizen, after he'd been Prime Minister.

Barak was thoroughly impressed not only by Hagel's military background, but by his analysis, knowledge of the Middle East, and his understanding of Israel's security issues and predicaments. The two consulted each other quite frequently on the eve of the Iraq war, in late 2002 and early 2003.

More recently, Hagel spoke at an Israel Policy Forum event in 2008 and talked extensively about Rabin, leadership, the chances and necessity of the "Two State" solution/model in very pro-Israeli terms. Actually, he sounded very much like John Kerry, who has been nominated by President Obama to be the next Secretary of State, and who the "Pro-Israel community" lauds and respects.

I have no doubt that should Hagel lead the Pentagon and Barak remain Defense Minister (both propositions are highly hypothetical) they will re-forge a very good working relationship.

So why these wild attacks on his "Israel record"? There are several plausible explanations and the answer is probably a cocktail of many ingredients, some legitimate, some less so.

First, the attacks on Hagel are primarily targeted against Barack Obama, plain and simple.

If you look for a common denominator identifying most of the attacks, they come from Obama's detractors, with the exception of Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the incoming ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee. Engel, to his credit, came out publicly against - at this point theoretical - Hagel's nomination and stated his case for all to see and possibly argue with.

These attacks are patently political. Obama failed to secure Susan Rice's nomination and is now immersed in deadlocked negotiations with Republicans over the "Fiscal Cliff," so let's give him a hard time on a key appointment. It will weaken him if he either retracts the nomination or if Hagel is dragged into a lengthy process.

While I can't prove it, I'm convinced that had Mitt Romney won the elections and appointed Hagel, 90% of these attacks would not have happened.

Furthermore, many of these same critics are those who consider Obama as fundamentally anti-Israel. They believe that since his reelection Obama is thinking about nothing else but how to exact revenge against Prime Minister Netanyahu's alleged support for Romney and crude and myopic meddling in the US elections. So if Obama proceeds to nominate Hagel, the case against the President will be validated and the anti-Obama crowd will feel vindicated. 

Second, there are many in the NY-DC Acela corridor who are absolutely sure that they hold the formula to what constitutes being "Pro-Israel" and they solely possess the definition of what "Good for Israel" is. While I don't disagree with many of their basic tenets, they religiously refuse to acknowledge that there are many variants to "Pro Israel" and numerous ways "Good for Israel" could be.

Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were both "good" for Israel in different ways, just as George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been. These people bought into Netanyahu's (successful) spin according to which opposing Netanyahu is the equivalent of being anti-Israeli. Funny, no one in Israel feels that way.

These critics assume that Hagel's opinions and policy inclinations would probably be at odds with Netanyahu's. Ergo, he is anti-Israel.

By the way, these policies that they attribute by extrapolation to Hagel, they actually know little about. Drafting and implementing policy as Secretary of Defense is an entirely different thing than being a Senator with no executive-policy responsibilities.

The more civil, prudent and smart way to deal with whatever concerns people have about Hagel was to stick to substance before calling him names.

Third, the nature of the special US-Israel relationship is changing. There is no Soviet Union, the implications of the Arab awakening (aka "Spring") are unclear, US dependence on Middle Eastern oil is diminishing and Iran looms ominously large. Add to that a strategic pivot toward east Asia, a rising China, and a growing concern over Pakistan and you'll conclude that US involvement in Arab-Israeli relations may be revisited and scaled back in the next few years. The criticism of Hagel seems to be an effort to deny that these changes, however incremental they seem at this change, are actually occurring.

A Chuck Hagel-John Kerry team may be formidable, even if on core issues they might disagree with Prime Minister Netanyahu. But it is, of course, not for either the Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense to disagree with Netanyahu or any head of government, and there is no sign that either would.  The foundations of the US-Israeli relationship are as strong, intact and durable as ever.  Hagel, like Kerry, and like Obama, is completely on board with the US-Israel relationship.   

While I believe that Israel needs to do some serious thinking on where this relationship is going and how it can re-package itself as a valuable ally attentive to changing US interests, coming out against Chuck Hagel is an exercise in futility and bad taste. He is not anti-Israel.

Ambassador Alon Pinkas was Israel's consul general in New York, adviser to Shimon Peres and chief of staff to Ehud Barak and Shlomo Ben Ami. He is currently a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum (IPF).

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