Chuck Hagel's Israel Litmus Test

What American Jews or Israelis think about Chuck Hagel's views on Israel shouldn't be the primary criterion to judge his nomination for secretary of Defense.

Jan 08, 2013
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Jews worry for a living. Their dark history and, in the case of American Jews, their legitimate concerns about the security of the state of Israel impel them to do so.

But sometimes those concerns are overblown and reflect a kind of collective cosmic oy vey that gets in the way of sound and rational judgment.

Such is the case in the matter of Chuck Hagel's nomination to be President Obama's next secretary of Defense.

Some of the comments attributed to Hagel about lobbies, Israel and the like come from an interview he gave me for my last book about American Middle East policy, particularly his use of the term "Jewish lobby."

Hagel has said many things about Iran sanctions, Hamas, Syria and Hezbollah, which his opponents have seized upon. Some are out of sync with current U.S. policy. These and other issues are matters that will and should be explored during confirmation hearings.

But the notion that the views Hagel has on Israel — admittedly independent given the norms in Congress — should be grounds to attack him as an anti-Semite, let alone an enemy of the Jewish state, who is unfit and unqualified to serve as Defense secretary is wrong and unfair, not to mention harmful to the credibility of those who hold that view. And here's why.

Special but not exclusive: America has a special relationship with the state of Israel. It's driven by shared values and the broadest conception of our national interest; that is to say we have a vital stake in supporting like-minded democratic nations — humanistic, pluralist and freedom-loving. But we do not and should not have an exclusive relationship with Israel that places the Jewish state beyond criticism of policies that contradict those values or our own interests, or that forces the United States into dishonest assessments about when Israeli and American interests converge and when they don't.

Those differences — these days on issues such as Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, settlements, Iran — are real. That doesn't mean they can't be managed, even bridged, or that the sky is falling in the U.S.-Israel relationship. But they need to be acknowledged honestly. And those who do so — and who may be sharply critical, and who even recommend policies that don't necessarily align with Israel's — shouldn't be attacked or condemned for it.

Spoiler alert: America has its own interests that may not align with Israel, and those can cause tension. But chances are if the Obama administration wants to manage the Iranian nuclear issue and the peace process too, it's going to find a way to work with — not run over — the next Israeli government.

The Jewish lobby: The heart of the pro-Israeli community in America today is the roughly 5.5 million American Jews, together with Jewish organizations, particularly AIPAC, ADL and the Conference of Presidents, that set much of the tone in Congress and in the media for what it means to be pro-Israel in America today. Other Jewish groups — J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Israel Policy Forum — that tend to be more critical of Israel have been less successful in capturing Jewish hearts and minds on the matter.

Clearly, the base of Israel's supporters is much broader, including millions of evangelical and non-evangelical Christians who for either reasons of eschatology or shared values support Israel. Indeed, the U.S.-Israel bond would not be nearly as deep or enduring if it weren't for non-Jewish support.

But let's be clear that there is indeed a lobby that argues passionately for Israel, and its main power base is Congress. The problem is that nobody is honest about the issue. Israel's defenders want to pretend that domestic politics don't matter and that the U.S.-Israel bond is only shared values; Israel's detractors want to pretend that domestic lobbying is all there is to the relationship.

The fact is — and Hagel is right — the lobby does have a powerful voice. But it doesn't have a veto over U.S. policy on critically important issues regarding war and peace. A willful and smart president can trump domestic political lobbies every time. And in the end, it's the Jewish lobby of one — the impact that an Israeli prime minister can have on a U.S. president — that can prove far more influential than Congress in shaping what a president does and doesn't do.

What American Jews or Israelis think about Hagel's views on Israel shouldn't be the primary criterion to judge his nomination; whether he's qualified to be Defense secretary and to promote American interests is.

But it's neither good politics nor wise policy to impose a litmus test of limitless commitment to Israel on U.S. officials. The GOP tried to do it to Obama during the election campaign; and now Republicans and Democrats appear to be applying it to Hagel.

The U.S. and Israel have a remarkable relationship as close allies. But that doesn't mean that we need one in which the U.S. acquiesces to everything Israel or its supporters in America think is wise. It's not good for Israel and, more important, it's not good for America.

 

This article first appeared in The Los Angeles Times.