The fall and rise of Chuck Hagel: a good sign for US-Israel relations

Chuck Hagel, President Obama's controversial nominee for secretary of Defense, faces his Senate confirmation hearing today. His rise after a wave of objections is a welcome sign that 'daylight' between US and Israeli policies may be becoming more politically acceptable in Washington.

Jason Reed/Reuters
Chuck Hagel, in Senate confirmation hearings today for his nomination as secretary of Defense, reacts during a meeting on Capitol Hill Jan. 23. Op-ed contributor Rebecca Vilkomerson writes: 'The willingness on the part of the Obama administration – through the Hagel nomination – to entertain political perspectives that are not in lock-step with Israel’s right-wing government' is a welcome step.

With today's Senate confirmation hearing for Chuck Hagel as US secretary of Defense, it is worth taking a moment to review the fall and rise of Mr. Hagel’s nomination.

It is a welcome, if overdue, sign that “daylight” between American and Israeli policies may be becoming more politically acceptable in Washington.

When rumors of the nomination first arose in December, there was a flurry of attacks against the former Republican senator from Nebraska, and it seemed like a foregone conclusion that his nomination was doomed.

Jewish advocacy groups like the Anti-Defamation League claimed Hagel might be anti-Semitic, based mostly on his injudicious use of the term “Jewish lobby.” Elliott Abrams, the Republican foreign affairs official of Iran-contra infamy, outright leveled the charge.

But the real fear of many Jewish advocacy organizations was actually Hagel’s independent positions on Israel-related issues from Iran to the Palestinians. All the substantial weight of a long list of Jewish institutions was brought against the nomination.

It has been essentially unacceptable in Washington to acknowledge that the United States may at times have different priorities than Israel. Remember, for instance, the October presidential debate, when Mitt Romney criticized President Obama by saying, “The president said he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel.”

But when even Jon Stewart joked this month about the absurdity of the no-daylight requirement, it’s clear that Americans – or at least the younger generation – are getting tired of such an unquestioning close relationship.

Other well-known figures from Thomas Friedman to Colin Powell came to Hagel’s defense, groups like mine mustered grassroots support, and the president stood his ground. When  Sen. Charles Schumer – the Democrat from New York who is widely seen as a decisive vote in the confirmation hearings – declared his support for Hagel, it became clear his appointment would go forward.

Since Mr. Obama announced his decision, the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, has studiously avoided publicly opposing Hagel. Its choice to stay out of a fight it couldn’t win indicates a recognition that political realities are shifting.

Could it be that holding Israel accountable for its illegal settlements, its demolition of homes, its killing of nonviolent activists – another Palestinian, a young woman, was shot and killed by Israeli soldiers this week in the occupied West Bank – and its repression of the Palestinian people will be next?

Not so fast. While it is heartening to see the parade of support for Hagel and the Israel lobby in retreat, the Obama administration’s defense of him has revolved entirely around the argument that he would continue current US policies toward Israel.

The National Jewish Democratic Council put it this way, “we trust that when confirmed, former Senator Chuck Hagel will follow the President’s lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel – on strategic cooperation, missile defense programs, and leading the world against Iran’s nuclear program.”

At J Street, the liberal pro-Israel lobby, leader Ben Ami found it “troubling that some claiming to represent the pro-Israel community have tried to impugn Senator Hagel’s commitment to the U.S.-Israel special relationship and our countries’ shared security interests.”

The presumption among Jewish organizations and their allies was that the only appropriate way to defend Hagel was to appease critics who wanted proof that he would sufficiently toe the line on support for Israel.

Hagel himself will be under pressure to back off his previously stated positions, such as favoring diplomacy over military action with Iran and willingness to engage with Hamas. To support his confirmation, he wrote in a letter to California Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), “I fully intend to expand the depth and breadth of U.S.-Israel cooperation.”

Thus the price for Hagel’s confirmation may be to hew closer to the currently acceptable political line – much as he did earlier this month when meeting with Senator Schumer.

Nevertheless, his confirmation would also indicate that there is an opening to examine the special relationship between the US and Israel.

A deeper critique of America’s role supporting Israel’s occupation would be a welcome next step after Hagel is confirmed, one that prioritizes even minimal adherence to America’s stated policies on human rights generally and the rights of Palestinians specifically.

One way to do that would be for Congress to make US military aid to Israel contingent on Israel upholding such rights. That’s what the leaders of 15 church denominations requested in a thoughtful letter to Congress last fall.

“As Christian leaders in the United States, it is our moral responsibility to question the continuation of unconditional U.S. financial assistance to the government of Israel,” the leaders wrote.

The realization of “a just and lasting peace will require this accountability,” while “continued U.S. military assistance to Israel – offered without conditions or accountability – will only serve to sustain the status quo and Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories.”

This is an eminently reasonable position, and yet still widely outside the mainstream of political discourse. The willingness on the part of the Obama administration – through the Hagel nomination –  to entertain political perspectives that are not in lock-step with Israel’s right-wing government is a welcome first step.

Now we need to work to broaden the boundaries of the political discussion up to and including concrete actions that will hold Israel accountable for its ongoing occupation and human rights violations.

Rebecca Vilkomerson is the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

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