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No need for panic over Chuck Hagel

If Chuck Hagel, Barack Obama's nominee for Defense Secretary, is appointed, it would be a "slap in the face for pro-Israel Americans", according to the Republican Jewish Coalition. Senator Lindsay Graham said Hagel would be "the most antagonistic Secretary of Defense toward the state of Israel in our nation's history". Bret Stephens, former editor of the Jerusalem Post, used his Wall Street Journal column to describe Hagel's comments as "prejudice[d]", saying that their "odour is particularly ripe". The prominent neo-conservative William Kristol went even further, saying that Hagel harbours an "unpleasant distaste for Israel and Jews".

Despite this controversy, Obama has stuck with his choice of nominating the straight-talking war veteran, previously a senator for Nebraska – a contrast to his previous capitulation to pressure over Susan Rice.

The hysteria over Hagel's potential appointment is down to various comments he has made about Israel and the impact of pressure groups on Washington. In 2006, Hagel gave an interview to former state department official Aaron David Miller for his book "The Much Too Promised Land".

One of his comments was that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here" in Congress. The use of the phrase "Jewish lobby" has been seized upon by critics such as Stephens as evidence of prejudice. Hagel later apologised, saying that he should have used the phrase "pro-Israel lobby", given the echoes of anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish control and the fact that (as Stephens points out), support for Israel goes beyond America's Jewish population, with a strong constituency among evangelical Christians and other conservatives. However, while apologising for the phrasing, Hagel did not back down on the thrust of his comments.

Of course, it is not just this single comment that has caused outcry. In a speech to the Senate floor in 2006, at the peak of the Israel-Hezbollah war, Hagel said that Israel's actions in Lebanon was deepening Arab hatred and that US policy should not be one-sided. "Our relationship with Israel is a special and historic one, but it need not, and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships. That is an irresponsible and dangerous false choice." These were unusual words indeed for a US senator.

As senator, he has declined to sign many letters distributed by the powerful lobby group AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), including one declaring unconditional support for Israel during the second Palestinian uprising of 2000. Hagel has now been the subject of a letter campaign himself, with some lobby groups, including the American Jewish Committee, urging senators to vote against his nomination. AIPAC, perhaps hesitant to publicly oppose the president's choice, has not yet taken a public position.

Critics have also objected to comments made at a meeting in New York, when Hagel said: "Let me clear something up here, if there's any doubt in your mind. I'm a United States senator. I'm not an Israeli 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."

As Miller, the author of the book and adviser to six US secretaries on Arab-Israeli negotiations says, the power of the pro-Israel lobby is "a fact". It is also a fact that it specialises in manufacturing outrage and discrediting opponents, frequently through the suggestion of anti-Semitism. In the Washington Post, Richard Cohen responds to Stephens' comments by saying: "If there is an odor here, it is not the rancid stench of anti-Semitism but instead of character assassination." J Street, a pro-Israel organisation in Washington that takes a more critical stance, said that Hagel was the victim of an "outrageous smear campaign".

As Cohen points out in his column, "nothing Hagel has said about Israel is not said in the Israeli press on a daily basis." Sections of the Israeli media go much further than the senator in their criticism of the current Israeli government's positions. Several pro-Israel organisations within the US have expressed their support for his nomination.

The real problem for those vehemently opposing Hagel's nomination is undoubtedly his views, rather than his so-called prejudices. He opposes stronger sanctions against Iran and its suspected nuclear programme, instead favouring more talks – flying in the face of Israel's foreign policy aims. He is critical of settlements, and of Israel's actions in the region. He is not afraid to comment when he believes that US and Israeli interests part ways. As Miller says, Hagel is unusual amongst sitting representatives in being "willing to express [himself]" on the subject.

However, despite his straight-talking, there is no need for the all-out panic of the last few weeks. While Hagel – who is likely to be appointed – may be more vocally critical of Israel than former Defense Secretaries, he will not be the sole initiator of policy. Bob Gates, who formerly filled the post, opposed US intervention in Libya, but that did not stop Obama from going ahead. Lobby organisations may well be afraid that in nominating Hagel, Obama is making a statement about his own views on Israel, raising old fears that he will be tougher in his treatment of the Jewish state. However, since strategic co-operation, substantive military aid, and missile defence programmes have continued under Obama, there is probably little to worry about except tougher talking.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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