Five weeks ago, President Barack Obama nominated former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) as his new Secretary of Defense, replacing the retiring Robert Gates. Cabinet nominations of members of the other party usually sail through the Senate. For example, both Republican Ray LaHood and Democrat Norman Mineta were confirmed unanimously by the Senate to the Cabinets of Presidents Obama and Bush respectively.
However, Hagel has run into trouble with Senate Republicans due to his past comments regarding Israel and his views on Iran. In particular, Hagel has said that, “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here . . . I’m not an Israeli senator, I’m a United States senator.” Such comments, as well as criticisms of Israeli involvement in the 2006 war in Lebanon and Israeli dealings with Palestine, have led conservatives and Likud-supporters to call Hagel anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.
Hagel has been repeatedly affirming his support for Israel in the last several weeks, but that Republicans are willing to hold up the nomination of a fellow party member speaks to exactly what Hagel criticized as senator: the outsized power of the Israel lobby in America.
I find the charges of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism against Hagel to be ridiculous. That he is so widely denounced as such by American and Israeli right-wingers speaks to how the definition of anti-Semitic has changed from actual discriminatory speech and action against Jews to criticism of the Israeli state in the eyes of so many. Hagel’s criticisms of Israel are fair ones and well in line with acceptable opinions worldwide of Israel, whether one agrees or disagrees with his positions. His support for negotiations with Iran and his opposition towards US or Israeli strikes on Iran does not make him anti-Semitic. Neither does his desire for a more favorable relationship with Palestine. One may disagree with these positions, but to accuse Hagel of anti-Israelism or anti-Semitism is a clear overreach.
Of course, many of the accusations towards Hagel of being anti-Semitic are coming from Orthodox Jewish Israelis on the Right, such as Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, as well as American right-wingers, such as Sheldon Adelson, who seek to oppose any and all actions taken by Obama. Many liberals and moderates, including the Israeli Jewish advocacy group J Street which supports the Hagel nomination, have defended Hagel from these accusations of anti-Semitism and condemned these smears on his character. But the holdup of the Hagel nomination is indicative of a larger diplomatic issue relating to the relationship between the United States and Israel.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Israel served as a vital Cold War ally in the Middle East. With Israel under constant threat from Egypt, Jordan, Syria and others, it made sense diplomatically for the U.S. to strongly support Israel’s defense. However, in 2013, Israel is easily the strongest military power in the region, and they offer far less to the United States geopolitically, as the US’s support of Israel harms rather than benefits American relationships with surrounding Arab powers.
This is not to say that the United States should not support Israel. Rather, the United States should demand more of Israel in return for the massive defense and intelligence support we provide. Take last year’s UN General Assembly 138-9 vote to upgrade the Palestinian Authority to non-voting observer state status as a case in point. Palestine cannot be recognized as a full member state because that requires approval by the UN Security Council, and the U.S. would almost certainly veto such an attempt in support of Israel. On this vote, key European powers such as the United Kingdom and Germany abstained, while France voted in favor. American support for Israel against international public opinion was quite apparent here, despite right-wing Israeli claims that Obama has not done enough to support Israel.
Unfortunately, Israel responded to the vote by announcing plans to initiate construction in E1, an area east of Jerusalem in the West Bank that would cut off East Jerusalem– which Palestinians claim as their capital in any agreement–from the West Bank, in a move that severely threatens the prospect of future peace. The United States has urged Israel to not build in E1 for decades, and many European powers recalled their ambassadors from Israel in protest. This issue is just one example of how Israel has defied American interests in spite of our massive military and diplomatic support for them. As a sovereign nation, this is entirely within Israel’s rights, but from the perspective of American interests, blind and noncritical support of Israel is irrational and goes against our best interests.
Of course, I have addressed this from the perspective of American self-interest, but there is also the moral aspect of support for Israel. Many claim that, because it is the only true democracy in the Middle East, America must unwaveringly support Israel as part of our support for democracy worldwide. But, by keeping a significant population of residents within their state as effectively second-class citizens, Israel loses the moral high ground. Until the Israel-Palestine issue is resolved, criticisms of Israel’s domestic policy are entirely warranted.
At the end of the day, you may disagree with my assessments of what the American-Israeli relationship ought to be, and I am perfectly fine with that. What I am not fine with is the notion that our relationship with Israel should get a free-pass. I am not fine with the fact that we are not allowed to critically analyze the relationship without being accused of anti-Semitism, as Hagel has. Ultimately, I expect Hagel to be confirmed by the Senate, but the disproportionate attention towards his views on Israel in relation to other key defense issues demonstrates Washington’s irrational level of support for Israel.