Posted by on February 01, 2013 in Blog

Earlier this month, we wrote about Obama’s nomination of Republican former Senator Chuck Hagel to serve as the next Secretary of Defense. At the time, it was unclear whether the nomination would survive scrutiny of Hagel’s perceived criticism of US policy toward Israel: “At this point, we know what the stakes are, but have no way of knowing how this will play out. Will Hagel fold? Will Obama surrender to pressure and pull his nominee, risking defeat and embarrassment?”

Since then, after a ringing endorsement by New York Senator Charles Schumer cleared the way for Hagel’s likely nomination, many thought the fight was over. Though the Senate confirmation hearing was expected to be contentious, few predicted the level of absurdity to which it would descend.

The focus of much of the day centered on a few statements Hagel has made about the relationship between the US and Israel, particularly one quote in which he stated that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people.” This led to a firestorm of questioning about Hagel’s commitment to the “special relationship” between Israel and the US, Hagel’s near-continuous re-affirmation of his support and dedication to the Jewish State. Here are a few moments that stood out:


1. Ted Cruz: Israel is incapable of committing war crimes because the Jewish people were victims of a war crime

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) spent the majority of his alloted time on a “gotcha”-style attack on Hagel, pulling a quote from an Al-Jazeera interview in 2009 in which Hagel appeared to agree with a rambling question from a caller who decried, among other things, Washington’s double-standard in dealing with “war crimes” in Palestine and Sri Lanka, compared to Sudan. In answering the viewer’s question, Senator Hagel stated, “I think you’re exactly right…that leadership is critical.”

Cruz asked Hagel why he “did not dispute the characterization” that Israel was guilty of committing war crimes, and went on to “suggest that a suggestion that Israel has committed war crimes is particularly offensive given that the Jewish people suffered under the most horrific war crimes in the Holocaust.”

Aside from the assumption that descendants of the victims of war crimes could never commit war crimes themselves, Cruz failed to acknowledge that nearly the entire international community has accused Israel of war crimes, including stalwart allies of Israel like the United Kingdom.


2. Mike Lee: Sympathy for Palestinian suffering is anti-Semitic

Mike Lee (R-UT) also devoted nearly all of his allotted time to question Hagel’s views on Israel, taking this line of reasoning a step further by criticizing Hagel for once referring to the Israeli occupation as keeping Palestinians “caged up like animals.” Lee asked several times whether Hagel would feel a “moral equivalency between on the one hand, Israel’s right to defend itself, and on the other hand, Palestinian terrorism.”

After Hagel responded that terrorism is “never legitimate,” Lee followed up by asking “but is their grievance legitimate? Palestinians who decide to strap a bomb onto themselves and detonate it or otherwise engage in acts of terror. Do they have a legitimate grievance that they’re expressing?”

The exchange continues:

Hagel: Well, they have grievances. A lot of people have grievances, but it’s not a justification for terrorism and killing innocent people. Never.

Lee: Are they on par with the grievances that innocent Israelis have when they become the victims of violent acts?

Hagel: I don’t think you can judge whether it’s Israelis or Palestinians or anybody in the world in separating innocent victims of terrorism.

Lee: Well I think you can in some circumstances, can’t you? For heaven’s sakes though. Okay, maybe not victims, but can you not and must you not judge when it comes to one group of people who may at least be willing to recognize the other group of people’s right to exist?

The essence of Lee’s argument was the idea that the recognition of Palestinian suffering – or even the acknowledgment that Palestinians do harbor legitimate grievances – somehow constitutes an attack on Israel. Indeed the tenor of much of the confirmation hearing was less about anti anti-Israel sympathies, and more about his willingness to consider what the conflict even looks like from the other side.


3. Lindsey Graham answers his own question about pro-Israel intimidation

Most telling, however, was the line of questioning by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC). After a back-and-forth about Hagel’s refusal to sign on to a resolution declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization (despite the fact that the official US definition of a terrorist organization only applies to non-state groups), Graham decided to attack Hagel on the “Jewish lobby” quote mentioned above. “Name one person here who’s been intimidated by the Jewish lobby,” asked Graham. “Name one dumb thing we’ve been goaded into doing due to pressure by the Israeli or Jewish lobby.”

The absurdity of asking this question – during a day-long hearing spurred by Hagel’s assertion that America’s interests may not always be perfectly parallel to Israel’s – was not lost on some observers.


These types of questions dominated the proceedings. Rosie Gry and Andrew Kaczynski noted that in the course of the hearing, Israel was referenced 166 times, mostly on questions that have no bearing on the responsibilities of a Secretary of Defense. Meanwhile, questions about the many challenges that do fall within Hagel’s jurisdiction were practically ignored: 20 mentions of Afghanistan, 2 passing references to the epidemic of troop suicides, and zero mentions of drones.

The day-long episode was an embarrassment for the Senate, for wasting untold hours on spurious questions about the Hagel’s commitment to a foreign state that figures only marginally in his day-to-day responsibilities, and squandering an opportunity to have a real conversation about the many difficulties facing American foreign policy.

It was a worse embarrassment for the hawkish pro-Israel  groups that waged all-out war to sink the nomination of a pro-Israel Senator who simply wasn’t anti-Palestinian enough. The anti-Hagel campaign, run by the American Future Fund, the Emergency Committee for Israel, and several others spent over a million dollars on media and TV advertisements to undermine the nomination. The Anti-Defamation League was also quick to label Hagel as a potential anti-Semite, and though the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee did not publicly enter the fray, its strongest supporters on the Hill have been working behind the scenes on an extensive anti-Hagel campaign.

But this was also an embarrassing day for Senator Hagel, who submitted to the inquisition with acquiescence and acceptance, rather than standing firm on his reasoned and reasonable analysis of the flaws in our current foreign policies.

Hagel is known for his independent thinking, and it’s unlikely that the hearing will have any effect on his policy agenda. Nevertheless, he answered almost every question by retracting previous statements, apologizing for his offensive language, and reiterating his commitment to the state of Israel. Considering his long history of support for Israel, and his defense of their worst transgressions, even within the comments he was attacked for making, this was not an apology he should have had to make. Many supports of Hagel are still hoping that his nomination will add much-needed depth to our often one-dimensional approach to the Middle East, but his willing submission to the status quo is a disheartening sign that, despite his best intentions, he will continue to face significant obstacles along the way.


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