It could come down to a tale of two Chucks.
Chuck Hagel’s chances of getting confirmed as Pentagon chief could hinge on whether Sen. Chuck Schumer is satisfied with Hagel’s stance on Iran.
Schumer, perhaps the most influential Jewish senator, is not pleased with Obama’s choice of Hagel for Secretary of Defense and has yet to decide whether to vote in favor of the nomination, Politico reported. Supporting Hagel, Schumer reportedly said, would be “very hard.”
Schumer, according to the report, expressed his misgivings about Hagel in private conversations and in discussions with Jewish leaders. But the New York senator would not make any direct comments on the issue and has pointedly refused to commit to supporting Hagel.
Given his position as the third ranking Democrat in Senate and his standing in the Jewish community, a refusal by Schumer to back Hagel could set the tone for other Jewish and pro-Israel Democrats in the Senate and potentially derail the nomination.
A number of Jewish community activists are sending warning signals to the White House about a leading candidate to become President Obama’s choice for the next Secretary of Defense.
Former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, who reportedly is President Obama’s top pick for replacing Leon Panetta at the Pentagon, has a long record of tensions with the pro-Israel community. And now, after a period of rumblings below the surface, a high-profile Jewish communal leader has fired off a strong salvo in opposition to Hagel’s prospective selection.
“Chuck Hagel would not be the first, second, or third choice for the American Jewish community’s friends of Israel,” Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman told Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin December 18. “His record relating to Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship is, at best, disturbing, and at worst, very troubling. The sentiments he’s expressed about the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism in the genre of professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, and former president Jimmy Carter.”
Foxman’s comments follow several attacks on Hagel from Jewish activists on the right of the political spectrum, such as Noah Pollack of the Emergency Committee for Israel, as the possibility of his nomination has emerged. But even beyond the hardcore right-wing, Hagel has not been viewed as a strong supporter on issues of concern to many who align with the positions taken by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the large, establishment pro-Israel lobby.
Media reports are full of examples of his departures from AIPAC’s views: Hagel opposed Senate legislation toughening sanctions on Iran; he called for increasing efforts to negotiate with Tehran; and, in general, refrained from supporting the use of sanctions as a means to pressure other nations.
In addition to Mitt Romney’s remarks at AIPAC yesterday, arguing that his approach to Iran would be a radical break from Obama’s (though nothing he said indicated how it would be different), one of his high-profile foreign policy advisers, Dan Senor, also had a well-placed op-ed in the Wall Street Journal making similar points but with not much more substance.
Senor, who some will remember was the Bush administration’s spokesman in the first days of the Iraq War and more recently the author of “Start-Up Nation,” about Israel’s successes in high tech, briefly flirted in 2010 with a run for Senate from New York. He has since hunkered down with Romney and is presumably a key part of his brain trust when it comes to figuring out the Middle East.
Senor set out to explain, as the headline of the op-ed put it, “Why Israel Has Doubts About Obama.” He didn’t dispute the major piece of the administration’s counter-argument, that security cooperation between the two allies is at an all time high — though he does try to attribute this to commitments made by President Bush (commitments, it goes without saying, Obama could have ignored but instead reaffirmed and strengthened).
Instead, Senor simply strings together a few offhand comments from administration officials that he argues make the Israel-U.S. relationship look vulnerable when viewed from Tehran. The overwhelming majority of these comments came from the mouth of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. There was the time in October 2011 when Panetta worried about Israel “isolating” itself in the diplomatic arena, and then in December when Panetta implored Israel to “get to the damn table.” There’s not much more to Senor’s argument. He mentioned Obama’s not having visited Israel yet, but as we reported here, George W. Bush (Senor’s former boss) went twice at the very end of his second term. His father, George H.W. Bush, never went. You know who else never visited Israel as president? Ronald Reagan. So maybe we can just retire this debating point.
But if Senor’s argument about the administration is really an argument about Panetta, the defense secretary’s words this morning at the AIPAC conference should really suffice to slam the door on this Obama anti-Israel trope the Romney folks are trying to develop.
Just take a look at some of Panetta’s statements:
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has drawn a lot of heat in the last few weeks, on himself and the administration, for his December 2 comment that Israel needs to “just get to the damn table” with the Palestinians. After all, his critics note, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been declaring since 2009 that he’s ready to resume negotiations without preconditions, and the Palestinians have been refusing. How did it become Israel’s fault that the talks have been frozen for two and a half years?
Panetta’s remarks sounded so off-base that a lot of open-minded people are beginning to think the Obama-doesn’t-heart-Israel crowd had it right. The American Jewish Committee’s Ed Rettig tried to turn it around by arguing that Panetta was actually telling both sides to return to the table. Watching the video itself, that’s not so clear. First Ken Pollack asks Panetta what Israel should do, and Panetta says “Just get to the damn table.” A moment later he says the two sides need to work it out but they can’t unless they get to the damn table. Either way, it’s been trumpeted all over the world for two weeks now as directed at Israel, and if it’s a misinterpretation, I haven’t heard Panetta trying to correct it. (If you know better, weigh in.)
On the other hand, Panetta’s line sounds a little less odd when you consider who else is demanding that Israel return to the negotiating table. Yuval Diskin, who stepped down as Shin Bet director last June, said exactly that in a talk to students in southern Israel on October 26. Gabi Ashkenazi, who stepped down as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said it June 20 in a talk in Toronto. Both Ashkenazi and Diskin were in their jobs, holding two of the three highest positions in Israeli security, when Netanyahu began calling for talks and Abbas first began refusing. They were involved in all the briefings—in fact, they were the ones who were supplying Netanyahu with his intelligence. Why would they say that he’s the one who needs to get back to the table?