NEW YORK — The public fight over the possible nomination of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense is quickly crystallizing into a battle over the “Israel lobby” and its ostensible influence on the US national agenda.

Pundits and several former officials who support Hagel have responded to criticism of the potential nominee by railing against “the brutal AIPAC-led campaign” against him — AIPAC has not expressed an opinion on the possible nomination — and suggested the battle against Hagel is being led by a “small minority of zealots” driven by their hardline views on Israel.

The argument, made again and again in recent days, rests on a few untested assumptions: Opposition to Hagel’s nomination comes primarily from the pro-Israel lobby; the lobby dislikes him because it supports Israel’s West Bank settlements, or at least equivocates on the issue; the lobby is powerful for a reason other than the fact that it enjoys the widespread support of most Americans.

Without these assumptions, it would not be possible to frame the debate as Tom Friedman did in the New York Times this week: “Most US senators, policy makers and Jews prefer to stick their heads in the sand, because confronting Israel is so unpleasant and politically dangerous. Hagel at least cares enough about Israel to be an exception.”

Missing from an assessment such as Friedman’s, however, is the question of how “confronting Israel” would solve the problem of continued Palestinian rejectionism and Hamas’s commitment to the violent destruction of Israel. It also ignores the fact that Israel has previously dismantled settlements from Gaza and the northern West Bank and withdrawn from Gaza and South Lebanon, and each time faced a surge in terror attacks and a corresponding strengthening of Hamas and Hezbollah. And it pays no heed to the Palestinians’ refusal to  negotiate during an Obama-imposed settlement freeze – delivered by the “hardliner” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – and the statements of Palestinian officials that their policy is to extract a state without the need to negotiate on critical issues such as Jerusalem’s holy sites or refugees.

That’s not to suggest that settlements are sustainable or morally right, but that Palestinian politics are part of the equation as well – a part that is absent from the Hagel-driven discourse on the Israel lobby or Israeli politics. Hagel’s supporters of late seem to believe it is possible to examine and criticize Israelis’ growing despair over the prospect of substantive progress in negotiations, together with growing apathy in recent years in the Israeli mainstream when it comes to the settlement project, without noting the extent to which these are reactions to Palestinian politics.

The closer one gets to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the less certainty one can have about possible solutions. The Obama administration’s bungling in its first term – where an obsessive focus on settlements, even when it succeeded in extracting a freeze from Netanyahu, actually made it harder for the Palestinian Authority to come to the negotiating table – is a cautionary tale for those who continue to be attracted by simplistic assumptions.

Yet talk about the “Israel lobby,” a term that usually includes the likes of AIPAC, ADL and AJC, ignores the extent to which these organizations have undergone a similar experience to Israelis. They fervently welcomed the peace process of the 1990s, but have grown largely silent on the issue in the past decade – not because they no longer support peace, but because they, like most Israelis and even a majority of Americans, no longer have a clear idea how it might be achieved.

Outright support for settlements remains a fringe position in the pro-Israel community, even on its right wing. It is certainly not a position espoused by the likes of Abe Foxman, AJC, Josh Block, or most other pro-Israel Hagel critics, many of whom come from the Democratic side of the aisle.

Yet for all that, the “Israel lobby’s” purported pernicious, hardline influence has become a refrain in the pro-Hagel discourse. The New Yorker bluntly explained the opposition to Hagel by suggesting he “did not make the obeisance to the lobby that the overwhelming majority of his Congressional colleagues do.”

Left unsaid is the true source of the nefarious Israel lobby’s power, a power that continues to mystify some Hagel supporters.

Earlier this month, a Pew study found – once again – that Americans favor Israel over the Palestinians by a huge factor. In the case of the Pew poll, 50 percent said they were more sympathetic to Israel, and just 10% to the Palestinians. The remainder either did not care or were sympathetic to both.

It would surprise no one in Washington to learn that a Christian Zionist group’s campaign launched Wednesday that called on supporters to write their senators asking them to oppose a Hagel nomination garnered 10,000 letters – in the first five hours. By Thursday, the campaign by Christians United for Israel had reached 17,000 letters.

The Israel lobby isn’t powerful because it hosts the best Washington parties or holds in a secret vault photographic proof of senators’ sexual peccadilloes, but simply because it is in lock-step with the views of a large majority of Americans.

Strangely, it is possible Hagel himself does not know this. In the quote that has caused the most furor, especially on the right, Hagel is reported to have said in a 2006 interview that Congress “is an institution that does not inherently bring out a great deal of courage,” enabling a reality in which “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”

Many have focused on Hagel’s use of the term “Jewish lobby” instead of “Israel lobby.” But that’s surely the least problematic aspect of the quote. Hagel was arguing that senators who espouse views shared by a large majority of their constituents are cowards unable to withstand the psychological pressure of an AIPAC email.

Reaping what he sowed

Perhaps Hagel and his supporters, many of whom are distinguished former statesmen and political science scholars, really don’t grasp the fundamental mechanics of politics.

As his own proponents repeatedly note, Hagel “styles himself an independent thinker.” He has bucked Washington’s “conventional wisdom” more often than not, supporting further engagement with Iran’s ayatollahs, ending the embargo on Cuba, imposing steep cuts to the defense budget, and more. His independence has extended to endorsing Democratic candidates for national office. He is, to borrow from former friend and present-day detractor Sen. John McCain, a true maverick.

And he doesn’t hide it, either. Shortly before leaving the Senate in January 2009, he told a local Nebraska newspaper, “I think the case could be made that I am the true Republican and that the party came loose of its moorings. I’ve heard so many times from Republicans that, ‘You’re right, but why do you have to say it?’ And I say: ‘I’m going to tell you what I think.’”

The chairman of the Republican Party in Nebraska has suggested the feeling that Hagel isn’t quite at home in the party is mutual.

“There was just so much disdain for Senator Hagel. It wasn’t so much his policy positions as the way he conducted himself, appearing on every Sunday talk show, attacking President Bush day in and day out,” said the chairman, Mark Fahleson. “It wasn’t the Nebraska way. He did burn a lot of bridges at the end.”

The end of Hagel’s political career was directly tied to his views – according to his own wife.

“Hagel decided to leave the Senate in 2008,” relates the New Yorker’s Connie Bruck. “His wife, Lilibet, told me at that time that his life with his Republican colleagues in the Senate had become difficult. ‘It’s the intangibles, as you know — the way someone says hello to you, the way they might walk right past you, the way in a small group they make eye contact with everyone but you.’ His position in the Republican caucus, she said, ‘has been a little like a skunk at a garden party.’”

As Bruck noted in her favorable profile of Hagel’s views and the nomination fight, “the Israel lobby led the charge against Hagel, but there is plenty of animus for him in the broader Republican party, too…. In 2007, he and his friend Joe Biden… sponsored a resolution opposing the ‘surge’ and calling for a transition to a limited US military mission in Iraq…. The committee approved the resolution; Hagel was the only Republican to vote in favor. ‘I was called a “traitor,” and I was called “disgusting,”’ Hagel told me when I wrote about him in 2008. ‘“Shut your mouth, you’re a Republican!” Which I always found astounding—to equate war based on your politics, as a Democrat or a Republican.’”

There is surely something admirable in Hagel’s independence, and his unconventional views have enriched the public debate – and should continue to do so.

But nowhere is it written that the candidate with the minority positions, who has bucked his party and his constituents and lost his Senate seat for it, must therefore be given the keys to the kingdom or to the kingdom’s military. It is possible to admire Hagel’s courage, to welcome an open debate about, for example, Hezbollah’s political role in Lebanon, the embargo on Cuba, the efficacy of the sanctions on Iran, and all other issues in which Hagel is a minority voice, without assuming that this courage makes him qualified to be secretary of defense.

Republicans are angry at Hagel for the straightforward conspiracy-free reason that he wasn’t a particularly good Republican.

Among Democrats, too, there are those who are incensed over a possible Hagel nomination. Many Democrats are openly wondering why a reelected Democratic president feels compelled to appoint, for the third time in just two Democratic administrations, a Republican to run the Defense Department.

“There’s a bizarre tradition of sorts where Democratic presidents suddenly act like Republicans are right – that only they can run our national affairs – and thus appoint Republicans to head the Pentagon,” the left-wing website Daily Kos complained last week.

Some Democrats have been advocating for the appointment of former undersecretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy, with one “senior Democrat” telling Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift as early as November 9 – five weeks before the leak of Hagel’s possible nomination – that Flournoy is “brilliant, smart as hell, has deep knowledge across the defense issues — personnel, weapons systems, strategy, she knows how to run the Pentagon, and she’s very well-liked.”

Hagel, though a twice-wounded veteran, does not bring to the table anything remotely resembling Flournoy’s level of defense policy experience.

And opposition has even come from gay rights groups, including the Human Rights Campaign. Though Hagel has apologized for comments made in the 1990s that seemed to denigrate gays, the criticism has continued from some quarters of the gay rights movement, especially on the right. In the latest critique, published in a full-page ad in the New York Times on Thursday, the pro-gay rights Republican group Log Cabin Republicans urged supporters to “tell President Obama that Chuck Hagel is wrong for Defense Secretary” and expressed support for “a stronger and more inclusive Republican Party.”

Hagel’s supporters have responded vigorously to the agitation of the Israel lobby, and in the process perhaps sought to crowd out opposition to Hagel that can’t be as easily dismissed as illegitimate and – Zbigniew Brzezinski said it outright – disloyal.

Catch-22

In the end, the debate over Hagel has now been framed in a way that will do the most damage to the pro-Israel community in Washington.

If Hagel wins the nomination, the pro-Israel community has “lost” and is weakened. If he loses, the nefarious Jewish lobby has struck again, denying a patriotic American – one who wanted nothing more than to serve as an American senator, rather than an Israeli one – his rightful place because he sought too much independence from the cabal.

And that, perhaps, is the major victory achieved by Hagel’s supporters in this political fight. As the pro-Hagel camp has noted time and again, the fight itself has damaged Israel’s standing in Washington. Of course, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that some pro-Hagel advocates are working hard to make happen.

It is already difficult to complain about Hagel’s actual policy views even as he is being considered for one of the top policymaking posts in the free world, as such complaints have been deemed beside the point. It is even hard to note that Hagel’s views are in the minority in American politics, since this has been characterized as penalizing a brave man for his courage. And no part of the story is deemed relevant – such as widespread popular support for Israel or the active campaign among Democrats for a Democratic nominee – unless it is a story about the reprehensible Israel lobby.

The mere fact that William Kristol opposed Hagel’s possible nomination has become the primary argument for its approval.

And there, perhaps, lies another secret to the Israel lobby’s mysterious influence: its vast, looming presence in the imagination of its opponents.