Jewish opinion-makers, former top officials try to turn tide in Hagel’s favor

Jewish opinion-makers, former top officials try to turn tide in Hagel’s favor

After weeks of opposition to the presumptive defense chief nominee, bonanza of support amounts to ‘second wind’

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Chuck Hagel, center, speaking to defense officials earlier this year. (photo credit: Sun L. Vega/Department of Defense)
Chuck Hagel, center, speaking to defense officials earlier this year. (photo credit: Sun L. Vega/Department of Defense)

NEW YORK — Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska and presumed Obama nominee for defense secretary, saw a windfall of support Wednesday for his nomination from four former national security advisers and a slew of well-known American Jewish figures.

Many of the voices expressing support for Hagel also decried critics who accused Hagel of anti-Semitism and prejudice against Israel.

“We strongly object, as a matter of substance and as a matter of principle, to the attacks on the character of former senator Chuck Hagel,” read a letter published Wednesday in the Washington Post signed by four former national security advisors, James L. Jones, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Frank Carlucci. The advisers served both Republican and Democratic presidents.

Scowcroft, Brzezinski and Hagel are somewhat in lockstep on Israel and Iran. In September, the three were co-signatories on a report saying military action on Iran would help Tehran get a nuclear weapon.

The three have also called for US President Barack Obama to negotiate with terror group Hamas.

The four advisers objected to the treatment of Hagel, who cannot defend himself as he has yet to be formally nominated.

Hagel “is a rare example of a public servant willing to rise above partisan politics to advance the interests of the United States and its friends and allies,” the former officials wrote.

“Moreover, it is damaging to the quality of our civic discourse for prospective Cabinet nominees to be subjected to such vicious attacks on their character before an official nomination. This type of behavior will only discourage future prospective nominees from public service when our country badly needs quality leadership in government.”

The letter came in response to a December 20 article in the newspaper that included the criticism of Hagel’s views on Mideast issues and an accusation that a comment he had made about the “Jewish lobby,” in a 2008 book by Mideast analyst Aaron David Miller, was anti-Semitic.

This week also saw a series of public statements by well-known Jewish leaders and journalists in support of a Hagel nomination.

In a December 25 column, the New York Times’ foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman insisted Hagel “would make a fine secretary of defense — precisely because some of his views are not ‘mainstream.’”

Referring to Hagel’s opposition to Israeli West Bank settlements, Friedman wrote, “the only thing standing between Israel and national suicide any more is America and its willingness to tell Israel the truth. But 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.”

On Wednesday, the Times published a similar oped, this time by former New York Jewish Week Washington correspondent James Besser, excoriating the pro-Israel camp for allowing “extremists” to set the agenda.

“Today mainstream Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, are either silent about the mounting controversy or offering cautious support for those who want to kill Mr. Hagel’s nomination. They have been driven into silence and submission by a radical fringe that in no way represents the American Jewish mainstream,” wrote Besser.

“Playing to the extremist fringe,” he warned, “brings with it the risk of a popular backlash.”

More Jewish voices were added to the list of Hagel supporters in a New Yorker article published Wednesday.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY) told the magazine’s Connie Bruck that “not everybody who disagrees with Israel’s policies is anti-Semitic, otherwise half the Jewish population of Israel would be anti-Semitic!”

Kenneth Feinberg, a noted Washington attorney who served as administrator of the federal government’s 9/11 compensation fund and is a former leader of the American Jewish federation system, told the New Yorker that criticism of Hagel was unwarranted.

“Who are these people? Whom do they speak for?” Feinberg asked of Hagel’s critics. “Chuck Hagel is a stalwart defender of Israel, and if you don’t just fall in line with every single purist view then you are deemed to be suspect.”

After weeks of criticism, and scant response from Hagel himself, who doesn’t want to jeopardize his chances by appearing in the media as the presumptive nominee, the slew of support amounts to a “second wind” for Hagel’s nomination.

“Once the conventional wisdom hardens it hardens, and this piece of conventional wisdom” – that Hagel’s nomination was growing more tenuous by the day – “was starting to gel,” the Atlantic’s Robert Wright wrote Wednesday. “So the interventions by Friedman and those Democratic and Republican heavyweights were timely.”

read more: