Opposition to Hagel appointment unites pro-Israel advocates, women’s groups, Republicans

‘Jewish lobby’ comment, suggestion to negotiate with Hamas, objection to labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization dog Defense candidate

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

Sen. Chuck Hagel at the Forum on the Law of the Sea Convention in Washington, D.C., on May 9, 2012. (photo credit: Glenn Fawcett/Department of Defense)
Sen. Chuck Hagel at the Forum on the Law of the Sea Convention in Washington, D.C., on May 9, 2012. (photo credit: Glenn Fawcett/Department of Defense)

NEW YORK — An unexpected coalition has coalesced in opposition to the appointment of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.

According to information leaked from the administration last week, Hagel, a two-term Republican senator, decorated Vietnam veteran and successful entrepreneur, was being vetted by the White House Counsel’s office for the defense position. An official announcement about the nomination is expected by the weekend.

The report caused a firestorm of criticism from pro-Israel groups in the United States who oppose Hagel’s positions on several issues related to the Middle East. These include his calls over the years to engage with Yasser Arafat and Hamas, and his skepticism about a military solution to Iran’s nuclear program.

Hagel has his defenders, with the left-leaning New Republic’s John Judis calling him a “committed internationalist” and suggesting opposition to his nomination comes “almost exclusively from individuals and organizations that back Israel’s right-wing government and find Hagel’s views on Israel repellent.”

But those pro-Israel advocates – many of whom are lifelong Democrats and supported Obama in the last election – have been joined by women’s groups concerned over the declining diversity of President Obama’s cabinet and even Democratic members of Congress.

With the departure of Hillary Clinton from State, the three leading contenders for the departments of state, defense and the treasury are all white men, a fact that has irked some women’s rights advocates.

Karen Finney, a former Democratic National Committee spokeswoman, criticized the possibility of a Hagel appointment on MSNBC Tuesday, suggesting appointing “two white men” — Senator John Kerry to lead the State Department and Hagel for Defense — would reflect badly on the administration in the wake of the withdrawal of UN ambassador Susan Rice’s consideration for secretary of state.

Kerry, she said, “would do a great job [at State]. I do think the White House has to be a little bit careful about — the other name that’s out there is Chuck Hagel for defense. I think naming two white men in the same week when you saw an African-American woman who is well-qualified, overly-qualified get treated that way … [is] probably not a smart strategic decision.”

The Obama administration has “a Cabinet that — let’s face it — could probably use a little more diversity,” she said.

Some have pointed to Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense, to replace Panetta in the new Obama administration.

“I think she’s definitely getting a second look after [the withdrawal of Susan] Rice,” a “longtime Democratic defense policy hand” told Buzzfeed.

Women’s groups are calling for Flournoy’s appointment, the website reported.

“There is no doubt that the woman knows her business,” said Marie Wilson, the founder of the White House Project, which advocates for women to take on leadership roles in all spheres. “It’s Defense — the area where we have the slowest movement of women into top positions,” she said. “It would be a breakthrough.”

The most contested position is likely to be that of the defense department, with Kerry thought to be a shoo-in for State. A five-term senator first elected to the Senate in 1984, Kerry is well-liked and well-known by fellow senators. Republicans are particularly anxious to appoint the former Democratic presidential candidate to a cabinet post, as his departure from the Senate would free up the seat from Massachusetts that Republicans hope can be won in a special election by the popular Republican former senator Scott Brown.

In the Treasury, Obama’s Chief of Staff Jack Lew, an Orthodox Jew, is thought to be the leading contender to replace Timothy Geithner, though a Tuesday report suggested Obama was looking at American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault and Xerox CEO Ursula Burns as possible contenders for the post.

The appointments would buttress Obama’s relationship with “big business,” the Los Angeles Times claimed, and both chief executives are African Americans, adding to the diversity at the top of the cabinet.

While Obama himself is the first African American president, and there are other women and minorities in the cabinet – Energy Secretary and noted physicist Stephen Chu is of Chinese ancestry and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis is the first Hispanic woman to serve in the cabinet – some minority and women’s advocacy groups believe the triumvirate of State, Defense and Treasury are the most senior and symbolically important posts.

Republican senators have also expressed opposition to a Hagel appointment. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham suggested Hagel would “have to answer” for a comment reported in a 2008 book by scholar and former Mideast negotiator Aaron David Miller that the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people.” The statement was blasted by the Anti-Defamation League and Hagel opponents.

“And he’ll have to answer about why he thought it was a good idea to directly negotiate with Hamas and why he objected to the European Union declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization,” Graham added, according to the conservative Weekly Standard. Graham, a member of the Armed Services committee, said Hagel “will have to answer all those questions.”

Both Arizona senator John McCain, considered a longtime friend of Hagel, and Florida senator Marco Rubio took the former senator to task over the “Jewish lobby” comment.

“I know of no ‘Jewish lobby,’” McCain said. “I know that there’s strong support for Israel here. I know of no ‘Jewish lobby.’ I hope he would identify who that is.”

“I think that will be something he’ll have to answer for if he’s nominated,” said Rubio.

One senior Senate aide told Foreign Policy that “there are a lot of senators, Democrats and Republicans, who are very outspoken on the need to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability through the imposition of sanctions and demonstration of a credible military threat. Chuck Hagel is the antithesis of everything those members believe in.”

By Tuesday afternoon, Republican voices were joined by a growing chorus of Democrats, some opposed to the nomination, some expressing reservations about the “Jewish lobby” comment.

Nevada Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley was one of those voices, saying in a statement Tuesday, “The bottom line is that Chuck Hagel’s dismal record on issues affecting the Middle East stands in sharp contrast to the stated policies of our nation and he would be the wrong choice for America’s next secretary of defense,” Berkley said.

“I know there are some questions about his past comments and I’ll want to talk to him and see what his explanation is,” Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said.

“Yes, it would give rise to question, but there are so many very significant issues and factors to be considered, and he has many profoundly significant qualifications for the job,” said Blumenthal, according to the Weekly Standard.

“Any comment that undermines our relationship [with Israel] concerns me,” said Bob Casey (D-PA). Asked if the reference to the “Jewish lobby” is such a statement, Casey said, “Sure, yes.”

Michigan’s Carl Levin said he does not agree with Hagel’s view. “I don’t think it’s an appropriate statement,” Levin told the magazine.

And Barbara Boxer of California said she disagreed with the idea that there exists an intimidating “Jewish lobby” in Washington. “People can say whatever they want,” Boxer said. “I don’t agree with it.”

Hagel’s defenders, at least those who have spoken publicly on the likely nomination, seem to be fewer and less influential than the growing list of detractors and concerned voices.

In a statement, the left-wing group J Street praised Hagel as “among the first in his party to realize that the US occupation of Iraq had turned into a quagmire that was taking thousands of American and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives without a clear strategic rationale.”

Robert Wexler, a former congressman who was a top Jewish surrogate for Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 elections, said that trashing Hagel based on views that did not necessarily jibe with the pro-Israel community would damage Israel’s cause, JTA reported.

“It’s entirely appropriate to question the nominee on their issues related to Israel, and certainly the groups should engage in the political process,” Wexler said in an interview. “But to suggest that an American senator who served his nation honorably is somehow disqualified because he may possess a different point of view regarding what is best for America in terms of engagement with Iran or Hamas — I don’t think is appropriate.”

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