Roadblocks for Hagel
If nominated for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel will face bipartisan resistance.

Chuck Hagel


Eliana Johnson

Chuck Hagel disapproves of what he has evocatively called “the Jewish lobby.” He may have more reason to do so if, as is rumored, President Obama nominates him to replace Leon Panetta as secretary of defense. If he is tapped by the president, Hagel is likely to face bipartisan resistance from pro-Israel groups that have long considered him a foe. For his part, Hagel has declared, “I’m not an Israeli senator,” and told former State Department official Aaron David Miller disapprovingly, “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”

“Institutionally, AIPAC would be opposed to him,” says a source active in both national security and the Jewish community, who notes that, while some groups are prohibited from taking formal positions on political nominees, AIPAC will do what it can to scuttle Hagel’s confirmation if, in fact, he is nominated. Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), tells National Review Online, “The record clearly shows that there is strong bipartisan concern with Chuck Hagel’s record and his comments, and I think you will see this come to the fore if that nomination does go forward.”

In fact, Jewish leaders are already expressing that concern. Several leaders from the Jewish community reportedly arrived at the president’s Hanukkah party on Thursday to warn administration officials against nominating Hagel. One attendee said Hagel was “the talk of the party”; another said the controversy over his nomination would be “Susan Rice times ten.” A fact sheet highlighting the positions Hagel has taken on Iran, Israel, and terrorist groups from Hamas to Hezbollah is reportedly circulating on Capitol Hill. The RJC said in a statement that nominating Hagel would be “a slap in the face for every American who is concerned about the safety of Israel.”

Defeating a Hagel nomination, however, will be more difficult than mounting a vocal opposition, in large part due to the Senate’s tradition of collegiality. Tradition indicates the Senate would extend a former senator — one whose Senate colleagues would be directly involved in his confirmation — considerable latitude. Sources say that, in order for the opposition to have a real chance at defeating a possible Hagel nomination, a sitting senator — around whom others can rally — must be willing to mount a battle against him. A founder of the non-partisan national security organization Secure America Now, Allen Roth tells National Review Online, “If nobody takes the lead in the Senate,” it’s unlikely the Hagel foes will be able to get much traction. “We’re at the early stages of this,” says Brooks. “My sense is obviously that there will be somebody that emerges. I just haven’t heard of anybody yet.”

Pro-Israel groups have long cited what they say is Hagel’s record of hostility to Israel. Hagel was one of just four senators who in October 2000 abstained from signing a letter affirming America’s “solidarity with Israel” as the Second Intifada intensified. He has said that support for Israel should not be automatic: At a 2007 dinner sponsored by the Arab-American Institute, Hagel told the crowd, “No relationship should ever be founded on holding hostage other relationships.” In 2006, he vehemently opposed Israel’s retaliation against Hezbollah in Lebanon, writing in his book America: Our Next Chapter, that “military retaliation — rightful or not — is not a political strategy that can end the threat posed by terrorist groups” and criticizing Israel for pursuing “tactical military victories” at the expense of Arab-Israeli peace. “These things make me not only uncomfortable” says Roth, “but I think he’s the wrong guy for the job of defense secretary.”