If Chuck Hagel is going to be the next Secretary of Defense, a newly surfaced comment could ignite a confirmation battle already full of divisiveness — and now with semi-fresh details about his already controversial positions on Israel. The former Nebraska senator, who Bloomberg reported last week is the "likely" successor to Leon Panetta at the Pentagon, is being hounded this week for a 2008 remark about a "Jewish lobby" that "intimidates a lot of people."
"This is an institution that does not inherently bring out a great deal of courage," Hagel continued. "Most of the time members play it safe and adopt an 'I’ll support Israel' attitude. AIPAC comes knocking with a pro-Israel letter, and 'then you’ll get 80 to 90 senators on it. I don’t think I’ve ever signed one of the letters.'
When someone would accuse him of not being pro-Israel because he didn’t sign the letter, Hagel told me he responds: "‘I didn’t sign the letter because it was a stupid letter." Few legislators talk this way on the Hill. Hagel is a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values. "The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here," but as he put it, "I'm a United States senator. I'm not an Israeli senator."
On Friday, the influential Weekly Standard editor and pundit William Kristol argued that Hagel "has a record of consistent hostility to Israel over the last decade. He boasted in 2008 that, unlike his peers, he wasn’t intimidated by 'the Jewish lobby.'"
And, today, Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal appraised Hagel's remark even more closely, suggesting it carried a prejudicial "odor":
Prejudice—like cooking, wine-tasting and other consummations—has an olfactory element. When Chuck Hagel, the former GOP senator from Nebraska who is now a front-runner to be the next secretary of Defense, carries on about how "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here," the odor is especially ripe.
Why does this remark affect Hagel's chance at overseeing the Department of Defense? Over at The New Republic, John B. Judis reasons that "The White House has probably not made up its mind [about Hagel's nomination] and is using the leaks to gauge the opposition."
"If that's the case," Judis continues,
then the strategy is working as intended. The stories of Hagel’s looming nomination have aroused intense opposition--but almost exclusively from individuals and organizations that back Israel’s right-wing government and find Hagel’s views on Israel repellent.
With something of a notorious history for butting heads with the likes of Sen. John McCain and President George W. Bush, Hagel was never expected to sail through a potential confirmation process with the Senate Armed Services Committee. Because you know who's the ranking member on that committee? McCain. And McCain is on something of a roll:
The coming attacks on Chuck Hagel will make the Susan Rice episode seem quaint.— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) December 14, 2012
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.