The Chuck Hagel Controversy

Jewish liberals are pushing back on attacks on the potential Cabinet nominee, but the way they're doing it is telling.

Goldblog wasn't planning on covering the controversy surrounding the so-far theoretical nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense, because it is, after all, theoretical, and because I think the situation is much more complex than both right and left think believe it to be, and who wants to get into it right now? I'm into enough at the moment.

But then I received an email being circulated among Jewish liberals who support Hagel, and it provoked me to think through some of the deeper issues here. The point of the aforementioned e-mail was to argue that Hagel is, in fact, "pro-Israel," and it provides a list of the various times he's voted for this or that on behalf of Israel in the Senate. "Senator Hagel cosponsored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006," for instance. "The bill, which became US law, declared it U.S. policy to oppose organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah..." And so on.

What struck me as unusual about the list is that it was framed as a response to right-wing criticism. It did not advance arguments you would expect to hear from the Left, but tried to mollify the Right. It contained nothing like, "Hagel is adamant in his support for a settlement freeze," or somesuch; the letter was designed to say, in effect, "Don't worry, Hagel is actually closer ideologically to Lindsey Graham than you think."

About Hagel himself, I have mixed feelings: He is a patriot, and a smart and pleasant man (I've met him on a couple of occasions) and if he's anti-Semitic, he went about hiding this from me pretty well. I think, based on what I've read, that he has harbored very naive views about Iran and Hezbollah (whether he still harbors them I don't know) and that he's not particularly sentimental about Israel. He has also accrued some unfortunate supporters, including and especially the scapegoater Stephen Walt, but Hagel can't be blamed for this. The most troubling question about Hagel's potential nomination for some people concerns what it would mean about Obama's views on Iran. I've come to the conclusion (I came to it long ago) that Obama is serious when he says all options are on the table, and he might be so serious, in fact, that it wouldn't matter if his national security adviser was Zbigniew Brzezinski. Hagel, no matter how far he's moved, hasn't moved as far as Obama has on the issue. But I'm not sure Hagel's position in this argument is overly relevant, even if he's sitting by the president's side. And who better to sell the president's militant Iran position than someone who comes from the realist camp? I really don't think he would be able to influence the president away from the stand he has taken.

Anyway, it's not Hagel's record itself that prompts me to write. The strategy advanced by the pro-Hagel Jewish Left is a fine political strategy, I suppose, and I wouldn't bother commenting on it, except that I just read that the Israeli political party HaBayit HaYehudi (the Jewish Home) is now poised to become one of the the country's biggest parties. It might, in fact, be the third-largest party in the next Knesset.

The Jewish Home party advances an ideology that will bring about the destruction (the self-destruction) of Israel. The Jewish Home party seeks to erase the dividing line between Israel and the West Bank; it seeks to build more and more settlements; it seeks to absorb the West Bank's Arabs into Israel as, at the most, second-class citizens. It seeks to empower Orthodox religious nationalism as the dominant ideology of the state turn Israel into the Jewish equivalent of a sharia state. And its policies would turn Israel into a pariah state, and Israel will not survive for the long-term as a pariah state.

How does this relate to Hagel? This is how: Maybe, at this point, what we need are American officials who will speak with disconcerting bluntness to Israel about the choices it is making. If the Jewish Home party becomes a key part of Netanyahu's right-wing ruling coalition, you can be assured that there will not compromise coming in the forseeable future (it's almost impossible to forsee compromise now.) Maybe the time has come to redefine the term "pro-Israel" to include, in addition to providing support against Iran (a noble cause); help with the Iron Dome system (also a noble cause); and support to maintain Israel's qualitiative military edge (ditto), the straightest of straight talk about Israel's self-destructive policies on the West Bank. Maybe Hagel, who is not bound to old models, could be useful in this regard.

And yes, I write this with some measure of despair.