Is Obama set to appoint anti-Israel Charles Hagel as Defence Secretary?

President Barack Obama with Senator Charles Hagel

The news out of the White House is not encouraging for Israel and her supporters if the rumours are true that US President Obama is set to appoint Charles Hagel as Defence Secretary in place of Leon Panetta who is stepping down.

Opposition to Hagel is coming in from some unusual quarters:

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.


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.”


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.


“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.


“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.”

Brett Stephens in the Wall Street Journal answers that defence of Hagel in a rather outspoken way when addressing “Chuck Hagel’s Jewish Problem“:

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.


Ripe because the word “intimidates” ascribes to the so-called Jewish lobby powers that are at once vast, invisible and malevolent; and because it suggests that legislators who adopt positions friendly to that lobby are doing so not from political conviction but out of personal fear. Just what does that Jewish Lobby have on them?

Ripe, finally, because Mr. Hagel’s Jewish lobby remark was well in keeping with the broader pattern of his thinking. “I’m a United States Senator, not an Israeli Senator,” Mr. Hagel told retired U.S. diplomat Aaron David Miller in 2006. “I’m a United States Senator. I support Israel. But my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States. Not to a president. Not a party. Not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that.”

Read these staccato utterances again to better appreciate their insipid and insinuating qualities, all combining to cast the usual slur on Jewish-Americans: Dual loyalty. Nobody questions Mr. Hagel’s loyalty. He is only making those assertions to question the loyalty of others.


In 2002, a year in which 457 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks (a figure proportionately equivalent to more than 20,000 fatalities in the U.S., or seven 9/11s), Mr. Hagel weighed in with the advice that “Israel must take steps to show its commitment to peace.” This was two years after Yasser Arafat had been offered a state by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David.

In 2006, Mr. Hagel described Israel’s war against Hezbollah as “the systematic destruction of an American friend, the country and people of Lebanon.” He later refused to sign a letter calling on the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. In 2007, he voted against designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization, and also urged President Bush to open “direct, unconditional” talks with Iran to create “a historic new dynamic in U.S.-Iran relations.” In 2009, Mr. Hagel urged the Obama administration to open direct talks with Hamas.


Yet it’s worth noting that while Mr. Hagel is eager to engage the world’s rogues without preconditions, his attitude toward Israel tends, at best, to the paternalistic.

“The United States and Israel must understand that it is not in their long-term interests to allow themselves to become isolated in the Middle East and the world,” he said in a 2006 Senate speech. It’s a political Deep Thought worthy of Saturday Night Live’s Jack Handey. Does Mr. Hagel reckon any other nation to be quite so blind to its own supposed self-interest as Israel?

Now President Obama may nominate Mr. Hagel to take Leon Panetta’s place at the Pentagon. As a purely score-settling matter, I almost hope he does. It would confirm a point I made in a column earlier this year, which is that Mr. Obama is not a friend of Israel. Perhaps the 63% of Jewish-Americans who cast their votes for Mr. Obama last month might belatedly take notice.

Alternatively, maybe some of these voters could speak up now, before a nomination is announced, about the insult that a Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel would be. Jewish Democrats like to fancy their voice carries weight in their party. The prospect of this nomination is their chance to prove it.

Ouch! Words this sharp from the normally mild-mannered Brett Stephens ought to make people sit up and take notice.

Edited to add: “Nebraska Jews recall Senator Chuck Hagel as unfriendly towards Jews and unmovable on Israel”:

While former Nebraska Senator and likely Secretary of Defense nominee, Chuck Hagel, has drawn criticism in recent days over his foreign policy positions, and specifically his hostility to Israel, members of Nebraska’s Jewish community spoke to The Algemeiner about their experiences with him during his time in office.


“Every other senator,  Nelson,  Mike Johanns, (congressman)  Lee Terry and (congressman) Peter Hoagland they were all very responsive,” she explained, “it didn’t really matter what their party affiliation was, if we were soliciting them for an interview or a greeting ad for Rosh Hashonah or Passover.”  However Katzman says that “Hagel’s office never even responded,” adding, “we would make repeated calls, (and received) no response it was pretty obvious that he and his staff were dismissive.”

“The universal feeling in the Jewish community was don’t bother, don’t waste your time, Katzman said, “I think after a while people gave up and said, we were not going to get anywhere.”

“Hagel was the only one we have had in Nebraska, who basically showed the Jewish community that he didn’t give a damn about the Jewish community or any of our concerns,” Katzman concluded.


Another Jewish community activist, Nate Schwalb, who has been living in Nebraska for 54 years, described Hagel’s relationship with the Jewish community as “unfriendly” with views on Israel that were “often contradictory to widely held views by other politicians about Israel.”

“He didn’t seem to show much interest in Israel and in Jewish people,” he said.

“He thinks that there is an Israeli lobby that’s too strong,” continued Schwalb, “I think it is well established that he is not a friend of Israel.”


When “…the late Ally Milder visited the senator in his Washington, D.C. senate office (she) was told by Hagel, ‘that she was nothing but a f–king tool for AIPAC,’” he writes.

“From that point on, Milder never had anything to do with this guy who even then made clear his anti-Jewish sentiments,” writes McPherson.

These words simply reinforce the suspicions and distrust of the pro-Israel community.

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4 Responses to Is Obama set to appoint anti-Israel Charles Hagel as Defence Secretary?

  1. Debby says:

    Anne, I continually enjoy your blog!! Keep it up!

    I found Karen Finney’s comments to be interesting. How she attempts to use the “racism” card to promote the person she supports, in light of the fact that the president of the United States has an African-American heritage and not likely to be “racist,” is very telling that this is more about public intimidation than any real concern that racism is actually involved.

    Of course, I continue to agree that our president is not for Israel. But, even worse, is the understanding that he would not be president if we were a nation in which a majority truly believed in God and his Word. I appreciate that you acknowledge that roughly 63% of American Jews voted for Obama. This is not only a slight against their support of Israel but even more deeply a slight against their support for Godly principles. Even if Obama’s team could confuse and deceive these 63% of their concern for Israel, there is no escaping that there is nothing about Obama that shows a reverence for God, His Word or Biblical Truth. There is no confusion or deception on this account.

    In the past, Israel has received the support of Americans, because Americans largely believed what the Bible taught about Israel. But, as God’s Word becomes more and more marginalized and given fairy-tale status here and abroad, the less serious people take Israel. Israel is who Israel is, because God has chosen you to be a special nation among the nations. He states this in His Word (whether you accept only the Old Testament or both the Old and New Testaments as His Word), and so only those who do not take this seriously do not take Israel seriously.

    I read in your posts a continual call to focus on God, the Creator God. It would be wonderful if Jewish Americans would listen to you!

    • anneinpt says:

      Hi Debby, thank you for your words of support.

      I too found Karen Finney’s words a bit hypocritical, but since she is opposing Hagel’s appointment, even if for the wrong reasons, I’m not going to object! We’ll take our support where we can find it.

      As for the support given Obama by American Jews, it’s not that Obama has deceived them. They chose to be governed by their liberal identity which is much stronger than their Jewish identity, and they vote according to their liberal principles. Interestingly 63% of the Jewish vote is down quite a lot from the 78% that Obama received in the 2008 elections, so perhaps there is yet hope.

  2. reality says:

    I agree with you that if Obama does appoint Hagel at least everyone will be clear as to where Obama stands-obviously not with the one & only democratic stable state in the region. Then we in Israel can tell them all to take a short run off a high cliff & leave us to deal with our country, building etc without USA help. Perhaps the Jews in the states will be given a rude wake up call too. In fact they should anyway open their eyes to whats going on (more & more anti Israel/antisemitism) if this man is even being considered. Interesting that today the 10th of The month of Tevet in the Jewish calendar is called Yom Ha Kaddish Haclali.-The yearly day to remember all of our destroyed Jewish communities throughout history, the pogroms, the inquisition, all the tragedies ever befallen to Jews & to say the mourners prayer for them, & today is the day when Hagel may be appointed.

  3. Pingback: The political mugging of Israel over the Hagel and Kerry nominations | Anne's Opinions

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