With the support of Democratic NY Senator Charles Schumer, Chuck Hagel is now almost certain to be confirmed as Secretary of Defense.
Israeli and pro-Israel sources in the US have been very critical of the nomination (here are some of their objections). As a Senator, Hagel consistently voted against resolutions supporting Israel and condemning antisemitism. He opposed sanctions on Iran, called for negotiations with Hamas and did not support branding Hizballah as a terrorist organization. He has severely criticized Israel whenever (as in 2002, 2006 and 2008-9) it was forced to take military action against terrorists.
Hagel has consistently held to the (absurd) ‘linkage theory’, the view that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the core problem of the Middle East, and needs to be ‘solved’ — that is, Israel must withdraw from all territories conquered in 1967 and a Palestinian state created — before other issues (like Iranian nuclearization and the spread of radical Islam?) can be dealt with (see also here as well as here).
As opposed to Hagel, Chuck Schumer has been one of the most pro-Israel members of the Senate. In 2010 he sharply criticized President Obama’s policy towards Israel:
“This has to stop,” he said of the administration’s policy of publicly pressuring Israel to end construction in Jerusalem.
“I told the President, I told Rahm Emanuel and others in the administration that I thought the policy they took to try to bring about negotiations is counter-productive, because when you give the Palestinians hope that the United States will do its negotiating for them, they are not going to sit down and talk,” Schumer told Segal. “Palestinians don’t really believe in a state of Israel. They, unlike a majority of Israelis, who have come to the conclusion that they can live with a two-state solution to be determined by the parties, the majority of Palestinians are still very reluctant, and they need to be pushed to get there.
“If the U.S. says certain things and takes certain stands the Palestinians say, ‘Why should we negotiate?’” Schumer said.
Schumer is critical to Hagel’s confirmation. Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake explain:
What seems abundantly clear is that if Schumer could make his decision on Hagel in a political vacuum, he would probably vote no. But he can’t. Schumer is widely regarded as the next leader of Senate Democrats and, as such, his opinion matters a great deal. If Schumer signaled that he would vote no, it would give cover for other Democrats to follow suit — a domino effect that almost certainly would destroy Hagel’s chances.
Schumer, of course, knows that. And he doesn’t want to own the defeat of (and blame for) a Cabinet nominee put forward at the cusp of Obama’s second term. So, if personally Schumer has reason to oppose Hagel, politically he has every reason to support him.
Schumer, being one of the smartest strategists in the Senate, understands that he likely holds Hagel’s fate in his hands. Given those stakes, our (educated) guess is that if Hagel is apologetic about some of his past statements during his meeting with Schumer, the New York Democrat will find a way to say yes.
Well, Cillizza and Blake nailed it. Schumer talked to the President and met with Hagel. And in a truly remarkable statement in which he credits Hagel with changing his mind on every Israel-related issue, endorsed him:
When Senator Hagel’s name first surfaced as a potential nominee for Secretary of Defense, I had genuine concerns over certain aspects of his record on Israel and Iran. Once the President made his choice, however, I agreed to keep these reservations private until I had the opportunity to discuss them fully with Senator Hagel in person.
In a meeting Monday, Senator Hagel spent approximately 90 minutes addressing my concerns one by one. It was a very constructive session. Senator Hagel could not have been more forthcoming and sincere.
Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him…
On Iran, Senator Hagel rejected a strategy of containment and expressed the need to keep all options on the table in confronting that country. But he didn’t stop there. In our conversation, Senator Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do “whatever it takes” to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force. He said his “top priority” as Secretary of Defense would be the planning of military contingencies related to Iran. He added that he has already received a briefing from the Pentagon on this topic.
In terms of sanctions, past statements by Senator Hagel sowed concerns that he considered unilateral sanctions against Iran to be ineffective. In our meeting, however, Senator Hagel clarified that he ‘completely’ supports President Obama’s current sanctions against Iran. He added that further unilateral sanctions against Iran could be effective and necessary.
On Hezbollah, Senator Hagel stressed that—notwithstanding any letters he refused to sign in the past—he has always considered the group to be a terrorist organization.
On Hamas, I asked Senator Hagel about a letter he signed in March 2009 urging President Obama to open direct talks with that group’s leaders.
In response, Senator Hagel assured me that he today believes there should be no negotiations with Hamas, Hezbollah or any other terrorist group until they renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.
Senator Hagel volunteered that he has always supported Israel’s right to retaliate militarily in the face of terrorist attacks by Hezbollah or Hamas. He understood the predicament Israel is in when terrorist groups hide rocket launchers among civilian populations and stage attacks from there. He supported Israel’s right to defend herself even in those difficult circumstances.
In keeping with our promises to help equip Israel, Senator Hagel pledged to work towards the on-time delivery of the F-35 joint strike fighters to Israel, continue the cooperation between Israel and the U.S. on Iron Dome, and recommend to the President that we refuse to join in any NATO exercises if Turkey should continue to insist on excluding Israel from them. Senator Hagel believes Israel must maintain its Qualitative Military Edge.
Regarding his unfortunate use of the term “Jewish lobby” to refer to certain pro-Israel groups, Senator Hagel understands the sensitivity around such a loaded term and regrets saying it.
I know some will question whether Senator Hagel’s assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post. But I don’t think so. Senator Hagel realizes the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago. His views are genuine, and reflect this new reality…
I think that such a radical conversion by Hagel is unlikely, given both the substance and tone of his remarks over the years. But apparently Schumer buys it, and that means that unless something totally unexpected happens, so will a majority of senators.