The Mensch

How Chuck Hagel went from 'Jewish lobby' target to Israel's buddy.

Jim Watson - Pool/Getty Images
Jim Watson - Pool/Getty Images

Weeks before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was sworn in, he got a homework assignment from the man sitting in the E-Ring office he would soon occupy. During a private dinner of filet mignon, corn chowder, and chocolate cake, the serving SecDef, Leon Panetta, told Hagel of an up-until-then secret, $10 billion arms deal between the United States, Israel, and two Arab countries that could amount to a strategic game-changer in the region. The terms of the deal were all but settled, but Hagel would need to be the closer, Panetta told him. Hagel’s job was not only to seal the arms deal with Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, but in so doing help put the "special relationship" the United States and Israel have long enjoyed back on track.

After getting that tasker from Panetta, Hagel dove in. Amid crises in North Korea, Syria, and Egypt, and fights among his top brass over an ever-shrinking piece of budgetary pie, Hagel has kept his eye on the prize: using the arms deal to rebuild a relationship with Israel that has foundered over the years. That triggered a series of "firsts," as senior U.S. defense officials call them: Hagel’s first trip to an ally, after Afghanistan, was to Israel; the first foreign defense minister he called after being sworn in at the Pentagon was Israel’s, the gregarious Ehud Barak; Hagel called Barak’s successor, Moshe "Boogie" Ya’alon, on the Israeli’s first day on the job; Ya’alon’s first overseas trip as defense minister was to Washington. And as Hagel and Ya’alon sat beside one another on a helicopter tour of Israel earlier this year, the two former soldiers called each other "Chuck" and "Boogie."

All this has pushed the arms deal, which includes high-tech missiles, radar systems, aerial refuelers, and, perhaps most importantly, advanced V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, up very close to the finish line. Pentagon officials insist it’s basically a done deal; other individuals close to it say there are some details still on the table. Either way, when Hagel does get it across, the Obama White House will have fresh leverage in a region that’s once again engulfed in turmoil. Exactly how much leverage is unclear; Hagel is also seen as the singular channel to Egyptian General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi — who took over in Cairo despite Washington’s wishes, and whose troops have begun massacring its enemies in the streets.

What really animates the arms deal is the degree to which it strengthens not only Israel’s capabilities, but those of two other Arab countries against the region’s biggest danger: Iran. That has thrust Hagel, already acknowledged as the administration’s messenger to Egyptian leaders during that turmoil, to the fore as someone who has enough gravitas to anchor a new coalition between Israel and Arab countries.

"There’s just a strategic opportunity, given Iran’s threat, and given the instability in the region that we can try to help try to build a new strategic coalition, with the U.S. acting at the center, and the role Hagel has played is the strategic thinker," said one senior defense official. "I think there is a real amount of engagement and personal diplomacy that he has taken on from the beginning in really less than six months into his time as secretary of defense."

Hagel’s success at courting the Israelis is counterintuitive to those who watched Hagel’s bruising confirmation battle, in which his allegedly-unkind views on Israel figured prominently.

That narrative, for people who know Hagel, and even for some who don’t, never seemed to ring true. Yet it set the bar low for the new defense secretary and may even contribute to him enjoying relative success in the relationship today.

It’s all set the stage for what officials in Washington like to call an "unprecedented" level of cooperation between the two countries. It’s led to higher level intelligence-sharing between Israel and the United States. And it may also contribute indirectly to Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace process, as it gives Israelis greater confidence that the United States is on their side — even as it seeks a resolution with the Palestinians.

The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman had been critical of Hagel in the run-up to him being confirmed for his past statements on Israel. At the time, Foxman issued a statement saying dryly that Hagel would not have been his first choice as defense secretary and that he was eager for Hagel to explain his past statements about "the Jewish lobby." Today, he said the "unprecedented" rhetoric for the U.S.-Israeli relationship rings true for him and his Israeli friends.

"To some extent, we were concerned if Chuck Hagel would continue the relationship, or would enhance it," Foxman said. He’s now convinced he has moved it in the right direction. "Hagel seems to be committed, not only to continue the good relationship, but to enhance it."

A senior defense official declined to discuss the nature of the intelligence the two countries share, citing the need for discretion, but talked about the way in which, through Hagel, the relationship has amplified the U.S. ability to serve as a bridge between Israel and Egypt.

Others are more leery of the narrative. Many Hagel watchers were underwhelmed by Hagel’s first trip to Israel in which he was thought to have said very little publicly. But American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka said that if Hagel was "chastened" by his confirmation process, that’s a good thing. "I know who he was before and I know what he said, I know what he thought," she said. The Obama administration has not proven itself to be a reliable partner to any ally, she said. But she was willing to concede that Hagel may have made some inroads with the Israelis. "If in fact he has worked to ensure that the United States is a reliable ally to Israel, marvelous," she said.

Hagel’s stature in Israel — good but unremarkable, a second group of observers say — is due to the work of underlings and the red eye diplomacy in which they’ve engaged. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter just returned from Israel last week; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey is headed there this month. Senior staffers have travelled there repeatedly. Matt Spence, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East affairs, has been to Israel six times since Hagel arrived in office in February; 14 times since Spence was appointed to his current job in February 2012.

In many ways, Hagel inherited the more robust Israeli relationship: Panetta, who was personally close to former Israeli Defense Minister Barak, had already built a strong connection. Last November, Panetta presented Barak with a photograph on which he scribbled: "With deepest thanks and appreciation for your friendship and leadership in building a strong military-to-military relationship between the United States and Israel — working together, we have kept our countries safe and our people secure." And under Panetta, the Pentagon laid the groundwork for the massive arms deal. But Hagel is now the face of an American commitment to Israeli security. Israelis, many of whom were dubious about Hagel after his confirmation battle even if they didn’t believe all the criticism, say they are impressed with his diligence in building the relationship.

"Chuck Hagel heads an establishment that over past years has developed a very strong relationship with our counterparts," said Nimrod Novik, a former advisor to Israeli President Shimon Peres. "The mood around him is very strong camaraderie, they speak the same language, they understand each other … the degree of candor and openness is unprecedented."

It wasn’t always this way. It was just a few years ago when the U.S.-Israeli relationship had become strained.

James Jones, the retired Marine four-star and American envoy, was repeatedly snubbed. The Israelis refused to take meetings with him, fearing the U.S. agenda was to push them aside over settlements and other issues. Today, John Allen, another retired Marine four-star, enjoys far more access, says Novik.

The arms deal is still not a done deal, however, and it’s still very much in play. The issue remains how to give Israel the "qualitative military edge," typically done in practice but now mandated by Congress, so it can enjoy higher-end platforms and additional capabilities than other allies. Under the deal, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates can buy top-of-the-line weapons systems from American firms, but Israel gets additional financial assistance to the tune of $3 billion, according to the New York Times, which broke the story on the arms deal in April. Israel would buy missiles, advanced radars, and a number of V-22 Ospreys for transporting troops. Israel would be the first American ally allowed to buy the Osprey, which, after a troubled past, now represents one of the most advanced troop transports around. It can fly larger payloads farther and faster with its uniquely adaptive "nacelles" that rotate its propellers from a helicopter position to a plane’s. And that would allow the Israelis to conduct quicker, more complex missions in the dark, effectively "extending the night," in the words of one Israeli defense official. Israel would also get the next generation refueling tanker planes that defense officials have noted would allow Israeli forces to fly longer missions, even into Iran. Finally, the Israelis would get anti-radiation missiles that can be launched from a warplane.

But it might be the V-22 that the Israelis like the most. During the visit this spring, Ya’alon was treated to something that the Americans reserve for only their special friends: a trip in the V-22 Osprey. After the ride Hagel strode out of the Pentagon’s river entrance to the helicopter pad and gave a big hug to Ya’alon. And after that, the Defense Department released the video of the ride — and the hug — on YouTube. This was a moment between friends that the Pentagon wanted to make sure that everyone could see.

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