How to Win Israeli Friends, Chuck Hagel Edition

During Chuck Hagel’s brutal confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee last year, he was raked over the coals for his alleged lack of commitment to the U.S.-Israeli alliance. Sen. Ted Cruz dredged up a clip in which Hagel appeared to have agreed that Israeli forces had carried out war crimes during the 2006 ...

Mandel Ngan-Pool/Gety Images
Mandel Ngan-Pool/Gety Images

During Chuck Hagel’s brutal confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee last year, he was raked over the coals for his alleged lack of commitment to the U.S.-Israeli alliance. Sen. Ted Cruz dredged up a clip in which Hagel appeared to have agreed that Israeli forces had carried out war crimes during the 2006 war in Lebanon against Hezbollah. Several of his former colleagues slammed Hagel for arguing in an interview that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here." That comment also led the neoconservative foreign-policy analyst Elliott Abrams to bluntly deride Hagel as an anti-Semite.

So just a day after he was unceremoniously ousted from his position as secretary of defense, the former senator from Nebraska is probably watching with no small measure of satisfaction as statements of praise stream in from Israeli officials and the country’s boosters. That reflects the quiet belief among security officials from both countries that the military-to-military relationship between the United States and Israel is as strong as ever, and that the Obama administration has gone further than some of its predecessors in providing Israel with advanced weaponry such as bunker-busting bombs. Washington also funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel in emergency funding for Israel’s anti-missile Iron Dome system, which proved remarkably effective this summer in shielding the country’s major cities from Hamas rockets.

Reacting to the firing, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon — a hawk who has been fiercely critical of the administration on Iran and other issues — called Hagel a "true friend of Israel."

"I had the privilege and honor of enjoying an open, candid and very warm relationship with Secretary Hagel," Yaalon said. "This close relationship is reflected in the special ties between the defense establishments of the United States and Israel which has contributed to Israel’s security in an unprecedented manner."

Abe Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, praised Hagel for his treatment of Israel. "Secretary Hagel’s energetic stewardship of America’s commitment to Israel’s security in a dangerous region has been vital as Israel has faced unprecedented threats," Foxman said in a statement. "His hands-on engagement to ensure that our ally, Israel, can live in safety and security and maintain its rightful place in the community of nations will have a lasting impact."

The reaction from Yaalon and conservative elements of the pro-Israel lobby to his firing represents a remarkable shift in attitude toward Hagel, whose past statements on Israel — some clearly taken out of context — very nearly torpedoed his nomination.

Less than two years ago, Foxman was singing a very different tune. When President Barack Obama tapped Hagel for the position, Foxman issued a chilly statement in which he said that "Hagel would not have been my first choice, but I respect the President’s prerogative." The ADL called Hagel’s positions on Israel "at best disturbing and at worst, very troubling" and urged that Hagel’s comment with regard to the "Jewish lobby" be closely examined during his confirmation process.

In one sense, the turnaround provides a reminder that the sound and fury of the Washington political scene often bears little resemblance to reality. The chief argument against Hagel’s candidacy as secretary of defense turned out to be completely unfounded, with many analysts arguing that ties between Israel and the United States remained strong — and may have gotten stronger — under Hagel.

"You ask any of the Israelis — while there have been tensions with the Obama administration, they have all said that the military and the intelligence relationship is better than ever," said David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, referring to public statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer.

But that observation doesn’t necessarily imply that Hagel’s time in office — and the praise he now receives from Israeli officials — is itself meaningless. The media accounts of Hagel’s firing portray a man who was brought in to do one job — downsize the U.S. military and end its war in Afghanistan — and was instead told to find a way of defeating Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. This led Obama, in the words of an unnamed senior administration official quoted by Politico, to conclude that Hagel "just wasn’t the man for the job."

It is arguably Hagel’s relative marginalization within the administration that allowed him to maintain close ties with Israel at a time when other senior members of the White House have been openly critical of the Israeli government. With foreign-policy decision-making centralized in the White House and Secretary of State John Kerry handling the big-ticket item in the Israeli portfolio, the failed peace negotiations, Hagel was free to forge an easy workaday relationship with his Israeli counterparts.

"Because he was cut off from the key issues, he was insulated from the most contentious aspects of the U.S.-Israel relationship," said Makovsky. "Therefore it was all upside."

A key aspect of Hagel’s personal rapprochement with the Israelis came as part of his dealings with Egypt. After then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power in a coup, Hagel was designated as the Obama administration’s point man in dealing with the newly empowered strongman. While Hagel failed to persuade Sisi to not open fire on protesters in the streets, his relationship with the Egyptians put him at the nexus of what has become Israel’s most important security relationship. Sisi’s government has banned the Muslim Brotherhood and ordered a fierce military crackdown on Islamist militants within its borders. Cairo and Jerusalem are, for the moment, united against a common foe.

With Hagel broadly supportive of normalizing relations with Egypt following the coup, he has found himself on the right side of Israeli interests in the region.

And when Israel launched a campaign of airstrikes and limited ground incursions against Gaza, Jerusalem was perhaps surprised at the level of loyalty in encountered in the Pentagon. While White House and State Department officials were attempting to convince Israel to ratchet down the military operation, they discovered that unbeknownst to them the Pentagon had been supplying Israel with additional munitions. In effect, the White House, by centralizing power, had opened its flank to be exploited by the Israeli officials it sought to control.

So Hagel didn’t end up making many friends in Washington during his brief tenure at the Pentagon. But the same can’t be said about Jerusalem.     

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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