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Not right for Defense, but no anti-Semite
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Not right for Defense, but no anti-Semite

While President Obama’s nomination of former senator Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense has been taking withering fire from all directions, the most over-the-top criticism has come from those questioning his support for Israel.

Objections to the Hagel nomination have come from some of his former GOP colleagues, and Democrats are in no rush to come to his defense. But it was friends of Israel and leaders of the Jewish community who complained the loudest, with charges that included offensive claims that the former senator is a closet anti-Semite.

To be sure, there were other critics. A Washington Post editorial said he was “not the right choice” and his views are “well to the left” of Obama’s, particularly on issues dealing with Iran, the use of force, and sanctions. Those issues were part of the case made by many friends of Israel, but they were bundled with charges of bigotry.

The evidence was not just that he was sometimes critical of Israeli policy and didn’t consistently toe the Likud line, but that he had referred to AIPAC as “the Jewish lobby,” accused it of “intimidating a lot of people” in Congress, and insisted “I am a United States senator, not an Israeli senator.”

The latter was almost exactly the same phrase I heard from a prominent Jewish senator when he first came to the Senate and wanted AIPAC to know he wasn’t there to do its bidding.

The conservative Weekly Standard quoted an unnamed Republican Senate aide’s e-mail warning, “Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.” The same aide said, “He believes in the existence of a nefarious Jewish lobby that secretly controls U.S. foreign policy.”

The reference was to a comment Hagel made in a 2008 book by former U.S. Mideast envoy Aaron David Miller: “The political reality is that…the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, who should know better, said, “The sentiments he’s expressed about the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism.” And then came the big insult: Foxman compared Hagel to Jimmy Carter.

Miller, meanwhile, said that the quote in his book had been “hijacked” because it left out the previous sentence which said, “Hagel is a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values.” Hagel, he said, “is not an anti-Semite, not an enemy of Israel, not even hostile to the State of Israel.” That view was echoed by Dan Kurtzer, the former United States ambassador to Israel.

The term “Jewish lobby” is commonly used around the Hill; in Israel, AIPAC is known as “ha lobby hayehudi,” the Jewish lobby. As for intimidating, just ask two Jewish congressmen who got visits from wealthy AIPAC officers warning them they’d be unable to raise money in the Jewish community if they dared to run for the Senate against the board’s preferred candidates.

It’s true Hagel was never an enthusiastic supporter of Israel during his two Senate terms, although he consistently voted for economic and security assistance.

A major criticism is that he didn’t sign all the letters AIPAC and others circulated on the Hill to produce shows of strength. He even had the temerity to call one of them “stupid.”

The Republican Jewish Coalition circulated a list of charges against Hagel this month. It resembled one that its Democratic counterpart, the National Jewish Democratic Council, circulated when it looked like the then-senator might be planning a run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. This time, the NJDC acknowledged that “we have expressed concerns in the past,” but trust that when confirmed, “Hagel will follow the president’s lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel.”

There are a lot of good reasons why Hagel should not be the next secretary of defense, but flunking the Likud loyalty test shouldn’t be one of them.

Columnist David Ignatius questioned whether he is the right person to run the Pentagon at “a delicate moment of transition in defense policy and spending.”

I don’t think Hagel has the temperament for the job. He seems out of sync with the president’s policies on a number of fronts. Most notably, he advocates containment of Iran and acceptance of its nuclear ambitions as a fact of life.

The president values Hagel’s advice and made him co-chairman of his Intelligence Advisory Board. He should remain there.

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