By MAXINE DOVERE/JNS.ORG
WASHINGTON, DC – For former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, who came under heavy criticism from some Jewish groups and from legislators on both sides of the political spectrum for his record on Israel during a historically tight battle for confirmation, an official security relationship with the Jewish state now begins.
Despite an attempted filibuster by members of his own Republican party, Hagel garnered enough bipartisan support to be confirmed as Secretary of Defense in a 58-41 Senate vote last week. No previous defense secretary, however, had been confirmed with more than 11 opposing votes.
JNS.org spoke with several pro-Israel leaders who looked back on the Hagel confirmation fight and ahead to his tenure as Secretary of Defense, and what that tenure might mean for the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Christians United for Israel (CUFI) had brought more than 400 activists to Capitol Hill to lobby against Hagel’s confirmation.
“It was an uphill battle, one we were likely to lose,” David Brog, CUFI’s executive director, told JNS.org. “We thought it worth fighting because we believed the effort would have an influence by drawing a line, brightly and clearly, regarding what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.”
Brog said, “Those lines are now drawn both for the Secretary of Defense and the administration and for Congress as well.”
“The brighter the lines, the easier it will be to recognize if they are ever crossed,” he said. “Everyone is on notice in D.C. and ready and watching.”
Kenneth Bialkin, chairman of the America Israel Friendship League (AIFL), told JNS.org that political commentary is “not a subject of the AIFL mission,” and instead offered his personal point of view on Hagel.
“We move on and hope for the best,” he said.
Bialkin noted that the friendship between the U.S. and Israel “is grounded on solid principles.”
“We have a long history of shared interests, [the relationship] has great depth and a common philosophy,” he said. “I think we have to look forward toward a continuation of that and should do everything we can to deepen and strengthen that relationship.”
Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), was strongly opposed to Hagel’s nomination in the public sphere and claims he was told to “sit down and shut up” about the topic, but refuses to identify who told him to do so.
“I can’t say [who told me to be silent about Hagel],” Klein told JNS.org. “It was a private conversation—they are people you would know in a minute.
“They told me I’m making it a Jewish issue—which is bad for the Jews,” he said.
“We’re in this business to promote Jewish interests,” Klein said, adding, “Too many Jewish organizations have forgotten their mission and feel it more important to maintain access for access sake.”
Klein believes Hagel’s confirmation “would not have been a done deal” if Jewish organizations had joined together in stronger opposition to the nomination.
Hagel “showed enormous incompetence” during his confirmation hearing and “lacked an understanding of the issue,” according to Klein.
B’nai B’rith International, in a Feb. 21 statement (before Hagel’s confirmation), said it is “troubled that Hagel, during his confirmation hearings, undermined the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” The group also noted that Hagel “underestimates the threat of the Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah.”
“Hagel was in the minority when 88 of his then-Senate colleagues called on the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization,” B’nai B’rith said.
Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) founder Sarah Stern, in an op-ed for Israel National News, wrote that Hagel was “unable to explain away the clear contradictions between his past positions and his current positions” when questioned on those positions during the confirmation hearing.
“His poor performance is suggestive that he was far from convinced of the merits of the arguments he was proposing, and was instead merely exhibiting a clear case of ‘confirmation conversion,’” Stern wrote. “His hearing performance proved embarrassing even for many Hagel supporters.”
Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said Israel “looks forward to working closely” with Hagel.
“Under the Obama administration, security ties between the United States and Israel have been superb,” Oren said. “We are fully confident that those bonds will grow stronger still as our countries continue to meet common challenges to our security.”
—With reporting by Jacob Kamaras