Chemi Shalev
Haaretz (Opinion)
January 7, 2013 - 1:00am


The “dysfunctional” relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama is one of the main reasons for the fierce political controversy surrounding the appointment of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel as the next U.S. Secretary of Defense, according to former U.S. diplomat Aaron David Miller.

“The relationship between the two is probably the most dysfunctional of any two I’ve come across when studying or working on this issue,” Miller told Haaretz. “Everything flows from that. There is a profound sense of mistrust between large numbers of Jewish elites in this country and Obama. And the attack on Hagel in some respects is an attack on Obama, because people know that Hagel is a reflection of many of the things that the President also feels.”

Nonetheless, Miller acknowledged that Israelis may have valid reasons to be concerned about the impending appointment. “If you believe that military force is an instrument or the threat of military forces is critically important to addressing, solving or managing the Iranian nuclear issue, then yes Israelis have a reason to be wary.”

Miller, a former State Department peace negotiator who is now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson research center in Washington is the author of the book “The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace” which contains the quote that appears to have elicited the harshest criticism of Hagel, certainly among Jews. “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” Hagel said, “I’m a United States senator, not an Israel senator.”

But while Miller dissociates himself from the “inaccurate” term “Jewish lobby,” he commends Hagel’s “honesty and clarity” for being willing to talk about the fact that American and Israeli interests are not always completely compatible. And he says that “If you live in Washington, unless you’re in a coma, you know that the pro-Israeli community has a very powerful voice.”

“The reality is that most senators and representatives come to Washington with variety of things to take care of, largely driven by their constituents’ interests, and they do not want nor do they feel they can afford to challenge that influence – so they keep their heads down. This is not a conspiracy. This is not some mushroom growing in a dark closet. It’s the way the political system in our country works: we see it in guns, with the National Rifle Association (NRA) or with the American Association of Retired People (AARP). It’s a constitutional, moral and legal right to lobby.”

Referring to Hagel’s claim in the book that he refused to sign various Israel-supporting letters in the Senate because they are “stupid,” Miller said: “When someone puts a letter in front of a Senator or a Representative, supporting a close American ally - as the late Tom Lantos told me, you’re not selling heroin, you’re selling a narrative that millions of Americans buy: small country, dangerous neighborhood, living on a knife’s edge, united by Christian and Jewish value. So why would you want to challenge it? Hagel is one of the few senators who does.

So where is the intimidation?

Miller: “Because if you don’t sign it, you have to realize that there is a cost. There have been a few instances - former Illinois senator Charles Percy comes to mind – of what happens to people who do challenge. The image of what happens to American politicians if they challenge, or even the concern about what will happen is enough to basically dissuade them.”

In any case, Miller believes that Hagel’s past statements are irrelevant to his future functioning as Secretary of Defense. “Obama is the most controlling U.S. president on foreign policy since Richard Nixon, and as Hillary Clinton found out and as John Kerry is about to find out – he, the president, calls the shots.

Hagel is a “very good appointment”, Miller believes, “at a time when we have to question very seriously why, when and how we project our military power abroad.” He says that in addition to the Israel issue, Republican critics are also trying to “articulate Republican foreign policy” and to signal the president that they will not allow him to dictate the agenda during his second term.

As for the concerns voiced by Israelis or even American Jews “what they think is not entirely relevant, frankly, and it’s no grounds for exclusion, unless you can demonstrate that Chuck Hagel is endemically hostile to the State of Israel, which I don’t think he is.”


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