Michael Cohen
The Guardian (Opinion)
February 14, 2013 - 1:00am

This week, former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel achieved a rather dubious accomplishment: he became the first nominee for Secretary of Defense to be filibustered by the United States Senate.

In an era when seemingly every procedural norm of American governance has come under assault by congressional Republicans, the blocking of Hagel is yet another upping of the obstructionist political ante. But even more depressing are the reasons Hagel is being blocked.

While GOP Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are using Benghazi as an excuse to hold up Hagel, Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, who has led the filibuster charge, has concerns that have little to do with Hagel's fitness for job, his managerial skills or even his views on military affairs. As the National Review reports, "Inhofe's main concern remains Hagel's position on Israel." In Inhofe's own words:

"The anti-Israel history of Chuck Hagel is real. We can't have someone at the Pentagon who has made these kind of statements."

For those who sat through the national embarrassment that was last month's Senate armed services committee hearing on Hagel's nomination, none of this should come as a surprise. Watching that hearing could easily have led one to draw the conclusion that the assembled senators – both Democrats and Republicans – were more publicly concerned about Israel's security than America's.

According to an analysis put together by Max Fisher at the Washington Post, Israel was mentioned 178 times at Hagel's nomination hearing. Iran was next, at 169. Since Teheran's nuclear program is of heightened importance to the US because of how it affects Israel's security, it makes the focus of the hearing even more Israel-centric.

What is perhaps most remarkable about these numbers was that these same duly-elected US senators couldn't be roused to demonstrate the same concern about Hagel's views on Afghanistan (a place where American soldiers are currently fighting a war); or Pakistan, a country that still houses remnants of al-Qaida and has been fighting a proxy war with the US over the past several years; or North Korea, a country on the border of which more than 30,000 US troops are deployed.

Even when it came to actual US troops, the committee found it hard to demonstrate much interest. Sexual assaults in the military were mentioned three times – a number that encapsulates a grim irony, since one in three military women have been sexually assaulted. Mental health and suicide were mentioned 25 times, even though a record 349 active duty service members took their own lives last year.

At a time when there are serious challenges facing the military – budgetary constraints, changing strategic mandates, draw-down in Afghanistan and an evolving pivot to the Far East – the extraordinary attention paid to a country that is far down on the list of Pentagon priorities makes little sense. Instead, it speaks to Israel's disproportionate and destabilizing influence in US foreign policy debates.

There are plenty of good strategic and historical reasons for the US to maintain a close relationship with Israel, and obviously, there are close cultural and religious ties between the two countries that do and should inform American policy. But that can hardly explain the outsized attention paid to a country that doesn't have a mutual defense treaty with the US, is only America's 24th largest trading partner, and has no American troops deployed on its territory.

It is even odder that unquestioned support for Israel is basically unchallenged in US political debates. Indeed, in 2011, when President Obama stated that a final peace deal between Israel and Palestinians should be based on the 1967 borders, he was met by a furious pushback – even though this has been longstanding US policy.

The mere suggestion that Israel would have to make concessions for peace led to practically universal calls from Republicans that Obama had "thrown Israel under the bus". Only the hint of divergence from the preferences and desires of Israel's leaders was enough to spark a firestorm. There is no other US bilateral relationship where such a dynamic exists.

Indeed, the starting point for any discussion of US support for Israel begins not as an either/or discussion, but rather, as how much – as in, how much has one vocally demonstrated their support for Israel. One might assume that with all the attention that the Senate pays to Israeli security interests (and the closeness of the bilateral relationship), its contribution to US national security – and alignment with US foreign policy interests – would be ironclad. However, one would be wrong.

For example, a key tenet of US policy toward Israel is opposition to settlement construction in the West Bank, a position that has been endorsed by every US president since Ronald Reagan. And yet, Israeli settlement construction continues. In fact, late last year the Netanyahu government announced it would begin planning for new settlements in both East Jerusalem and the controversial E-1 section of the West Bank. This runs counter to both the spirit and the letter of US policy.

Insofar as the US government sees construction of settlements as an impediment to peace (which it does), their continued expansion also undermines another key US policy in the region: support for a two-state solution. While Palestinian leadership bears as much blame as Israeli politicians for the lack of progress in achieving that end-result, one would be hard-pressed to argue that Israeli policy, particularly in regard to the settlements, is furthering the hopes of peace.

Finally, whatever one thinks of US support for Israel in the abstract, it is increasingly difficult to argue that it is a net positive when it comes to US interests in the region. Indeed, we know that for US diplomats and US military officials (pdf) who deal with Arab and Muslim leaders in the Middle East, America's unquestioned support for Israel makes their work harder, not easier, a challenge that will only grow as the Arab Spring and Arab democracy continues to evolve.

Part of what is going on here is obviously politics. As Harvard Professor Stephen Walt has repeatedly argued, this is demonstrative of the extraordinary power that the Israel lobby holds over Congress and official Washington. But in the case of Hagel, the strongest pro-Israel lobby, Aipac, has been silent on the nomination. Rather, it was more radical, rightwing groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel that took the lead in opposing him.

For senators like Texas Republican Ted Cruz, who has done his best Joe McCarthy imitation in trying to impugn Hagel's reputation, his stridency on this issue has far less to do with the Israel lobby than it does with the fact that Israel holds an unusually esteemed place in the hearts of evangelical Christians, a key element of the Republican base. But the "why" is less important than the overall chilling effect that it has created.

What has put Hagel in such hot water are the suggestions that the desperate plight of the Palestinians should be an issue of concern to the United States; that US diplomacy is negatively effected by perceptions of America support for Israel; that negotiations even with Israel's enemies should be embarked upon; that progress on peace between Israel and the Palestinians is of vital importance; and finally, that America's relationship with Israel cannot come at the expense of its relations with the Arab world. Since being nominated, Hagel has been forced to walk back or explain away all of these statements.

None of these are unreasonable positions; and none of them, if expressed in Israel, would be considered controversial. That expressing these views would lead to such furious opposition – even from members of his own party – is indicative of how constrained US debates have become about Israel. In fact, US policy is held hostage to political orthodoxy, dissuading any public official from departing from the accepted party line. This is, frankly, bad for democracy and bad for US national security interests.

The United States has long played a key role in pushing both Israelis and Palestinians toward reconciliation; but it's hard to imagine such steps being taken when even the slightest deviation from unchallenged backing for Israel leads to unhinged and over-the-top criticism. What's worse: at a time when Israel is moving closer toward permanent occupation of the West Bank, the US may soon find itself allied with a nation that rules over a majority of Arab Palestinians without full political rights, an open and honest debate about US-Israeli relations could not be more vital or urgent.

If the Hagel debacle is any indication, that won't happen any time soon. Those who have made it their goal to prevent any US policy-maker from expressing an opinion that the current Israeli government doesn't want to hear are ensuring a bleak and undemocratic future for the country they profess to be defending.

So, while Chuck Hagel may pay a short-term price by being blocked from becoming Secretary of Defense, it is Israel, the United States and, above all, the Palestinians who will pay a much larger and disastrous penalty for America's constricted debate about Israel.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017