It didn't take long for Washington's pro-Israel lobbyists to jump down the throat of former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a possible nominee for President Barack Obama's next defense secretary, and pull out of said throat various utterances they claimed were anti-Israel, or even anti-Semitic.
The Republican Jewish Coalition posted an accusatory list of Hagel's actions and statements, dating back to 2000, in which they allege that he refused to include his name on a Senate letter pressuring the European Union to categorize Hezbollah as a terrorist group, and in 2009 he urged Obama to open talks with Hamas.
In the same statement, RJC Executive Direction Matt Brooks said, "The appointment of Chuck Hagel would be a slap in the face for every American who is concerned about the safety of Israel.”
Earlier in December, RJC's Congressional Director Noah Silverman wrote in an op-ed on the RJC's website that Hagel's nomination would be "a gesture of indifference -- if not outright contempt -- toward Jewish Americans and every American who supports a strong U.S.-Israel alliance."
A spokesman for the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the heart of the Israel lobby, said it does not take official positions on presidential nominations.
Continue Reading Below
The conservative Emergency Committee for Israel has begun airing attack ads against Hagel in the D.C. area, ABC news reported, saying he is not a "responsible option," especially given what the ECI considers his soft approach to Iran's nuclear program.
Hagel, who served two terms representing Nebraska as a Republican, is being attacked chiefly from the right, among his own party. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who sparred with Hagel over the Iraq War and other issues, scoffed to Politico at the idea that he was even a Republican. And the Washington Post editorial board opined that many of Hagel's policies fell "well to the left" of Obama's, not the centrist role one usually looks for in a defense secretary, they said.
Allies of Hagel, and Hagel himself, wasted no time firing back. ThinkProgress, a blog run by the liberal Center for American Progress that has also been previously accused of being anti-Israel, posted its own list on Wednesday, albeit a much shorter list, of quotes from Hagel, also dating back to 2000, to make the case that he is a friend of Israel.
On Wednesday Hagel's aides released a "fact sheet" saying that allegations that Hagel was "soft" on Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas were untrue. Retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney, a colleague of Hagel's and CEO of the American Security Project, told Politico that the criticism was coming from "a very small, clearly prejudiced minority that has taken pretty much everything that he's said out of context to further their own cause. Absolutely ridiculous, that criticism."
Hagel's voting record, as recorded by Project Vote Smart, reveals that he voted "yea" to Iran sanctions in 1998, but "nay" in 2007 to designating Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group, a sticking point for many who support Israel's efforts to keep the Islamic Republic from going nuclear.
Well, if not Hagel, then who?
Critics of Hagel, including the Washington Post, have been pushing Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for the first three years of Obama's first term. The Post called her "a seasoned policymaker." Even before Hagel's name came forward, Flournoy was predicted to become the first female secretary. Some have said the departure of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and her likely replacement by a man, Sen. John Kerry, calls for balancing with another high-profile woman in the Cabinet.
Another deputy defense secretary, Ashton Carter, was suggested by Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard.
Hagel served in the Senate for two terms, from 1997 to 2009. He broke ranks in 2008 to support Obama's presidential campaign, rather than the Republican nominee, John McCain.