If, as expected, President Obama names Chuck Hagel his secretary of defense, AIPAC will be among the big losers. But not for the reasons you might expect.
Although AIPAC clearly distrusts Hagel, I doubt the organization will lobby hard against him. The reason: They can’t win. The fact, that Hagel is a Republican ex-Senator will limit the number of GOP Senators prepared to vote against him over Middle East issues. And few Democrats will buck President Obama. Already, Maryland’s Ben Cardin, a senator with deep ties to the organized Jewish community, has called Hagel and likely Secretary of State John Kerry “top people. Top talent.”
Since they can’t block Hagel’s nomination, my guess is that AIPAC would prefer to downplay it. The problem is that from the Republican Jewish Coalition to the Emergency Coalition for Israel to the Washington Free Beacon, there now exists an active network of groups to AIPAC’s right that won’t play along. Because they’re happy to pick fights (and thus raise their profile), even if they can’t win, these smaller right-wing “Pro-Israel” groups will make Hagel versus the “pro-Israel” groups a big story. This will raise the ire of right-leaning AIPAC donors upset that the organization isn’t opposing Hagel fervently enough. And it will make AIPAC look like the loser in a fight it didn’t want to have.
It’s similar to what happened during this summer’s Democratic platform fight when AIPAC acquiesced to a plank that didn’t mention Jerusalem and found itself outflanked by groups to its right. As the Israel debate polarizes, and hard-liners on both sides gain strength, even a group like AIPAC risks getting caught in between. Hagel’s nomination could be clearest example yet.