Politics

01.07.13

Pro-Israel Lobby AIPAC Sitting Out Hagel Fight

As Chuck Hagel’s critics line up, accusing him of being anti-Israel, the country’s biggest Israel lobby appears to be standing down. Eli Lake on a surprising move.

Opponent of Chuck Hagel's nomination to be secretary of defense have been lining up for battle, citing concerns about the former senator’s position on Israel.

Notably absent from the cast of critics: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, Washington’s largest and most well funded pro-Israel lobby.

The powerful lobby, which doesn’t typically shy away from a fight, has decided to sit this one out, say several House and Senate staff members, as well as some pro-Israel activists in Washington.

“Staffers and members are trying to find out what AIPAC thinks of Hagel, and we are not getting anything,” one Senate Republican staff member said. Another Senate staff member said, “AIPAC will be sitting this one out.”

AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittman didn’t comment directly on its strategy regarding Hagel’s nomination. “Our position remains the same as it always has been,” said Wittman. “AIPAC does not take positions on presidential nominations.”

The group’s apparent neutrality on Hagel is likely a big relief to the White House. On Sunday, senior White House staffers began reaching out to prominent members of the Jewish community to address concerns about Hagel. On Monday, White House chief of staff Jack Lew called AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr to discuss the Hagel nomination, according to administration officials.

The concern over Hagel largely centers on his record as a senator during the George W. Bush administration, when Hagel declined to sign a letter urging the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. In a 2006 interview with Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East peace negotiator, Hagel said, “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.” In the interview, he said he would often decline to sign letters from this lobby because, “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.” His critics have seized on this interview to say Hagel harbors anti-Semitic notions about Jews being disloyal or foreign agents. Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said last month the remark was “borderline anti-Semitic.”

AIPAC’s position on a legislative issue can often make the difference. The group cultivates members from across the country who have volunteered or raised money for nearly every member of Congress. While many lobby shops in Washington master their issues and make the case to members, AIPAC can enlist people who have longtime connections to lawmakers.

At the same time, AIPAC also needs to have a good working relationship with the Pentagon. “AIPAC has to work with the secretary of defense,” said Steve Rosen, AIPAC’s former director of foreign policy. Rosen said AIPAC lobbies the Pentagon on everything from military aid to Israel to sensitive issues about the export of military technology. “AIPAC’s policy is to make friends and avoid having enemies,” Rosen said. “It’s probably going to have to make friends with Chuck Hagel.”

Morrie Amitay, a former executive director of AIPAC, said it looks like the White House will have enough votes to confirm Hagel as secretary of defense. “I think AIPAC determined it’s not worth fighting a fight you are going to lose when you should be saving your ammunition for more crucial battles ahead,” Amitay said.

AIPAC is not the only pro-Israel group holding its fire. Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League, backed away from the tone of earlier comments, saying Monday that “Senator Hagel would not have been my first choice, but I respect the president’s prerogative.”

“AIPAC’s policy is to make friends and avoid having enemies… It’s probably going to have to make friends with Chuck Hagel.”

With some of the traditional pro-Israel groups sitting out this fight, newer organizations aren’t staying quiet. On Monday, a group called the Emergency Committee for Israel launched a new website, www.chuckhagel.com, that urged visitors to contact senators to say, “Chuck Hagel is too extreme to be secretary of defense.”

The Emergency Committee, a group that is much smaller than AIPAC, has led the charge against Hagel since his name was first floated last month.

Until today Hagel had been silent as he waited for Obama to nominate him. In an interview Monday, however, he said he looks forward to confirmation hearings to correct inaccuracies about his record, telling Nebraska’s Lincoln Journal Star that an accurate reading of his record as senator would disclose his “unequivocal, total support for Israel.”