An informed source tells me that during a hotly debated recent conference call that included top AIPAC lay leaders, the organization decided not to aggressively challenge Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be secretary of defense. The justification: AIPAC’s long-standing tradition of not involving itself in confirmation battles. (An AIPAC spokesperson did not respond to emails requesting comment.) That tracks what I was told this morning by Morton Klein, who runs the smaller and more hawkish Zionist Organization of America. Klein says that when rumors about Hagel’s nomination began flying roughly a monthly ago, he called the leaders of several Jewish groups to rustle up opposition, including the American Jewish Committee’s David Harris, the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman and the lay leader of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Richard Stone. When he called AIPAC, “several top guys, major lay leaders on the board,” told Klein that “we don’t deal with nominees. We deal with policies.” An informed Jewish Democrat concurs, saying that based on his conversations with the White House and elsewhere, “AIPAC has decided to lay low” and “not really fight this.”
Tom Dine, who ran AIPAC from 1980-1993, also predicts that while some big AIPAC donors will disagree, the organization will ultimately judge the risks of a Hagel fight too high. “Hagel’s not going to forget [who opposed him],” notes Dine. “When it comes to nominations, they don’t ever forget.” And given how much of AIPAC’s work involves U.S.-Israeli military coordination, Dine doubts AIPAC would risk jeopardizing its relationship with the office of the secretary of defense. Another informed Jewish Democrat makes a similar point, noting that whatever one thinks of current AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr’s ideological leanings, “he’s one politically astute guy,” too astute to pick a fight that AIPAC would be unlikely to win.
Public statements suggest the same thing. AIPAC ally Malcolm Hoenlein, the powerful executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents, has been muted in his criticism of Hagel, telling a Jewish talk show host a few days ago that while there is “concern… because of his past statements and his record on a lot of issues,” that “we’ll work with whoever is in office,” and that “ultimately the relationship with Israel will be maintained” because “as secretary of defense [Hagel] will see the realities of the importance of Israel to the United States.” Foxman, who the White House reportedly notified of the impending Hagel nomination in a call yesterday, put out a similarly mild statement today, noting that “Senator Hagel would not have been my first choice, but I respect the President’s prerogative.”
It’s easy to exaggerate how big a defeat all this is for AIPAC. The Hagel nomination isn’t a good test of AIPAC’s strength precisely because it’s a cabinet nomination—a topic on which president’s usually get their way. It’s much easier for AIPAC to rally members of Congress behind resolutions that limit the Obama administration’s room to maneuver on actual policy questions, where opposing the president doesn’t look like such a direct slap in the face. (It’s also easier for the Israeli government to lobby Congress on policy questions like settlement growth and Iran sanctions than on cabinet appointments.) Furthermore, the Hagel struggle hasn’t been a complete loss for hawkish Jewish groups. His political near-death experience may leave Hagel more cautious when it comes to U.S.-Israel relations than he would have been otherwise (though I doubt that means he’ll turn hawkish on Iran).
Still, the Hagel nomination is a reminder that when the President of the United States decides he really cares about something, political realities change, especially for members of Congress in his own party. Democrats in Congress may want to stay on good terms with AIPAC, but AIPAC also badly needs to stay on good terms with Democrats in Congress. Nothing is worse for AIPAC, and better for J Street, than being perceived as a partisan Republican organization. And AIPAC’s leaders are smart enough to know that given the cultural shifts inside the organization—the increased presence of right-wing Christian evangelicals and Orthodox Jews—it needs to work especially hard to counteract that perception. I suspect that played a role in AIPAC’s initial decision not to make a fuss about the Jerusalem language in the Democratic platform this summer, and its apparent decision to punt on Hagel now. It’s possible that some right-wing AIPAC lay leaders will go rogue and lobby against Hagel on their own accord. Something similar happened in the 1990s when AIPAC officially backed the Oslo peace process but powerful AIPAC board members privately lobbied against key aspects of it. It’s even possible that by not fighting Hagel, AIPAC could lose some right-wing donors to further right groups like the ZOA or Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI). But that risk pales compared to the risk of AIPAC becoming ECI or ZOA.
And what does all this say about President Obama? Whether it was his pushback against Netanyahu on a red line for war last fall or his backing of Hagel now, he’s been far more willing to brush back the hawkish pro-Israel community, and the Israeli government, when it comes to Iran (which is what the Hagel fight is mostly about) than on the Palestinians. It’s almost as if he believes that Iran, which involves war by the United States, is above their pay grade. I wish he’d push as boldly on Israel-Palestine too, but it’s still valuable that he has defined some sphere in which he’s willing to risk a political fight with the groups that Hagel, rightly, said intimidate some in Washington. Let’s hope today’s boldness becomes a habit.