Open Zion

04.25.13

How The Pro-Israel Right Got Hagel And Kerry Backwards

As if you needed another reminder that the Republican foreign policy right—the dominant wing of the party in Washington—isn't exactly to be trusted on Mideast issues, just take a glance at the region this past week. When the Obama administration sent two cabinet level officials there, the picture couldn't have played out more differently than Senate Republicans and their D.C.-fellow travelers said it would this winter. Recall the atmosphere as now-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a Republican, was bruised and battered during confirmation hearings. GOP Senators and their supporters in the right-wing media made specious allegation after allegation against Hagel: raising the possibility that he took money from North Korea and Iran; that he joined the "Friends of Hamas"; and, most infamously, that the Nebraskan hated Jews. In contrast, John Kerry sailed through the Senate to be confirmed as Secretary of State. John McCain, one of Hagel's most vociferous opponents on the Hill, said of Kerry, "I commend his nomination to you without reservation"—even though the former Massachusetts Senator held many of the same positions that gave rise to the charges against Hagel. On the terms of their own right-wing pro-Israel perspective, these forces on the right could not have gotten it more wrong. The past weeks of Kerry's shuttle diplomacy to the Mideast and Hagel's own trip to Israel paint the opposite of the picture that emerged at their confirmations.

The ease with which Republicans and their right-wing allies accepted Kerry as someone they needn't worry about contrasts starkly with Israeli rejection of his initiatives. Kerry's efforts to jumpstart talks between the Israelis and Palestinians by focusing on a limited set of goals were dismissed out of hand by Israel. One Israeli official involved in the talks with Kerry went so far as to cast the Secretary of State aside with what Haaretz described as "cynical, slightly scornful comments" about him. "Kerry believes that he can bring about the solution, the treaty and the salvation," the official told Haaretz. Kerry's other initiatives revolved around the so-called program of economic peace, a centerpiece of Israeli Prime Minister's limited engagement with the West Bank government of the Palestinian Authority. But Kerry's calls for meaningfully expanding these sorts of initiatives—even an apparently premature announcement that a plan had been agreed upon—also won scorn from Israeli officials. The plan revolves around expanding Palestinian economic activity in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli military control, where Palestinian development is blocked but where settlers flourish with Israel's tacit encouragement. The Israelis seem unlikely to budge: "There is no problem with setting up sewage treatment plants, schools or roads in Area C," a senior Israeli official told Haaretz at the end of Kerry's visit. "But if we're talking about transferring land through economic projects, then we're not ready to do so." (If the Israelis have "no problem" with transportation and water infrastructure in Area C, they have a funny way of showing it.) Notably, Kerry was unable to keep the outgoing Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad—perhaps the official most responsible for Palestine's modest economic gains under occupation—from resigning. 

Then Kerry really stepped in it: his latest effort to shore up a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey with a trip to the latter this weekend fell flat. On his own Mideast trip last month, Barack Obama brokered an apology from Netanyahu to his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, over the killings of eight Turks and an American in an Israeli raid on a flotilla aimed at breaking Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip. Kerry requested that Erdoğan delay a planned visit to the Hamas-controlled Strip. But after nearly three years of acrimony between the two former allies, the stubborn Erdoğan clung to his plans. Kerry proceeded to made matters worse, rousing Israeli ire over his comparison between the deaths at the Boston Marathon with those of the activists on the fotilla ship the Mavi Marmara. "I have just been through the week of Boston and I have deep feelings for what happens when you have violence and something happens and you lose people that are near and dear to you," Kerry said. "It affects a community, it affects a country. We’re very sensitive to that." Israelis reacted swiftly and furiously: "According to what Kerry said, he should fly now to Chechniya to pay a condolence call to the parents of the poor terrorists in Boston," said Ayelet Shaked, the second in command of a right-wing party in the governing coalition. Right-leaning American pro-Israel publications were no less clear: Commentary Magazine writer Seth Mandel called the remark "shameful moral relativism" (it's not quite, but another day).

Compare all that to Chuck Hagel's visit this past week to Israel. Hagel took a helicopter tour of Israel with his Israeli counterpart (one that likely didn't delve deeply into the roots of the conflict); he delivered remarks that could've been delivered on an AIPAC dais ("this is a time when friends and allies must remain close, closer than ever"); and backed up his pledges of friendship with announcements of new sales of the sort of military hardware that've allowed Israel to stay leaps and bounds ahead of any other military in the region. In fact, the mid-air refueling tankers and missiles designed to take out air defense systems are among the systems that Israel had been requesting, and that pro-Israel writers had implored the U.S. to transfer. They also would make an Israeli attack on Iran easier (though American officials were clear the hardware sales shouldn't be interpreted as a green-light). This time, Commentary was effusive: "[H]e said all the right things in public including the reaffirmation of Israel’s right to decide how to defend itself, and he seemed on his best behavior," wrote Jonathan Tobin.

Now think back to the confirmation hearings. "Chuck Hagel, if confirmed to be the secretary of defense, would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history," said one of Hagel's most vociferous Senate opponents, the South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham. Another sharp critic, Texan Ted Cruz, said Hagel harbored "a greater antagonism toward Israel than any other member of this body." Right-wing pro-Israel pundits were even more blunt: former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams and Wall Street Journal opinion writer Bret Stephens outright declared Hagel to be an anti-Semite. In light of Hagel's recent trip, the pro-Israel writer Jeffrey Goldberg recalled these charges with perhaps the most appropriate tone—sarcasm: "Hagel is now exhibiting his anti-Zionist animus in an unusual way, by spending two days in Israel as the guest of its new hardline defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon."

The absurdity speaks for itself, but more than a wry comment is required. In light of Kerry and Hagel's trips, we should ask ourselves: why do we still trust these right-wing politicians and commentators? The question seems especially pertinent since many of the same forces that so misjudged the trajectory of these two cabinet officials are at the vanguard of pushing for hawkish American policies in the Middle East, including launching an attack against Iran. These officials and pundits ought to be made to answer for why they got Hagel and Kerry so wrong, and why on earth we should trust them on Israeli-Palestinian matters, let alone Iran.