On Thursday morning, January 31, 2013, the Armed Services Committee of the United States Senate convened to consider the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska as secretary of defense. It was the first major political confrontation of President Obama’s second term, and anticipation had been building for weeks throughout the political world.
The hearing was billed in the press as more than just another partisan slugfest. As Connie Bruck had written in The New Yorker a month earlier, “From the moment Hagel’s name was leaked as a possible nominee for Secretary of Defense—in what was, apparently, a trial balloon floated by the Obama Administration—Hagel’s most vocal critics have been members of what can be called the Israel lobby.” In the weeks leading up to the hearing the nominee was accused of coddling Iran, hating Israel, even sympathizing with Hamas. Some prominent critics had gone so far as to accuse Hagel of anti-Semitism, citing a thoughtless 2008 comment—responding to an interviewer’s question about pro-Israel lobbyists—in which he spoke of a “Jewish lobby” that “intimidates” the nation’s leaders. The odds seemed high that the Democrats might split over the nomination, sinking his chances and dealing the president a staggering blow.
In the end, nothing of the sort happened. Despite some fireworks, Hagel’s name moved easily out of the committee and onto the floor of the Democratic-controlled Senate, where he was confirmed on February 26 with every Democrat and even a few Republicans voting in favor. Within weeks, Hagel was settled firmly in his Pentagon post, and the drama of his confirmation battle was fading into history. If the Republicans had hoped they could join forces with the vaunted Israel lobby to shoot down the president’s nominee, they learned that they were firing blanks. In retrospect, it’s apparent that the Israel lobby had never even shown up for the fight.Looking back a half-year later, the entire episode might hardly be worth a second glance, except for this: the Hagel confirmation represents a crack in the decades-old working alliance between the Jewish pro-Israel advocacy community—the Israel lobby—and the Republican right. It’s just possible that the crack will prove wide enough for a secretary of state to drive a Middle East peace initiative through.
The Jewish-Republican alliance has been actively nurtured by the Israeli right since the days of Menachem Begin and Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. For decades it’s had a braking effect on U.S. Middle East policy, narrowing the maneuvering room available to successive administrations as they’ve tried to impose their will in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
The strength of the alliance has been a source of endless speculation and wonder among outside observers. Conservatives have wondered when the Republicans’ loyalty to Israel would begin to pay off in a rightward shift among America’s overwhelmingly Democratic Jewish voters. Every four years Jewish conservatives have announced that this would be the year, and each time they’ve been disappointed.
Liberals, meanwhile, have wondered how far the organizations that purportedly speak for American Jews could stray from the views and values of their liberal base before something snapped.
Now we have an answer, at least a partial one. Over the decades the most influential Jewish organizations had lowered their profiles on domestic issues that matter deeply to their constituencies, such as abortion rights, civil liberties and economic justice, and diverted an ever-increasing share of their resources to Israel and Middle East policy. But in the Hagel nomination they reached their limit.
A Senate vote to deny confirmation of a president’s nominee for cabinet secretary is virtually unknown in American history. It’s happened only nine times, seven of them before 1900. The last was John Tower, nominated for defense secretary by George H.W. Bush in 1989 and rejected because of his history of drunken misbehavior. Denial because of policy disagreement hasn’t happened in more than a century. Denial by filibuster would have been unprecedented.
That Senate Republicans were willing to entertain such a move was an indication, not of Hagel’s qualifications, but of the degree of radicalization of the Republican Party during the Obama years. Their Jewish allies were simply unwilling to go that far.
Whether the rift is more than a fleeting incident won’t be clear for some time. Republicans have a disproportionate presence among board members and big donors of the major organizations. This creates an internal inertia toward closer ties with the right. At the same time, the radicalization of the Republican Party in recent years has strengthened the Democratic leanings—and dislike of Republicans—among ordinary Jews.
But the timing of the episode raises the stakes on the puzzle. It was less than a month after the Senate confirmation vote that Secretary of State John Kerry launched his new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative. His goal was, first, to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table after three years of deep freeze, and second, to shepherd the warring sides toward a permanent peace agreement.
The effort met widespread international skepticism and even ridicule. The numerous failures in the past, the yawning gap between the two sides’ demands, the weakness of the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas, the stubbornly hardline policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—all argued against Kerry’s odds of success.
Above all, most skeptics argue, only the president of the United States possesses the clout to close those gaps and bring the sides together. And yet, perhaps paradoxically, presidents lack the power to act decisively because domestic political constraints— mainly the coalition of pro-Israel forces in Washington—limit their ability to apply pressure where needed. This, it’s been said, is especially true of President Barack Obama, shackled as he is by a divided Congress and an intractably hostile Republican party.
And yet Kerry has not failed, at least not yet. Defying the doubters, he succeeded in his first goal, breaking the three-year deadlock and bringing the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiation table. Whether he reaches the second goal will depend in large measure on whether he can continue to master the elements that brought him this far. Some of these have gotten broad attention, such as Israel’s worsening isolation and the insecurity of neighboring Arab regimes. But less notice has been given to the important change in domestic American politics represented by the weakening of the pro-Israel alliance of Republican and organized Jewish forces.
To unravel all these pieces, it’s best to start at that January 31 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Consider the scene that morning: Hagel, seated at the witness table, was flanked by two former committee chairmen, Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican John Warner. This in itself was irregular; by Senate custom, nominees are introduced at confirmation hearings by the two senators from their home state. But that couldn’t be arranged for Hagel. One of the Nebraskans, Mike Johanns, was an old friend and ally, but the other, the newly elected Deb Fischer, was barely on speaking terms with the nominee. When she first ran for the seat last fall, Hagel had endorsed her Democratic opponent, his old friend (and fellow Vietnam veteran) Bob Kerrey. As Hagel’s hearing began, Fischer sat in her newcomer’s seat near the end of the dais, glaring at him.
At the center of the dais, facing the nominee, sat the committee chair, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan. One of the chamber’s most senior members, he was also the longest-serving Jewish member and for decades the one most respected by his colleagues on matters of Israeli and Jewish community concern. It was his job to steer the nomination safely through the committee and out to the Senate floor. This he did deftly and with determination.
Sitting to Levin’s left was the committee’s ranking Republican, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. It was his job to lead the tough questioning from the minority. Before getting to questions, though, Inhofe announced that his own mind was already made up: he “would not be supporting his nomination.” His reasons: Hagel’s record on Israel, Iran and nuclear disarmament—and his “staunch” support for “the misguided policies of the president’s first term.” In effect, the president couldn’t have Hagel precisely because it was Hagel whom he wanted.
A devout, self-described “Christian Zionist,” Inhofe was also the closest thing the upper chamber had to an outright theocrat. He’d once called church-state separation the “largest hoax ever played on the American public” (to be precise, he’d called global warming “the second-largest hoax ever played on the American public, after separation of church and state”). In 1998 he sponsored a failed “religious freedom” amendment to the Constitution that, in the words of the Anti-Defamation League, threatened to “Christianize America” and “jeopardize the ability of non-Christians to live free of religious coercion.” To see Inhofe take the helm of a Republican-Jewish alliance to defend the honor and interests of the Jewish community was to understand, in effect, that no such alliance existed.
In fact, looking back over the Hagel confirmation battle from the beginning, it quickly becomes apparent that the Israel lobby was never in the fight—that is, if by Israel lobby we mean the network of mostly Jewish American organizations and influentials that defends Israel’s interests and advocates for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. On the contrary, the campaign was launched by a small group of Jewish Republican Party cutouts—ethnic party outreach arms, support groups and loyal media boosters. It grew to include broader Republican political circles, along with a small group of pro-Likud and pro-settler Jewish hard-liners. But except for a brief media flurry, the opposition never managed to engage the mainstream organizations that speak for American Jews and lobby on their behalf. The narrative that dominated the public debate, of a showdown between the Obama administration and the Israel lobby, was almost entirely fictional.
The popularity of the Obama-vs.-the Lobby illusion is at least partly understandable. After all, the heaviest attacks on Hagel were directed at his views on Israel and his incautious comments about its supporters. Most of the fire came from familiar pro-Israel figures on the right, including the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard. It would be natural for Republican leaders to believe they were watching the Jewish and pro-Israel community step forward. Natural, too, for the Washington press, which has long since grown accustomed to seeing the neoconservative right and the Israel lobby as one and the same thing.
But the attacks’ intended audience—the mainstream Jewish establishment—did not take the bait. For that matter, the attackers didn’t take their own attacks very seriously, either. Their words were about Israel, but their motives were elsewhere: a combination of partisan opposition to Obama, ideological opposition to his agenda and a history of personal tensions between Hagel and his former Republican colleagues.
Israel was a factor, most observers agree, but it wasn’t a big one. A bigger factor was Obama’s goal, which Hagel shared, of a major strategic reappraisal that would slow the runaway growth of the Pentagon budget. Besides the threat this posed to local pork spending, commitment to military spending “in many respects is now visceral” for many Republicans, said retired U.S. Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and a longtime friend of Hagel’s. “Many of them feel the American military is the last bastion of protection for this republic.”
Besides, Wilkerson said, “they really felt they could probably hurt the president big time” by slowing or stopping Hagel.
Of all the motives behind the Republicans’ stop-Hagel effort, though, perhaps the most powerful was a deeply personal sense of betrayal by one of their own. In 2000 Hagel was so respected that then-presidential hopeful John McCain named him as a top choice for vice president. By 2002, as the Bush administration’s drive toward war in Iraq was gathering steam, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol was including the contrarian Nebraskan in what he called “the Axis of Appeasement.” Despite voting to authorize the war, Hagel was skeptical and became more so over time. In 2007, in an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, he called the Bush administration “the lowest in capacity, in capability, in policy, in consensus—almost every area, I would give it the lowest grade” of any administration since Herbert Hoover. Republicans never forgave him.
Hagel’s name was first floated for the defense job just after Obama’s 2012 reelection, in a November 28 post at Foreign Policy by reporter Josh Rogin. At the time Washington was consumed with the troubled Susan Rice candidacy for secretary of state, and the Hagel trial balloon got little attention. Matt Spetalnick of Reuters confirmed the Hagel rumor on December 4, adding that Hagel “would give the president a Republican in his Cabinet at a time when he is trying to win bipartisan cooperation from congressional Republicans.” If that was Obama’s plan, he could hardly have been more mistaken.
The anti-Hagel assault began December 5 with a press release from the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), a satellite of the national party. The release laid out the charges that would be hammered over the next three months: a half-dozen Senate letters supporting Israel or pressuring the Palestinians that Hagel had declined to sign over the previous decade; calls for America to negotiate with Hamas and Iran; a call for a ceasefire during the 2006 Lebanon war, and a vote against a unilateral Iran sanctions bill. In what was meant to be a damning display of the bipartisan opposition to Hagel, the RJC drew the charges from a “fact sheet” on Hagel compiled by the RJC’s opposite number, the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC). It had been issued in 2007, when Hagel was contemplating a Republican presidential run. This time, though, the NJDC was silent. Partisanship, it turns out, is not a Republican monopoly.
The RJC release also cited Hagel’s remark that the “Jewish lobby” “intimidates a lot of people” in Washington. It had appeared in a 2008 book by former diplomat Aaron Miller. It would reappear again and again in the weeks ahead.
Over the next week rumors and blog posts flew through the Jewish community. As often happens, the intensity grew with the retelling. On December 13 one popular right-wing blogger, Jeff Dunetz, posted the Jewish Democrats’ 2007 talking points on his “Yid With Lid” blog under the headline: “Will the NJDC Oppose the Terrorism Loving, Israel-Hating Chuck Hagel’s Appointment as Sec of Defense?” Daily Beast national security correspondent Eli Lake reported that same day that opposition was widespread among Washington pro-Israel activists, quoting one “senior pro-Israel advocate”—anonymously—as saying that Hagel’s “record is unique in its animus towards Israel.”
That evening, when the annual White House Hanukkah party brought several hundred rabbis and community activists together with administration officials at the executive mansion, Buzzfeed’s Zeke Miller reported that “many” had come “to deliver a warning” to the president about Hagel. One “Jewish Democratic operative” was quoted—again, anonymously—calling Hagel “one of the worst senators in his party in memory when it comes to Israel.”
A few days later the debate broke wide open. On December 17 and 18, Hagel was attacked in print as anti-Israel by the Weekly Standard’s Michael Warren, Wall Street Journal foreign affairs columnist (and onetime Jerusalem Post editor) Bret Stephens and the relentlessly right-wing Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin.
Stephens’ column, titled “Chuck Hagel’s Jewish Problem,” argued that Hagel’s “Jewish lobby” remark had a “particularly ripe” “odor” of prejudice. “Ripe,” he wrote, “because a ‘Jewish lobby,’ as far as I'm aware, doesn't exist” (which tells you more about Stephens’ familiarity with organized Jewish advocacy than about Jewish lobbying). The Post’s Rubin quoted Stephens a few hours later, following with an emailed comment she’d solicited from national director Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League. Foxman told her that Hagel “would not be the first, second, or third choice for the American Jewish community’s friends of Israel,” and that the Nebraskan’s views “border on anti-Semitism.” The next day Rubin secured a similar statement from the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris.
At the Weekly Standard, meanwhile, Warren opened up the congressional front with quotes from Democratic senators expressing discomfort with Hagel. Among them were Levin of Michigan, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Barbara Boxer of California, all of whom are Jewish, as well as Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey and New Jersey’s Bob Menendez, who aren’t.
And on December 20 and 21, television ads attacking Hagel’s record on Iran and terrorism ran in Washington, paid for by the Emergency Committee for Israel, a tiny operation set up in the spring of 2010 by Weekly Standard editor and neoconservative strategist William Kristol to target Democrats as soft on Israel.
A few commentators were observant enough to notice that the attacks on Hagel were all emerging not from the center of the organized Jewish community, nor even from the narrower pro-Israel advocacy community, but from the partisan anti-Obama right. Yitzhak Ben-Horin, Washington correspondent of the mass-circulation Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, wrote on December 18 that Hagel’s possible nomination was “sparking criticism among pro-Israel conservatives.”
John Judis, blogging that day at The New Republic, was more explicit. The opposition to Hagel, he wrote, was coming “almost exclusively from individuals and organizations that back Israel’s right-wing government.” It was, he wrote, a mixture of Republican mouthpieces like the RJC and the Weekly Standard, “which still holds a special grudge against Hagel for opposing the Iraq war,” as well as right-wing pro-Israel groups like the Zionist Organization of America that are angered by his support of “the ‘peace process’ and the two-state solution in Israel and Palestine.”
To most observers, though, the growing debate fit neatly into the standard narrative of continual tension between a liberal Obama administration and a Jewish community marching in lockstep with Jerusalem. New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler, reporting on the emerging flap, quoted ADL’s Foxman remarks to Rubin and then noted that “[s]everal of the groups” in the Jewish community were “reaching out to members of Congress, circulating a list of Mr. Hagel’s positions on issues related to Israel, Iran and the Palestinians. The goal, officials on Capitol Hill said, appears to be to pressure the White House to think twice about naming him.”
Landler had inadvertently touched on the hole in the narrative, and the key flaw in the larger Republican goal of mobilizing Jewish activists to stop Hagel. On examination, the two constituencies had opposing goals. Those mainstream Jews who were suspicious of Hagel, like ADL’s Foxman and AJC’s Harris, would have been happy to separate him from Obama. The Republicans, on the other hand, wanted to tie him around Obama’s neck.
Though most observers couldn’t tell the difference, the Jewish groups that were working Capitol Hill to discredit Hagel were small, highly partisan groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Emergency Committee for Israel. Large, mainstream organizations like ADL and AJC, with sizeable networks of activists and donors around the country, were not engaged. More significantly, neither was the organization with the largest footprint in Washington, AIPAC, which avoided the fight completely.
Indeed, the passivity of the mainstream Jewish organizations was so glaring it eventually became a major theme in the right’s attack repertoire. “[T]his is not the moment for such caution,” Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin wrote in a February 3 post titled “Can Jewish Groups Speak Out on Hagel?” “Silence at such a moment is impossible for men and women of conscience.” He followed up on February 14 with a second, angrier post, “Jewish Groups Must End Silence on Hagel.” On February 27, after Hagel was confirmed, the neoconservative online New York Sun editorialized that the Jewish leadership had been “humiliated.”
Not that there weren’t tensions within the community. Supporters of the pro-Likud, pro-settler and Republican right have a substantial presence as donors and activists in the major organizations, far out of proportion to their 15 or 20 percent share of the Jewish community at large. They made themselves heard. “I was pushed by several people to be much harder than I felt was warranted,” said Rabbi Steven Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a policy shop that coordinates the advocacy work of a dozen major organizations including ADL and AJC. “People wanted to know why we’re not drawing the line.”
Gutow’s response, he said, was that he’d known Hagel over the years as “a military guy who’s not a typical politician and doesn’t talk like one.” The important thing, he said, was “to look at his whole record. This guy has been pretty strong on our issues.” Besides, he said, “this is Obama’s guy, and we’re going to have to work with him.”
While the Hagel-vs.-Israel debate heated up on the right, new opposition erupted on the left. Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas led the pack on December 13 with an online petition, demanding Obama name a Democrat to the defense post. In rapid succession he was joined by Rachel Maddow at MSNBC, David Greenberg at The New Republic, Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine and bloggers at The Progressive, Daily Kos and elsewhere. Bloggers had a field day citing Hagel’s miserable Senate ratings from liberal organizations: 14 percent from NOW; 11 percent from NAACP; 5 percent from the League of Conservation Voters, and 0 percent each from NARAL and the Human Rights Campaign.
Inside the White House, Landler reported December 17, the staff was divided, with “some” unhappy at the prospect of “a national security team in which the top posts are almost exclusively held by white men.” Their solution, Landler wrote: nominate former undersecretary of defense Michele Flournoy for the job. The next day, the Washington Post endorsed Flournoy in an editorial titled “Chuck Hagel is not the right choice for defense secretary.”
The most serious liberal opposition, though, came from the LGBT community, where Hagel was a longtime bête noire. In 1998 he had attacked President Clinton’s nominee for ambassador to Luxembourg, San Francisco gay rights activist James Hormel, telling an interviewer that an “openly, aggressively gay” person like Hormel couldn’t “do an effective job” representing America and its “values.” A year later he spoke against repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, saying the “U.S. armed forces aren’t some social experiment.”
On December 20, Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin released a statement demanding that Hagel apologize for the Hormel attack. Hagel issued an apology the next day. Hormel publicly dismissed it as insincere and politically motivated.
Throughout December, as the attacks mounted, there was no organized defense. Hagel hadn’t yet been formally nominated, so from the administration’s viewpoint there was nothing to defend. But now a counterattack began. Leading the charge was an old friend of Hagel’s, political blogger and foreign affairs expert Steve Clemons. “I was in a better position than anyone to help,” Clemons told me later. “There aren’t a lot of openly gay defense experts in Washington. I was it.”
Clemons immediately contacted Hormel and convinced him to accept Hagel’s apology, which he did on his Facebook page later the same day. Clemons also reached out to Griffin and other LGBT leaders to do the same publicly. Attacks on Hagel from the gay community largely ceased, except for a brief, mysteriously well-funded ad campaign by the Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative gay group.
Nothing did as much to turn the tide in Hagel’s favor, however, as the simple fact of President Obama announcing his nomination on January 7. Once the president made it clear that he was going with Hagel, liberal opposition dissolved almost overnight. Republicans were left to fight alone, though most didn’t realize it at the time.
There was some mopping up to do, particularly to convince waverers in the Jewish community. With all the talk about the Jewish community’s opposition, some Democratic senators weren’t sure what a vote to confirm would do to next year’s fundraising. Clemons and others zeroed in on the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, Charles Schumer of New York. The most visible and highest ranking Jewish member of the Senate, he was also the most aggressively hawkish on Israeli matters. It was an identity he’d taken on when he first went to Washington in 1980 to represent the heavily Orthodox Jewish 9th Congressional District in southern Brooklyn. He’d maintained over the years to keep his donors happy, to the point where even his own staffers weren’t always sure whether his hardline positions were tactical or heartfelt. At times he’d broken with Democrats and sided with neoconservatives on Middle East issues. In 2005 he opposed the Democratic filibuster that blocked the confirmation of outspoken hardliner John Bolton as United Nations ambassador. Years earlier, in 1993, he tried a solo parliamentary maneuver in the House Foreign Affairs Committee to block U.S. support for the newly signed Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Peace Accords. Some feared he might do something similar this time, perhaps opening the door for other nervous Democrats to follow.
On January 14, Schumer was invited to the White House for a 90-minute heart-to-heart with Hagel and walked away with an endorsement. Schumer later said that Hagel had “tears in his eyes” as he apologized for the offensive caused by the “Jewish lobby” comment. Four days later the nominee met with four top Jewish organizational leaders, ADL’s Foxman, AJC’s Harris, Howard Kohr of AIPAC and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. They walked out with mixed reactions, a participant said.
In fact, though, those mop-up meetings were a formality. Foxman and Harris had signaled their acceptance of Hagel in press releases 11 days earlier, on the day Obama announced the nomination.
“At a time when it wasn’t clear if the president was going to go forward, I made it clear that he wasn’t my preference,” Foxman told me. “Once the president made it clear that this was his nomination, we and others said it’s not our first choice, but the president has the right to make his own choice.”
Besides, Foxman added, “if you care about the relationship between the United States and Israel, how smart is it to fight the president to the bitter end on something he’s going to win anyway?”
As for Schumer, the idea that he might oppose Hagel was implausible from the outset. He was scheduled to emcee Obama’s second inauguration ceremony on January 21. He couldn’t possibly turn around afterward and oppose the president’s nominee. Moreover, he was said to have his eye on eventually becoming the first Jewish Senate majority leader. Several sources said the White House made it clear to him that if he opposed Hagel, he could forget about the promotion.
It was clear early on, Clemons said later, “that Schumer would come out for Hagel and say it was an ‘anguished decision,’ so his base would be happy.”
From then on, the path to confirmation was more or less clear. A handful of far-right Jewish organizations continued speaking out against the nomination, including the staunchly pro-settler Zionist Organization of America and the Orthodox National Council of Young Israel. But their voices only served to reinforce the silence around them.
Republicans put on their show at the committee hearing, climaxing when John McCain, who had once touted Hagel as a possible vice-president, hounded him for a yes-or-no answer on the wisdom of the Iraq surge. Two weeks later, when the nomination first came to the Senate floor on February 14, Republicans mounted a filibuster and sustained it by a 58-to-40 vote, with four Republicans joining the Democrats to vote for cloture. (Majority leader Harry Reid voted with the Republicans to preserve his right to call a revote days later.) It was the first time in history that the Senate had sustained a filibuster against a cabinet secretary-designate. But like the committee hearing, it was just a nasty show of pique. When a second vote was held February 26, the Republicans folded and let the confirmation go through.
Would Israel itself have preferred to see Hagel stopped? Certainly. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been feuding with Obama on and off for four years, ever since they both entered office in 2009, over Netanyahu’s insistence on a showdown with Iran and his belief that Obama leaned toward containment or even appeasement of the Islamic Republic. Hagel’s opposition to military action against the Islamic Republic, coming on top of his fierce opposition to the Iraq war during the final years of the Bush presidency, seemed to confirm Netanyahu’s worst suspicions about Obama. In private conversations, in Jerusalem and Washington alike, Israeli government officials made no secret in of their opinions about Hagel.
There were other reasons for Netanyahu and his allies to suspect Hagel. Underlying his contrarian Senate record, his consistently refusing to sign “stupid” pro-Israel letters and complaining about the short-sightedness of pro-Israel lobbyists, Hagel was fundamentally an ally of Netanyahu’s dovish opponents in the Israeli parliament and military. He was close with several liberal Israeli leaders, including former prime minister Ehud Barak. In 2008, he had been the keynote speaker at the annual dinner of a centrist Washington peace organization identified with the late Yitzhak Rabin, the Israel Policy Forum.
Unfortunately for Netanyahu, there wasn’t much he could do about Hagel. As Jerusalem saw it, Obama’s reelection the previous November to a second term meant that the president was no longer vulnerable to domestic political pressure. The sort of confrontational tactics Netanyahu practiced during Obama’s first term would no longer work. For the next four years he would have to get along with the Democratic president.
Besides, Netanyahu was facing a tough reelection battle of his own. Voting was scheduled for January 22, the day after Obama’s inauguration. By the time February arrived and the Hagel battle came into the home stretch, Netanyahu was reeling from an unexpected electoral drubbing. He lost fully one-third of his parliamentary strength. A proxy war between his Washington allies and the White House was the last thing he needed.
Netanyahu faced one other problem in mounting a blocking action in Washington. For years he had been famously cultivating an alliance with congressional Republicans and the Christian right. It was his way of putting pressure on the two Democratic administrations he faced as prime minister—the Clinton administration during his first term from 1996 to 1999 and the Obama administration during his second term.
Now, though, the Republicans’ mounting extremism had reduced their ability to influence the administration—and their ability to work in coalition with the Jewish community. That ineffectiveness came to a head in the Hagel campaign. With senators like Jim Inhofe asking if Hagel was a supporter of Iran, Ted Cruz speculating that he had taken money from North Korea and Rand Paul accusing him of supporting “friends of Hamas”—which began as a joke by New York Daily News reporter Dan Friedman—the Republican opposition lost its credibility with many of its allies, including Jewish and pro-Israel organizations.
“They overplayed their hand,” said Middle East scholar David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “And the Jewish groups did the math.”
The result was a weakening, if not a shattering, of the pro-Israel working coalition between Jewish groups and the Republican right that Netanyahu and his Likud predecessors had carefully built up over decades. The White House showed what it can do when the president has his mind set on something. Moreover, the continuing antics of Republicans on Capitol Hill has deepened the alienation of Jewish voters. Jewish lobbyists and advocates who might think of getting in bed with Republican lawmakers to pressure the administration on foreign policy are thinking twice about how their members and donors will react.
It may be coincidence that Secretary of State John Kerry finally succeeded this spring where others before him have failed in softening Israel’s stance toward peace negotiations. But then again, nothing in Washington is coincidence.
Kerry set out on his first overseas trip as secretary of state shortly before Hagel was confirmed, leaving February 24 for an 11-day swing through Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The State Department presented the various visits as focusing on general, regional and bilateral discussions. In retrospect, though, it soon became clear that he was laying the groundwork for a new Israeli-Palestinian peace effort with broad Arab and regional backing.
On March 20, Kerry set off with President Obama for a three-day visit to Israel, with side trips to the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. Obama’s visit to Israel was built as a major national love-fest, aimed at resetting his relationship with the Jewish state, and it was received in that celebratory spirit. The climax was a dramatic address to several thousand students at the Jerusalem convention center, in which he discussed the importance of Israel in Jewish history and the importance—and the possibility—of peace.
Behind the scenes the speech was the subject of an intense tussle. The Netanyahu government wanted him to address the Knesset, as previous honored guests had done. The Israelis saw the convention center speech as reaching over the government’s head to talk directly to the public. That was exactly the intention. In fact, it was modeled on Obama’s speech to students in Cairo in 2009, which had annoyed the Egyptian regime in the same fashion, even as it infuriated Israelis at the time because of its declaration of friendship to the Arab world.
Immediately after that trip, Kerry began his peace initiative in earnest. He was back in Israel April 7, barely two weeks after leaving, and would return again four more times—six visits in five months—before announcing July 19 that he had won agreement from the two sides to start talking to each other again.
In between, he sewed up some other arrangements that gave shape to the peace effort. The most significant of these, though under-appreciated at the time, was a meeting in Washington April 29 with the prime minister of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani. Al Thani happens to be the head of the Arab League’s Peace Initiative Follow-up Committee, which had been set up in 2002 to push the Saudi peace plan.
The plan called for full recognition of Israel in return for full Israeli withdrawal from the territories and establishment of a Palestinian state. Meeting with Kerry in Washington, Al Thani announced that a full Israeli withdrawal could be negotiated to include some swapping of land, so that Israel could keep some settlements.
Now Kerry’s initial visits to Saudi Arabia and Qatar in March made sense. And the direction of his peace effort started to become clear. The Arab League was to be brought in as a partner in the peace effort. This would both reassure the Palestinians that they weren’t alone and give the Israelis a sense that an agreement would bring regional acceptance. On the other hand, this also meant that Israel was going to be pushed to withdraw to the armistice lines that had been Israel’s border until 1967, which Netanyahu had firmly, repeatedly rejected as “indefensible.”
This was the moment at which the major Jewish organizations would be expected to rise up as one and protest that Israel could not be forced back to the narrow lines that Abba Eban once called (in a verbal flourish he long regretted) “Auschwitz borders.”
They had done so in the past, repeatedly. In 2011, when Netanyahu had attacked Obama over a reference to the 1967 borders, a swath of community leaders had spoken out to defend Netanyahu. That September, Republicans scored an unprecedented victory in a special congressional election in a heavily Jewish section of New York City, widely interpreted as a rebuke to Obama because of the border dispute. Indeed, back in July 2009, AJC’s Harris had told a group of Democratic senators flat-out that Israel “cannot and will not return to the fragile armistice lines of 1967.”
This time, though, there was silence. In Israel, Kerry’s efforts were starting to alarm the right and momentum was building to stop him, along with complaints about the silence of Israel’s American friends. Attacks on the secretary of state were mounting in the settler press. On May 21, on the eve of Kerry’s third visit, an argument erupted in the Knesset among members of Netanyahu’s ruling coalition over whether Israel could accept Palestinian statehood at all. In America, increasingly agitated polemics by Israeli right-wingers were flying around the right-blogosphere.
On June 3 Kerry reached out directly to the American Jewish community, in a speech to a gathering of the American Jewish Committee. His message: silence isn’t enough. Addressing them in terms rarely used by government officials speaking to Jewish citizens, he told them bluntly that they had the power to influence the outcome in the Middle East and should use it wisely.
“[N]o one has a stronger voice in this than the American Jewish community,” Kerry said. “You can play a critical part in ensuring Israel’s long-term security. … So I ask you today, send the message that you are behind this hopeful vision of what can be. Let your leaders and your neighbors alike know that you understand this will be a tough process with tough decisions, but that you’re ready to back the leaders who make them.”
The response didn’t take long. After a string of Netanyahu allies spoke out against the peace plan and called for annexation of parts of the West Bank, AJC’s Harris and ADL’s Foxman attacked the most prominent annexationists by name and said they were hurting Israel. Foxman said they were damaging Israel’s credibility and international standing. Harris called the remarks “stunningly short-sighted.” AIPAC issued a similar statement, though without mentioning their names. It was a rare step, rebuking an Israeli government leader over Israel’s own foreign and defense policy. A Rubicon had been crossed.
It didn’t go unnoticed. The Zionist Organization of America attacked Foxman and Harris for criticizing Israel’s patriots and supporting its enemies. Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, a favorite with the far right, savaged them in a column that got wide circulation in the Orthodox and right-wing blogosphere.
On June 26, a group of Jewish organizational leaders trooped up to Capitol Hill for the Senate Democratic Caucus’s annual constituent outreach meeting with Jewish groups. Everyone came to make their usual pitches, carefully divided up in advance: ADL on hate crimes, AJC on Iran, Jewish charity federations on health care. AIPAC president Michael Kessen spoke on Israel and the Kerry peace initiative, which he said AIPAC “heartily” endorses.
The next day, House Republicans invited the same batch of leaders for a meeting, where they would be joined by the secretary-general of the Yesha Council of West Bank Settlers, Danny Dayan. The community was represented, if that’s the right word, by the Zionist Organization of America and the Republican Jewish Coalition. None of the major groups showed up. Something had changed.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed an allegation about Hagel's purported ties with "Friends of Hamas" to Sen. Mark Kirk. The updated version reflects that the allegation was publicly referenced by Sen. Rand Paul. We regret the error.