Yesterday President Obama nominated the former Republican senator from Nebraska, Chuck Hagel, to be his next Secretary of Defense. Rumors of Hagel’s nomination starting last year triggered a debate that is likely to continue into and through the nominee’s confirmation process. However, this debate really tells us more important things about America, and our role in the Middle East, than it does about Chuck Hagel.
When news of the nomination was leaked, the debate over Hagel was framed by right-wing elements of the pro-Israel lobby establishment. The usual suspects included the of the Emergency Committee for Israel (EIC), Bill Kristol, the Republican Jewish Coalition, Jennifer Rubin and others. For the most part, a group of folks who were unrepentantly wrong about the war on Iraq came out in strong opposition to a nominee who realized it was a mistake and became a vocal Republican critic of it. Their criticism centered on the charge that that Hagel was not sufficiently pro-Israel.
Israel, which, by the way, has its own Defense Minister, benefited from some $40 billion dollars’ worth of aid signed off on by Hagel when he was in the Senate despite its continued and flagrant violations of international law throughout that period.
The problem with the debate, however, is not simply that the allegations of the extreme pro-Israel right are factually untrue but also that they were able to set the terms of the debate. Groups opposed to the pro-Israel right, specifically the pro-Israel left, enabled this by vocally engaging the debate on their terms. Hagel, they argued, was in fact “pro-Israel,” he was just pro-Israel in a different sort of way. New York Times columnists and influential debate-framers Tom Friedman and Roger Cohen echoed this perspective by arguing that Hagel was a “true friend” to Israel because he’d offer some tough love to a state hell-bent on suicide-by-settlements.
This is the line carried by the self-proclaimed “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby J Street. But shortly after J Street emerged to the left of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and began lobbying on behalf of candidates to liberate them from feeling the need to toe the AIPAC line, another group of voices led by the Emergency Committee for Israel emerged to the right of AIPAC to combat J Street.
This neat little trick allows for the semblance of debate on issues relating to the U.S.-Israel relationship that range on a fully Zionist spectrum from the J Street end to the ECI end. Thus, any compromising consensus between the two ends will never land far from the AIPAC positions that preceded both these organizations while allowing AIPAC to operate in the background.
How perverted is such a debate in this frame? Cohen, for example, suggests in his column that Israeli-Palestinian peace would require "painful compromises on both sides" and specifies "Palestinian abandonment" of the right of return and "Israeli abandonment"of Palestinian territory. Only in such Zionist framing could Palestinian abandonment of a human right enshrined in international law be seen as a fair trade with Israeli abandonment of colonization, which is illegal under international law. This, by the way, represents the "left" end of the spectrum. Simply arguing that such an equation is flawed and morally reprehensible, which it most certainly is, makes one a "radical" in today's discourse.
Policing the discourse in this way ensures that it will always be “pro-Israel” and that nominees like Hagel will have to pledge his unbreakable, unshakable commitment to the State of Israel to make it through confirmation.
What the debate on Hagel is sorely missing is a loud public voice akin to Colin Powell’s on Obama’s faith in 2008, who would respond to allegations that Hagel isn't pro-Israel by simple stating, So what if he’s not? Hagel is, after all, an American nominated for the role of U.S. Defense Secretary and shouldn't be pro-Israel or pro-any-country-other-than-the-United-States. If he was, that should lead to controversy.
This debate, however, has it the other way around because it is grounded in the notion that American support for Israel is as American as our Constitution. It isn't, and it can’t and should never be.
Yet, this type of debate, framed around “pro-Israel” interests, dominates mainstream discussions about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and specifically as it relates to Israel/Palestine. For as long as that is the case, Washington is only kidding itself if it thinks it can ever successfully mediate Israeli-Palestinian peace.