The Hagel Haters

Why Israel’s supporters can’t stand the man who might be the next secretary of defense. Eli Lake reports.


Chuck Hagel, who is reportedly the frontrunner to be the next Pentagon chief, has made a lot of friends in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment and at the top levels of Obama’s inner circle. Even though he is a Republican, Hagel is co-chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. And he has often won plaudits from the elite press for his early opposition to the Iraq war.

The former Nebraska senator has also angered his own party at times: In 2005, as George W. Bush was beginning his second term, Hagel expressed concern about John Bolton’s temperament during the fight over his nomination to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Hagel eventually voted for Bolton though. The year before, Hagel voted with the Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to begin an investigation into the pre-Iraq war intelligence.

But Republicans aside, Hagel’s real opposition will likely come from the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. While the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) never takes formal positions on nominees, if the group is asked by senators for its view on Hagel, it’s unlikely AIPAC will have a kind word.

A senior pro-Israel advocate in Washington told The Daily Beast on Thursday, “The pro-Israel community will view the nomination of Senator Chuck Hagel in an extremely negative light. His record is unique in its animus towards Israel.”

Josh Block, a former spokesman for AIPAC and the CEO and president of the Israel Project, told The Daily Beast, “While in the Senate, Hagel voted against designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, refused to call on the E.U. to designate Hezbollah a terrorist group, and consistently voted against sanctions on Iran for their illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons capability. It is a matter of fact that his record on these issues puts him well outside the mainstream Democratic and Republican consensus.”

In the past, Hagel has even garnered opposition from pro-Israel Democrats who have defended Obama’s Israel record. Ira Forman, who was in charge of the Obama reelection campaign’s outreach to Jewish voters, said in 2009—after Hagel was named co-chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board—that he would have opposed Hagel’s nomination for a more substantive position. (Forman declined to comment on Hagel’s possible nomination Thursday.)

The former senator was not only a frequent no vote on sanctions against Iran, but The Washington Free Beacon reported on Thursday that he also serves on the board of directors of Deutsche Bank—which is reportedly being probed by U.S. authorities for possible violations of the very kinds of sanctions Hagel opposed when he was in Congress.

The opposition among the pro-Israel community to Hagel is not only because of his views on Iran. In 2009, Hagel signed onto a letter from the U.S. Middle East Project that urged Obama to begin talks with Hamas, a U.S. designated terrorist group, in an effort to revive the peace process.

Henry Siegman, the president of the U.S. Middle East Project, said Hagel was following the lead of many Israelis like former Mossad director Efraim Halevy in endorsing a plan to bring Hamas into a political process with Israel. “The view that he had is that you cannot achieve a peace agreement if you actively encourage a split between Fatah and Hamas,” Siegman told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “If one is serious about achieving a peace between Israel and the Palestinians, then you have to encourage a reconciliation between the various Palestinian political factions.”

Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a personal friend of Hagel’s, said that, while he doesn’t know if his friend will get the nomination, he predicts that if he does, Hagel would meet with pro-Israel senators and attempt to “mitigate the negative pressure.”

“The GOP rightly or wrongly has had its cannon blast over Susan Rice,” Clemons said, referring to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who on Thursday withdrew as a candidate for secretary of state. “They can’t do it twice.”

A previous version of this story said Hagel opposed John Bolton's nomination to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. It omitted the fact that Hagel ultimately voted in favor of Bolton's nomination, and also that Hagel's concern about Bolton was specifically about his temperament.