Today, Israelis are mourning their dead in the wars their country has been forced to fight to secure and keep their freedom. Tomorrow they will celebrate that freedom on their nation’s 65th Independence Day since its modern rebirth in 1948. The juxtaposition of these two days on the calendar tells us a lot about the country’s history but also the meaning of the price of liberty that its people have continued to pay in the face of an ongoing siege that is still not lifted.
Americans do well to pay notice to these observances. For one, it is because they highlight how lucky we are in live in a country where Memorial Day is more about car sales and three-day weekends than grief over the fallen. But is also because our freedom, though always in need of vigilance, is not quite so precarious as that of the citizens of a small country whose neighbors are still largely bent on its destruction. These insights should make us more grateful to our veterans and those who currently serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, but they should also inform our discussion about foreign policy at a time when the voices of isolationism are getting louder.
Last week brought a new revelation of more proof of Chuck Hagel’s prejudicial attitudes toward Israel. But most observers concluded that the statements made over the weekend by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham that they would not support further delays as a vote on his nomination as secretary of defense as evidence that he would easily be confirmed once Congress returns from its recess next week. However the publication of yet another story today in which Hagel is reported to have made disparaging comments about Israel could alter that equation.
Our former colleague Alana Goodman broke last week’s story about a contemporaneous account of a 2007 speech given by Hagel at Rutgers University in which he made the outrageous charge that the U.S. State Department was being run by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Today Goodman is at it again as she reports that there was yet another Hagel speech at the same venue three years later in which he again offended Israel and its supporters.
Secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel said Israel is on its way to becoming an apartheid state during an April 9, 2010, appearance at Rutgers University, according to a contemporaneous account by an attendee.
Hagel also accused Israel of violating U.N. resolutions, called for U.S.-designated terrorist organization Hamas to be included in any peace negotiations, and described Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “radical,” according to the source.
Like the 2007 speech, no tape of these remarks has yet surfaced making it easy for Hagel to dismiss the controversy by saying he “doesn’t recall” them as he did in a letter to Senator Graham. Graham was willing to say that he would take Hagel at his word about that. But can he, or any other pro-Israel senator of either party, really believe any further denials or disavowals from Hagel?
American officials are now confirming that Israel launched an attack on a Syrian convoy transporting sophisticated weaponry into Lebanon. As expected, the Israelis had no comment about the incident. But the squeals of outrage from both Syria and its ally Iran about the attack, as well as their furious threats of retaliation, show that the operation was probably a success. It’s not clear whether the transfer of what was allegedly anti-aircraft equipment to Hezbollah is a sign that the Assad regime is falling or whether the shipment was a payment for the extensive help it has received from both Iran and its Lebanese proxies. But the question of the disposal of the massive arsenal, including chemical weapons, that Assad still possesses raises an a important point about this latest twist in what has become a Syrian civil war.
As that struggle increasingly looks like one between a bloody tyrant and Islamist rebels rather than a democratic alternative, the American decision to lead from behind in Syria rather than to take action earlier when a better result might have been possible is looking even worse than it did a year ago. Though much of the discussion about Israel’s actions has centered on how far it will go to defend its interests, the bottom line here is that, as it has done in the past, the Jewish state is doing the Americans’ dirty work for them in Syria.
Back in November, I wrote that Rand Paul’s presidential hopes would be a difficult sale to pro-Israel conservatives and Republicans. Paul’s opposition to U.S. aid to Israel and an isolationist mindset that was highly reminiscent of the views of his extremist father, the former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul, would seem to make his potential ascent in the GOP a troubling development for Jewish Republicans. While the exchange between us on the question of his attitude toward Israel may not have changed many minds, his recent trip to Israel is a clear indication that the Kentucky senator is serious about running for president.
Paul’s visit to the Jewish state was part of an effort to reposition himself as a friend of Israel, and there are some pro-Israel voices that seem inclined to take him at his word. There’s a lot to like about his criticism of President Obama’s attempts to dictate security policy to the Netanyahu government as well as the fact that he seems to be moving in the right direction on ties between the two countries. Yet it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that anyone inclined to buy into the idea that he should be thought of as a reliable friend of Israel is acting like a very cheap date for the presidential wannabe. Rand Paul may not exactly be a chip off the old block when it comes to the expressions of hostility and willingness to demonize Israel. But his positions on aid and, even more importantly, on broader foreign policy concepts are still far away from anything that the pro-Israel community would recognize as acceptable.
A lot of the drama was taken out of the battle to confirm Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense today when New York Senator Chuck Schumer endorsed the nomination. Schumer said he had made the decision after a long conversation with his former Senate colleague in which he was, he said, reassured that the new Pentagon chief had changed his mind about the relationship between Israel and the United States as well as his previous views about Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. Schumer directly addressed the concerns that members of the pro-Israel community have expressed about Hagel’s sudden change of heart by saying this:
“I know some will question whether Senator Hagel’s assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post,” Mr. Schumer said. “But I don’t think so. Senator Hagel realizes the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago.”
Such faith in Hagel’s conversion from a politician who bragged about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” and an opponent of sanctions against Iran as well as an advocate of engagement with Hamas and Hezbollah is remarkable. How is it possible that in the space of only a few months that Hagel could have had such a dramatic change of heart? Given Hagel’s disdain for the current government of Israel and the fact that only last fall he was signing letters expressing opposition to any mention of the use of force against Iran, only the most cynical of partisans could believe for a minute that the Nebraskan’s new positions are a sincere expression of his actual opinions. While Schumer, a powerful senator who has no fear about possible challenges to his seat, may think his seal of approval of Hagel will have no consequences, it is the sort of thing that, at the least, ought to raise the question of what it actually means to be a pro-Israel Democrat these days.
Though many friends of Israel are dismayed at the prospect of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel being the next secretary of defense, an effort is underway to portray the longtime critic of the Jewish state as having shifted his position, particularly on the Iranian nuclear threat. Anti-Defamation League chief Abe Foxman told the Times of Israel today he thinks a Washington Post op-ed co-authored by Hagel back in September shows that the former senator “is now in sync with the president’s position on Iran.”
But a close look at the piece published on September 28 and signed by Hagel, retired admiral William J. Fallon, Lee Hamilton and former Marine general Anthony Zinni, should give those counting on the administration doing what is necessary to stop Tehran little comfort. Though it pays lip service to the idea that force should be contemplated if all other attempts to persuade Iran to stand down fail, the main thrust of the article is to oppose any idea of military action. If this is indeed proof that Hagel and the president are on the same page on Iran, it makes it very likely that a second Obama administration with Hagel at the Pentagon is unlikely to scare the Iranians into giving up their nuclear ambitions.
For those who wish the Republican presidential candidate ill, there is really nothing he can do to avoid criticism. Case in point was Mitt Romney’s visit yesterday to Jerusalem. At the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg accuses him of being “vulgar” for showing up at the Western Wall on Tisha B’Av. Predictably, Peter Beinart goes even further in the Daily Beast and accuses Romney of “misusing Judaism” to bolster his campaign.
Both are dead wrong. Nothing Romney did was in poor taste or in any way showed disrespect for Jewish sensibilities. In fact, the truth was quite the opposite. Their real problem with Romney is that what he said in Israel illustrated President Obama’s shortcomings. Romney rightly expressed a more realistic assessment of the Iranian nuclear threat than the Obama administration as well as reaffirmed his commitment to reverse the president’s policy in which the U.S. has distanced itself from Israel (at least in those years in which he is not running for re-election).
When foreign policy “realists,” pseudo-realists, and leftists claim that the pro-Israel establishment is preventing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, their argument fails to account for one aspect of recent Mideast history: During the administrations of American presidents seen as favoring Israel, the Jewish state’s leaders made serious offers for a final-status agreement.
So the argument that more “daylight” is needed between the U.S. and Israel is generally met with proper skepticism. So is the declaration that President Obama is just as pro-Israel as his predecessors, he’s just showing his friends a bit of tough love–heavy on the tough, light on the love. Aaron David Miller, part of Bill Clinton’s Mideast negotiating team, doesn’t think there’s any reason to fool yourself about that last point. He has written an article for Foreign Policy’s website detailing the six most damaging myths of the U.S.-Israel relationship. No. 6 is: “Barack Obama is just as pro-Israel as Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.” Miller writes:
There’s no question that Obama understands and appreciates the special relationship between Israel and the United States. But Obama isn’t Bill Clinton or George W. Bush when it comes to Israel — not even close. These guys were frustrated by Israeli prime ministers too, but they also were moved and enamored by them (Clinton by Yitzhak Rabin, Bush by Ariel Sharon). They had instinctive, heartfelt empathy for the idea of Israel’s story, and as a consequence they could make allowances at times for Israel’s behavior even when it clashed with their own policy goals. Obama is more like George H.W. Bush when it comes to Israel, but without the strategy…
If Obama had a chance to reset the U.S.-Israel relationship and make it a little less special, he probably would. But I guess that’s the point: He probably won’t have the chance.
President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke briefly to the press before their meeting at the White House today. The points they each chose to emphasize were telling and provide insight into their mindsets going into the high-pressure Iran discussion.
Obama spoke first, and stressed the bond between Israel and the U.S., as well as its close military coordination.
I know that both the prime minister and I prefer to resolve this diplomatically. We understand the costs of any military action. And I want to assure both the American people and the Israeli people that we are in constant and close consultation. I think the levels of coordination and consultation between our militaries and our intelligence not just on this issue but on a broad range of issues has been unprecedented. And I intend to make sure that that continues during what will be a series of difficult months, I suspect, in 2012.
President Obama tried to water down congressional sanctions last year and then declined to implement them last week, part of a long-term policy that leaves pressuring Iran to “leaders in Congress and Europe.” And because the administration has a political interest in convincing voters that it’s taking a hardline stance on Iran, it has a rhetorical and argumentative interest in silencing the critics who (a) point out how the opposite is true and (b) urge the president to do more.
Because intimidation comes naturally to this White House – witness last week’s demagoguery of the Koch Brothers and on birth control – their pushbacks have been marked by vague warnings delivered in tones of great significance. In his AIPAC speech this morning, Obama literally blamed high gas prices on Iran critics. Because why not?
I would ask that we all remember the weightiness of these issues, the stakes involved for Israel, for America, and for the world. Already, there is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend on to fund their nuclear program. For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster.
During the first three years of the Obama administration, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visits to the White House have been the occasion for some memorable fights with the president. He has been ambushed, insulted, lectured and, on at least one occasion, gave back as good as he got as he pushed back against Obama’s attempt to undercut Israel’s negotiating position with the Palestinians and its rights in Jerusalem. But Netanyahu’s next visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will probably be a very different one entirely. With the president fighting hard to retain the votes and the financial support of American Jews and other friends of Israel, Netanyahu can expect that Obama will be on his very best behavior when he arrives next month for a visit that was announced yesterday.
With the threat of a nuclear Iran hanging over both nations and with the United States eager to dissuade Israel from striking first on its own, the two men have some serious business to conduct. But it is impossible to ignore the political implications of this summit. With evidence mounting that Obama and the Democrats have been bleeding Jewish support in the last year, the visit will take the president’s charm offensive aimed at convincing the Jewish community he is Israel’s best friend to a new level. Netanyahu has good reason to play along with Obama’s pretense, as he may have to go on dealing with him until January 2017. But the question remains whether the two men can sufficiently paper over their personal hostility and policy differences in order for the visit to have the effect the president’s political handlers are aiming for.