Even before the Senate votes on the confirmation of Chuck Hagel as the next U.S. defense secretary, it can unfortunately be said that the pro-Israel lobby in Washington lost, regardless of whether the appointment is approved.
When Hagel's name came up as a replacement for outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the pro-Israel lobby in America swung into action. Harsh phrases such as "anti-Semite" and "hostile toward Israel" were shot at Hagel and past unpleasant comments made by Hagel about Israel were dug up.
On Thursday, Hagel's confirmation process in the Senate will begin. He will sit in front of the Armed Services Committee, with his resume showing two medals from his military service during the Vietnam War. It is appropriate to stop for a moment and ask who started the anti-Hagel rhetoric. Was it the Republican Senators who criticized Hagel for opposing sanctions against Iran on the grounds that they were ineffective?
Hagel also favored dialogue with Hamas and refused to sign a letter supporting Israel. So maybe it was Jewish groups who began the campaign against the Hagel appointment, which then inspired Hagel's opponents in the Senate.
Hagel's confirmation hearing will undoubtedly be interesting political theater. Senators plan to crucify Hagel with questions and queries. Hagel's relationship with Israel will play a central role in the public hearing. In the end, there will be a moment of truth — the vote on whether to approve the Hagel appointment or not.
No matter the result of that vote, the pro-Israel lobby will suffer a loss. If the Hagel appointment is not approved, President Barack Obama will have to find another candidate to lead the Pentagon and an accusatory finger will be pointed by ordinary Americans toward Jewish lobbying groups. In other words, many Americans will wonder to themselves if Obama was forced to bow to dictates from abroad — perhaps from Jerusalem? This could inflame anti-Semitic feelings.
Even if the appointment of Hagel is approved, he still won't be able to overcome feelings of bitterness toward Israel for allegedly signalling to its supporters in the U.S. to try to thwart his appointment — if that is indeed what happened. What will Hagel be thinking when Israeli defense officials sit with him at future meetings in the Pentagon?
One can say that the top priority of the next Pentagon chief will be defense budget cuts rather than Israel-related issues. But it is doubtful that the campaign against Hagel created a pleasant atmosphere for the continuation of Israel's excellent and elaborate defense ties with the U.S. It is quite possible that the pro-Israel lobby fired too many shells at its target this time.
It would have been possible to adopt a different approach. Obama wanted Hagel to be defense secretary. Given the problematic personal relationship between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was it really appropriate to deploy the doomsday weapon of a vigorous and public campaign against the Hagel appointment? It would be a hollow victory if the Senate does not confirm Hagel. In either outcome, what will Israel gain? It's a lose-lose situation. In this case, the pro-Israel lobby fired a blank.