In 2006, I interviewed Chuck Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nebraska, for a book I was writing on America and the Arab-Israeli negotiations. Quotes from that interview have since become part of a campaign opposing his putative nomination as President Barack Obama's next secretary of defense.
That debate and discussion has by any standard been a pretty depressing affair. At the same time, it's a fascinating reflection of both the state of our domestic politics and of attitudes and views toward Israel and Obama.
National Journal's Michael Hirsh reported Sunday that "the White House is now signaling that it may soon puncture Hagel's hopes." We'll see. But since we're in the middle of a movie that could have any number of endings, let me extract a few of the enduring issues highlighted by this affair that I find both troubling and intriguing.
Hagel's an anti-Semite? This charge -- casually leveled at Hagel because he asserted to me that the "Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people" in Congress -- is shameful and scurrilous.
Sadly, accusing someone of hating Jews in general because they criticize Israeli government policy in particular is all too common. In some cases, perhaps it's even true. But not in Hagel's. Hagel spoke to me about shared values and the importance of Israeli security too. And those who have known him over the years, including many of my former colleagues, all believe he feels the same. Independent and at times sharply critical of Israeli policies, yes; someone who has endemic hostility toward Israel, as Rep. Eliot Engel recently charged, let alone whose views are borderline anti-Semitic, no. I like the way Richard Robinson, a Norfolk, Nebraska steel distributor who's Jewish and considers Hagel a very close friend, put it: "I think that anyone who insinuates he's anti-Israel or anti-Semitic is full of crap."
What about that Jewish lobby? What about the use of the term Jewish lobby and Hagel's notion that senators and representatives are reluctant to cross AIPAC? As Israeli political columnist Chemi Shalev points out in his blog post on the matter, Israelis routinely use the word Jewish lobby as synonymous with AIPAC.
Anybody who's been in Washington and not in a coma knows that AIPAC is one of the most effective, well managed, and best organized special interest groups in the country. Indeed, the organization carries formidable political influence and really does define what it means to be pro-Israel on the Hill. And yes, though it's rarely tested, there is the perception in Congress that it's unwise to oppose a pro-Israeli letter, bill, or sense of the Congress resolution. Most legislators have other priorities other than Israel, so fighting with AIPAC over supporting a close American ally just doesn't make sense and can carry real costs.