But recognizing or even bucking political reality isn't being anti-Semitic or hostile to the Israelis. Nor is conceding -- as Hagel does -- that there's not a lot of political courage in Congress on the Israel issue. Let's face it. For a group of 100 pretty smart U.S. senators, there really isn't much debate, nuance, let alone broad disagreement about supporting Israel -- and that's not just because Israel is a very close ally of the United States or that what it does is always in America's interests.
But the issue goes considerably deeper. I don't use the term "Jewish lobby" because it really fails to capture the depth and breadth of support for Israel in America today. Millions of evangelical Christians and non-evangelical Christians support Israel for reasons of eschatology and value affinity. Indeed, if it weren't for the non-Jewish support Israel receives based on the fact that it's in the broadest conception of the U.S. national interest to support like-minded societies -- even those that pursue policies we don't like (see: settlements) -- the U.S.-Israeli relationship would be a shadow of itself.
Even though the Arabs and Iranians are Israel's best talking points in Washington, sorry, conspiracy theorists: There's simply no way 5.5 million American Jews can account for the support Israel receives. It is the image of Israel in the mind of America -- as a democratic, humanistic, pro-Western state worthy of support -- that drives the special relationship. When that perception of shared values and interests changes, so will the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The reaction to Hagel's comments about domestic politics also reflects something else, too: the dishonest debate in America about the role of the pro-Israeli community here.
Israel's supporters want everyone to believe that domestic politics have nothing to do with why America supports Israel; for them, it's all value affinity and Israel as a strategic ally. Israel's detractors want everyone to conclude that domestic politics is just about all there is, and that without the lobby, there wouldn't be a special bond. Neither is true.
The fact is, the pro-Israeli community in America does have a powerful voice, particularly in Congress, but it doesn't have a veto over U.S. policy. And the farther you go from Capitol Hill, the clearer this becomes. Willful presidents with smart strategies trump domestic lobbies every time, whether it's on arms sales or peace initiatives. Indeed, I've long believed that the real Jewish lobby is the Jewish lobby of one -- the effect that an Israeli prime minister can have on a U.S. president. When they can find a way to work together and respect one another's interests, good stuff happens for both America and Israel -- and usually for the Arabs, too.