On September 17, 1947, President Harry Truman appointed James Forrestal as the first United States Secretary of Defense. During his tenure, Mr. Forrestal fought vigorously against the establishment of the State of Israel on the grounds that it would infuriate the oil-rich Arab States. With regard to the American Jewish community, Mr. Forrestal stated, “…no group in this country should be permitted to influence our policy to the point it could endanger our national security.”
Fortunately for the embattled Jewish community of the-then Palestine, President Truman chose to disregard Secretary Forrestal’s advice and negative views on the American Jewish community. Instead, President Truman supported the November 29, 1947 partition resolution in the United Nations, dividing Palestine into Arab and Jewish states. When the Jewish State declared its independence on May 14, 1948, the United States, under President Truman’s leadership, became the first nation to recognize the new State of Israel.
Now, as we approach Inauguration Day, President Obama is on the verge of appointing James Forrestal’s ideological heir, former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Mr. Hagel has the same hostility towards the American Jewish community and the same negative feelings towards Israel as James Forrestal.
In his Monday December 17, 2012 Wall Street Journal column, the highly respected journalist Bret Stephens described the Hagel record on Israel as follows:
“In 2002, a year in which 457 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks (a figure proportionately equivalent to more than 20,000 fatalities in the U.S., or seven 9/11s), Mr. Hagel weighed in with the advice that ‘Israel must take steps to show its commitment to peace.’ This was two years after Yasser Arafat had been offered a state by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David.”
“In 2006, Mr. Hagel described Israel’s war against Hezbollah as ‘the systematic destruction of an American friend, the country and people of Lebanon’ He later refused to sign a letter calling on the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. In 2007, he voted against designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization, and also urged President Bush to open “direct, unconditional” talks with Iran to create ‘a historic new dynamic in U.S.-Iran relations.’ In 2009, Mr. Hagel urged the Obama administration to open direct talks with Hamas.”
One would be hard pressed to find a U.S. Senator more hostile to Israel than Chuck Hagel. Yet if one studies the rhetoric of Mr. Hagel, it becomes clear that his hostility extends to the American Jewish community as well. Hagel has spoken about how “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” and how he is not cowed by it.
In an interview in 2006 with retired U.S. diplomat Aaron David Miller, Hagel said, “I’m a United States Senator, not an Israeli Senator. I’m a United States Senator. I support Israel. But my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States. Not to a president. Not a party. Not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that.”
Stephens accurately appraises the Hagel rhetoric as follows: “Read these staccato utterances again to better appreciate their insipid and insinuating qualities, all combining to cast the usual slur on Jewish-Americans: Dual loyalty.”
It is therefore not surprising that during his tenure as U.S. Senator, Hagel had a remarkably poor relationship with his Jewish constituents at home in Nebraska. An article in the Sunday, December 23, 2012 Algemeiner Journal, one of the nation’s leading Jewish community websites, has the title, “Nebraska Jews Recall Senator Chuck Hagel as ‘Unfriendly’ and ‘Unmovable’ on Israel, ‘Didn’t give a Damn About the Jewish Community’”
One wonders why Obama would appoint a Defense Secretary with such a record of hostility towards Israel and the American Jewish community. The answer is clear on its face: Obama intends to substantially downsize the American commitment to Israel during his second term, both in terms of priority and level of American military assistance. Chuck Hagel will provide Obama the cover to do this.
The best evidence of this new Obama administration second term policy can be found in its actions – or lack of same –in the recent United Nations General Assembly vote granting the Palestinians non-member state status. Caroline Glick, the highly acclaimed American-Israeli journalist and deputy managing editor of the Jerusalem Post, described the Obama UN policy shift as follows:
“Obama enabled the Palestinians to get their non-member state status at the UN by failing to threaten to cut off US funding to the UN in retaliation for such a vote.”
“Both Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush issued such threats during their tenures in office and so prevented the motion from coming to a vote. Given that the Palestinians have had an automatic majority in the General Assembly since at least 1975, the only reason their status was only upgraded in 2012 is because until then, either the PLO didn’t feel like raising the issue or the US threatened to cut off its financial support to the UN if such a motion passed. This year PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas said he wanted to have a vote and Obama responded by not issuing a threat to cut off UN funding. So the Palestinians got their vote and, as expected, it passed overwhelmingly.”
“Seeing the upgrade as a Palestinian move is a mistake. It was a joint Palestinian-American move”.
The new ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Eliot Engel of New York, has announced his opposition to the prospective Hagel nomination, stating that the former Nebraska Senator has an “endemic hostility towards Israel.” Departing Senator Joe Lieberman has also spoken out against it as well, noting the difficulties Hagel would face in confirmation proceedings.
For New Jersey’s two Democratic Senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, the prospect of Obama’s nomination of Hagel poses a most acute dilemma.
There is no question that both Lautenberg and Menendez have records of solid, consistent support for Israel. In the case of Frank Lautenberg, he also has been a major benefactor of good works in Israel, including hospitals and public parks. Prior to his election as United States Senator, he served as the national chair of United Jewish Appeal.
Yet both would face serious difficulties in defying the Obama White House on a Hagel nomination.
President Obama’s nomination of Massachusetts Senator John Kerry as Secretary of State clears the way for Bob Menendez to become the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It is no small matter for such a chair to refuse to support confirmation of a Defense Secretary nominated by a president of the same political party.
For Frank Lautenberg, there is another dimension to the dilemma. If he accedes to the Obama White House request for support of the Hagel nomination, he may well face serious criticism from Newark Mayor Cory Booker on this issue in a 2014 Democratic Senate primary battle. Booker also has a strong relationship with the New Jersey Jewish community, and he could use the incumbent senator’s vote for Hagel as a means to diminish the Lautenberg Jewish vote in the primary.
Obama is about to begin his second term, and now he feels no political constraints in making cabinet appointments. He will feel free to play hardball to achieve his objectives, even if it means threatening to reduce federal funding for New Jersey projects in order to coerce Lautenberg and Menendez to support a Hagel nomination.
I have no doubt that both Senators Lautenberg and Menendez are hoping and praying that President Barack Obama changes his mind and does not nominate Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University.