Even before President Barack Obama officially nominated former Sen. Chuck Hagel to head the Pentagon, Jewish and pro-Israel lobbying organizations were staking out positions for and against the Nebraska Republican.
The Emergency Committee for Israel, a conservative group, released a video blasting Hagel for being overly soft on Iran. And groups on both sides were busily lobbying senators and their aides.
“The U.S.-Israel relationship supercedes partisan politics, and this is something that is crossing the partisan divide in the Jewish community,” said Ari Storch, a lobbyist with Artemis Strategies and former congressional affairs director for the Republican Jewish Coalition. He also served as political director for Jewish outreach for Arizona Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008. “The apprehension is across the spectrum.”
The chief pro-Israel group in the United States, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said through a spokesman that “AIPAC does not take positions on presidential nominations.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s National Director, Abraham Foxman, said in a statement that Hagel would not have been his first choice for secretary of Defense. “I trust that the confirmation process will provide an opportunity for Sen. Hagel to address concerns about his positions, which seem so out of sync with President Obama’s clear commitment on issues like Iran sanctions, isolating Hamas and Hezbollah and the president’s strong support for a deepening of U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation,” Foxman said. “I particularly hope Sen. Hagel will clarify and explain his comments about the ‘Jewish lobby’ that were hurtful to many in the Jewish community.”
Foxman was alluding to Hagel’s 2006 remarks that the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of” lawmakers.
The American Center for Law and Justice, founded by evangelical minister Pat Robertson, enumerated other concerns in opposing Hagel’s nomination, including past support for direct talks with the Islamic resistance movement Hamas, which has promised to destroy Israel.
But Hagel is getting the backing of liberal-leaning Jewish organizations such as J Street, which advocates for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.
Dylan Williams, director of government affairs at J Street, said his organization sent a letter to senators today urging Hagel’s confirmation. He said the opposition is smaller than it appears. “It’s coming from a very vocal, right-wing, hawkish minority of the Jewish community,” Williams said.
J Street’s letter states that it is “particularly troubling that some claiming to represent the pro-Israel community have tried to impugn Sen. Hagel’s commitment to the U.S.-Israel special relationship and our countries’ shared security interests. A fact-based analysis of Sen. Hagel’s record shows that he has been a staunch friend, standing with our community on the critical issues.”
Another group, Jewish Voice for Peace, said in a statement that the American Jewish community is “split” on Hagel’s nomination.
“While large Jewish institutions are imposing a litmus test on the nomination which requires unquestioning alignment with Israel’s right-wing government, [Jewish Voice for Peace]’s members have shown that a substantial portion of the Jewish community welcome daylight between U.S. and Israeli policies,” executive director Rebecca Vilkomerson said in the statement.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.