Foes of Hagel’s nomination pointed to a 2006 Hagel quote made when he was a Republican senator representing Nebraska. “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here … I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator,” Hagel said.
The phrase “Jewish lobby,” the critics suggested, point to an anti-Semitic mindset on Hagel’s part.
As President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the Defense Department, Hagel was certain to face questioning over the remark during his Senate confirmation hearings last week. Indeed, senators posed multiple questions to Hagel in this vein. Even before the hearings, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., lit into Hagel, saying, “This is an in-your-face nomination of the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel.”
Despite the telegraphed intentions from opponents of his nomination, Hagel appeared unprepared for the grilling he took last week. Hagel walked back from some of the comment, saying “influences” would be preferred to “intimidates” and “Israel lobby” should be substituted for “Jewish lobby.” None of this appeased the senators who applied the whip to their former Senate colleague.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was once a close ally of Hagel’s, blistered the nominee with relentless questioning that painted Hagel as incompetent. Even worse for Hagel supporters, the nominee fumbled through his responses, leaving the impression that the man who so thoughtlessly used loaded language like “Jewish lobby” isn’t skilled at thinking on his feet. Other senators, including Graham, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., joined McCain in putting Hagel’s feet to the fire.
Not surprisingly, the White House is standing by its nomination of Hagel in spite of his lackluster performance. Though nothing is certain, the conventional wisdom suggests the Senate will confirm the nomination.
Such is the way of Washington.
By one measure, Hagel’s crudely expressed remark contains a kernel of truth. During his hearing, senators mentioned Israel 136 times and Iran 135. Afghanistan only came up 27 times, according to a tally by the Washington Post. Let’s emphasize that the nation where U.S. soldiers are fighting warranted one-tenth the mentions of Israel or Iran.
It calls to mind what Hagel said in 2006 to author and Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller, “I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator.”
Hagel added, “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 to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that.”
For his part, Miller said the nominee’s biggest sin was speaking too freely. “I think Hagel has a view that is not commonly expressed among senators and representatives, and that is, yes, we have a special relationship with Israel, but that special relationship is not exclusive,” Miller said. “There will be times when in effect, whether it’s settlements, whether it’s what to do about the peace process, whether it’s what to do about Iran, that the interests will not coincide. Very few sitting senators and representatives, although I think they know that to be the case, are willing to express themselves in this subject.”
The performance of many senators during last week’s hearing lends credibility to these claims.