The prospect of President Obama appointing Sen. John Kerry as secretary of state and, especially, former Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense is making many leaders in the pro-Israel community very worried, and with good cause.
It’s true that activist supporters of Israel can be fickle about their affections. George Shultz was viewed with great suspicion because of his business ties with Arab states before becoming secretary of state under President Reagan. He later was viewed as a strong supporter of Israel and of the Soviet Jewry movement. And it wasn’t that long ago that outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was criticized strongly in the Jewish community for kissing Suha Arafat during a Mideast trip when she was first lady. In her subsequent political career, and especially as senator from New York, Clinton received high marks from Jewish leaders.
But even Jewish Republicans are saying that Hagel, a Republican, would be bad news for Israel, especially at a time when the Obama administration is trying to convince Jerusalem of its solid support leading up to decision-time with Iran in 2013.
As a senator, he was one of the few among his peers who, at various times, refused to: declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization; sign a letter supporting Israel; sign a letter urging President Bush not to meet with Yasir Arafat during the height of the second intifada; call attention to Iran’s nuclear program, and more.
Hagel opposed tough sanctions on Iran and any military strike on its nuclear plants. He is a great believer in negotiating with one’s enemies, but he has not been kind to one of America’s leading allies, namely Israel, and he has made troubling remarks about how “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here” on Capitol Hill.
Hagel’s comments and Senate record led Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, to label him “one of the most hostile critics of Israel” ever in the Senate. And Bret Stephens wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week: “I almost hope” President Obama does choose Hagel for defense secretary because it would confirm the columnist’s assertion that “Mr. Obama is not a friend of Israel.”
Kerry, the Massachusetts senator and former Democratic presidential candidate, is considered a friend of Israel but a strong critic of its settlement policies and, according to a Jerusalem Post story this week, someone “who feels … that he knows perhaps better than Israelis themselves what is good for them.”
Jewish leaders here are decidedly mum on the expected White House decision to name Kerry to lead the State Department, believing it would do little good to criticize either the president or the front-running nominee at this point. In practical terms, those leaders may soon be working with Obama, Kerry and Hagel on a variety of looming crises, from the deteriorating Israel-Palestinian relationship, to instability in Egypt, to civil war in Syria, and of course the nuclear showdown with Iran.
Whether the expected appointments are, in part, Obama’s way of showing Israel who’s boss or simply an effort to try a new approach in foreign policy remains to be seen. But as the Jerusalem Post headline noted about Kerry and Hagel, they are “hardly Israel’s preferred choices.”