Even before their expected appointments to key cabinet posts in the next Obama administration, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Nebraska) are getting reviews from pro-Israel analysts — generally positive for Kerry and decidedly mixed for Hagel.
“John Kerry is safe, a centrist, loyal and confirmable [as secretary of state],” said Aaron David Miller, a vice-president for current initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson Center and a former adviser on the Middle East to Democratic and Republican administrations.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center, said there are “mixed reviews in the Jewish community about Sen. Hagel, with many people deeply impressed by his command of defense issues and who think he was an excellent senator, particularly in this area. But there are different views in our community about his attitude towards Israel.”
Nevertheless, he said, should Hagel be appointed the next secretary of defense, he would be “implementing the policy of this administration.”
Rabbi Saperstein added that during confirmation hearings Hagel could “clarify his commitment to continuing the strong defense relationship [with Israel] that has marked this administration — and the Jewish community will watch closely to see how he does it and that he does it.”
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, agreed that whoever is selected for those posts “will reflect the interests and priorities of the Obama administration.”
“You are not going to see a lot of warmth,” he said. “Some policies are going to be parallel to Israel’s interests and some will be different, but you are not going to see the secretary of state deviate much from administration policy. He is not going to shape it and will continue with what we have seen from Hillary Clinton.
“There is always a strong tendency to overreact and to take previous behavior out of context,” Steinberg continued. “And there is too much focus on personalities and not on the way events shape their policies.”
Nevertheless, he said, “Hagel has a clear track record of hostility towards Israel — his personal statements show an animosity towards Israel. And Hagel could move things to a path of friction. He could slow down the delivery of weapons to Israel, and Israel might act alone against Iran because the secretary of defense might not agree to a military operation. By definition, he has greater influence” in policy decisions than the secretary of state.
Miller disagreed, saying Obama’s practice is “not to delegate” and that whatever statements Hagel made in the past about Hamas and Hezbollah are “not relevant because he will follow the president’s directives. And on Iran, the president will control the big think strategy. If Israel is under threat, I can guarantee you we will be with it, regardless of who the secretary is.”
But the president can’t make every decision and must leave it to his secretaries to handle daily operations “within the broad goals set forth by the president,” noted Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Policy.
“There is an old saying in Washington that personnel is policy,” Diament recalled. “The secretaries are not going to just be functionaries. The president sets policy but they don’t act like machines and do everything automatically; they make important decisions.”
He said he has worked with Kerry on domestic issues over the years, primarily on religious liberty issues.
“We have to wait to see what issues he sets at the top of the agenda,” Diament said of Kerry. “The Middle East broadly is a central focus, but will he bring new approaches? And anything he pursues would be with Obama.”
Kerry, who is currently chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would bring to the job a “broad knowledge about international affairs and the Middle East in particular,” observed Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “He is well known to Israeli officials and has worked with them over the years. By dint of his own personal interests, he has traveled widely and been involved in Middle East affairs for many years. So there will be no learning curve on the issues.”
He, too, noted that the “secretary has input, but it is the president who sets the direction — and it’s facts on the ground that will determine it.”
But there are some groups that have come out squarely against Hagel.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Hagel “would not be the first, second, or third choice for the American Jewish community’s friends of Israel. His record relating to Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship is, at best, disturbing, and at worst, very troubling. The sentiments he’s expressed about the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism in the genre of professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt and former President Jimmy Carter.”
He was referring to Hagel’s statement about the “Jewish lobby” as reported by Bret Stephens in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal.
“The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” Hagel was quoted as saying.
And Stephens said Hagel once told Miller, “I’m a United States senator, not an Israeli 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.”
Also coming out against Hagel’s expected appointment is the Zionist Organization of America.
“Chuck Hagel’s record is one of being a frightening and dangerous apologist for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as for the terrorist regime of Iran, while being arguably one of the most vicious and hostile critics of Israel,” it said. “The ZOA believes that appointing Chuck Hagel as defense secretary would also serve to confirm the fears that many have that President Obama is no friend of Israel and is not serious about stopping Iran’s nuclear program.”
Hagel, who is currently co-chairman of Obama’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, has opposed both sanctions and a military strike to stop Iran’s continued development of nuclear weapons, noted Shoshana Bryen, senior director of the Jewish Policy Center, a nonprofit think tank.
“He would also like to reduce the American nuclear arsenal to almost nothing and believes in major, major defense cuts,” she said. “Hagel was vocally opposed to the war in Iraq while we were in the middle of it. He spoke of us losing the war in Iraq while our soldiers were in the middle of a surge. And he has never indicated in any way that he ever had Israel’s back.”
Coming to Hagel’s defense is J Street, the dovish Israel policy group, which said he would be a “fine choice” for the job and is a “staunch friend” of Israel.
Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer told Politico that Hagel is getting a bad rap from pro-Israel critics.
But former New York City Mayor Ed Koch is quoted as saying Hagel “would be a terrible appointment” that would “give great comfort to the Arab world that would think that President Obama is seeking to put space between Israel and his administration.”