Chuck Hagel and Israel in context: A guide to his controversial statements
“In the Senate, I came to admire his courage and his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind, even if it wasn’t popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom.”
— President Obama, nominating former senator Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, Jan. 7, 2013
Washington always loves a confirmation fight.
President Obama’s nomination of former senator Chuck Hagel is especially interesting because most of the initial opposition is from Hagel’s fellow Republicans — even though his positions on social issues such as abortion rights (a vote against allowing servicewomen to use overseas military hospitals for abortions) and gay rights are fairly conservative.
Meanwhile, Democrats have long collected evidence of what they consider Hagel’s anti-Israel positions — which is now being used as ammunition by Hagel’s foes.
Hagel says his positions on Israel has been “completely distorted,” though he acknowledges that “I have also questioned some very cavalier attitudes taken about very complicated issues in the Middle East.” Certainly, Hagel has expressed sentiments that many U.S. politicians tend to avoid, including a consistent concern for the plight of Palestinians.
Our colleague Richard Cohen argues that such uniformity in American views hampers effective policy-making: “He could be the necessary corrective to the Netanyahu government’s expectation that anything Israel wants from Washington it’s entitled to get. Nothing Hagel has said about Israel is not said in the Israeli press on a daily basis.”
Obama, during the 2008 campaign, also criticized what he called an “unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel.” But pro-Israel advocates, such as our colleague Jennifer Rubin, have found Hagel’s comments deeply troubling.
We take no position on the matter, as the meaning and importance of his statements are rather subjective. But readers can judge for themselves.
Here is a guide to some of the most controversial statements made by Hagel, along with the context in which he made them.
“The Israeli government essentially continues to play games... Desperate men do desperate things when you take hope away. And that’s where the Palestinians are today.”
— Aug. 27, 1998, after a visit to the Middle East
Some have viewed this comment as a justification for terrorism. Hagel made these remarks in an interview with the Associated Press, which headlined the article: “Senator blames Israel for Peace Impasse.” Here’s the full article:
Senator blames Israel for Peace Impasse
LINCOLN, Nebraska — The United States should use its influence with Israel to restart the stalled Mideast peace process, according to an influential U.S. senator who returned from a tour of the region this week.
Sen. Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that the United States' national interests are tied to progress in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the United States must do what it can to re-energize the Mideast peace process.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ''essentially stopped the process,'' Hagel said. ''The Israeli government essentially continues to play games,'' stonewalling implementation of the Oslo peace accords.
''What I fear more today is that desperate men do desperate things when you take hope away,'' Hagel said. ''And that's where the Palestinians are today.''
The Israeli government needs to understand that implementation of the peace agreement is in its own interests, he said.
Hagel said Arabs generally believe America ''has tilted toward Israel'' in its Mideast relations and there will be no lasting peace in the region without relationships with Iran.
''I think we should continue to pursue openings with Iran, understanding this is still a nation very hostile to the West,'' he said. ''We need to understand cold, hard realities and be very clear-eyed and clearheaded, but every opening we should take.''
“Peace comes through dealing with people. Peace doesn’t come at the end of a bayonet or the end of a gun."
— Sept. 4, 1998, speaking about talks with the ruler of Syria
The Forward, a Jewish newspaper, reported on a trip that Hagel and Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) made to Syria, where they met with the then-leader Hafez al-Assad.
Interestingly, Shelby largely echoed Hagel’s comments, saying: “I think you have to make peace with whoever you have to make peace with.” Hagel also describes himself as a “supporter of Israel,” though the article also quotes criticism from the National Jewish Democratic Council that equates Hagel with Neville Chamberlain.
Regarding Israelis and the Arabs, Hagel said: “Each side has a legitimate point here.”
After Huddle With Syria's Assad, GOP Senator Turns on Jerusalem
By Ira Stoll
NEW YORK — Just as President Clinton is starting to get tough on terrorism, two Republican senators have fetched up on the doorstep of the dictator at Damascus, Hafez al-Assad; and one of them, fresh from his visit to the enemy capital, has started criticizing the government of Israel.
In separate telephone interviews with the Forward this week, both Senator Hagel, a Nebraskan who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Shelby, an Alabamian who chairs the Intelligence Committee, told of their hour-long meeting with the Syrian strongman. They spoke of hoping to find common ground with the Syrian and of integrating his regime into a Middle East peace agreement.
The behavior of the two Republicans marks a stunning turnabout from the 1996 presidential campaign, when Republicans led by the speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, and Senator Dole excoriated Mr. Clinton and his state secretary at the time, Warren Christopher, for pandering to Mr. Assad's dictatorial regime. The visit also provides a contrast to the more recent behavior of Mr. Clinton, who has dealt with terrorists not by treating with them but rather by dispatching cruise missiles to obliterate them.
Finally, the visit is at odds with a theory that has been gaining some traction in Republican foreign-policy circles, particularly with regard to Iraq. That idea, put forth most cogently by David Wurmser of the American Enterprise Institute, is that of "rollback" — destabilizing the Middle Eastern rogue states and replacing them with democracies, rather than treating them with deferential diplomacy.
"We were looking to find common ground," Mr. Shelby said. "It was cordial. We were all hopeful that a meaningful peace process would get restarted."
Asked why the West would want to make peace with a brutal dictator like Mr. Assad, Mr. Shelby responded, "I think you have to make peace with whoever you have to make peace with...Peace is always better than war."
Mr. Hagel said, "I'm a supporter of Israel, always have been. It's in Israel's best interest to get a peace."
As for Mr. Assad, Mr. Hagel said, "We don't want to back anyone into a corner...what we need to do is keep talking here."
Asked how he would respond to someone who thought that Mr. Assad would best be dealt with in the same way that Mr. Clinton dealt with terrorists in Sudan and Afghanistan recently, Mr. Hagel said, "Anybody who takes that approach doesn’t understand the world much. Peace comes through dealing with people. Peace doesn’t come at the end of a bayonet or the end of a gun."
Mr. Hagel laid some of the blame for the stalled negotiations on Israel. "To arbitrarily make decisions as the Netanyahu government has done is not helpful," he said. He said that a three-hour dinner with the former Prime Minister from the opposition Labor Party, Shimon Peres, had convinced him, "You’ve got a divided Israel on some of the strategy here."
Mr. Hagel said that America's role in the Middle East had been damaged by the Monica Lewinsky scandal. "It doesn’t help to have our president wounded as he is," he said.
He said of the Israelis and the Arabs, "each side has a legitimate point here."
Both Mr. Hagel and Mr. Shelby said they had raised the issue of terrorism with Mr. Assad and with the Syrian foreign minister, with whom they also met. Mr. Hagel termed that discussion "rather direct," and Mr. Shelby said the Syrians responded by saying that while they might house terrorist groups, no actual terrorist operations were being staged from Syrian territory.
Both Mr. Hagel and Mr. Shelby said that Mr. Assad, age 68, appeared alert and in good health.
The two senators came in for immediate criticism from the deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, Stephen Silberfarb. Mr. Silberfarb made reference to Mr. Dole's famous visit to Saddam Hussein and to President Bush's criticism of Israeli settlement policies, along with British appeasement of Hitler at Munich, saying, "It's nice to see someone is taking up the banner of the Bob Dole-George Bush-Neville Chamberlain wing of the Republican Party."
While much has been made of Hagel’s criticism of President George W. Bush, old newspaper clips reveal that Hagel also was not kind to then-President Bill Clinton. In an article in the Omaha World Herald, here is how Hagel described Clinton in late 1998, when Hagel was concerned about Clinton’s decision to give the CIA a role in the Middle East peace process:
Hagel compared Clinton's around-the-clock negotiating style to a bleary-eyed student cramming for final examinations.
“That is a hell of a way to run foreign policy — no continuity, no consistency, no discipline, no focus,” Hagel said. “We don't know what he's bargained away on the CIA. We don't know how much money he's promised.”
When Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska asked Secretary of State Madeleine Albright if Arab countries believed "we’ve tilted too far toward Israel in the peace process," she responded, "Some people may think that. I'd prefer not to make that linkage... Iraq and the peace process are two separate issues.”
— article in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 1998
This comment was made in the context of discussion of policy toward Iraq during a Feb. 10, 1998, hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, specifically how to engender more Arab support. Hagel spoke of a “perception in the Arab world” that U.S. policy was tilted toward Israel, not necessarily that he believed that. However, he clearly stated that there was a linkage between policy toward Israel and support from Arabs for other U.S. policies — something Albright rejected.
The Omaha World Herald headlined its article on the exchange: “Hagel Says Stand on Israel Costs U.S. Support.”
Following is a complete transcript of the discussion.
SEN. HAGEL: Which leads me to the next question: Why are we having such difficulty in developing Arab support on this issue? SEC. ALBRIGHT: Well, first of all, let me say that it was quite a different situation. Iraq had invaded, crossed a border, invaded another country. It also took quite a long time to put a coalition together. And I in no way — let me make this as an opening statement — I in no way wish to say anything negative about that effort, because it was a brilliant effort, and we all saw America deal with what was a cross-border invasion in a very effective way. But it was an effort that took a long time to put together. And many people, as they talk about the coalition — it was basically the U.S. and the U.K. that did the heavy lifting on that. There were a number of countries that worked together.
And so I think that I in no way wish to take anything away from that or from the great work that those gentlemen did. But I would like to make that point. Second, I do think that there is a — I have just come back from a lot of the Gulf states. Secretary Cohen is out there now. And I came up — came back with the following set of impressions from it: First of all, that they are very concerned about what is going on in Iraq. They understand about the problems of the weapons of mass destruction and the fact that they do threaten them, but it is less visible, I think, than a cross-border threat.
Second, they are fully convinced that this crisis has been created by Saddam Hussein. They are concerned about the Iraqi people, as are we, which is why we support this oil-for-food plan that we wrote originally with Resolution 986 and is now being proposed to be expanded by Kofi Annan. And they also — they prefer a diplomatic route, but they also understand that should there be consequences, they have been the responsibility of Saddam Hussein will be responsible for the grave consequences.
So I feel confident of their support. They state they have domestic audiences, and they state their support for their own purposes. But I do feel that should we use force, they will be helpful to us. And I think that they also understand the dangers. But it is not quite the same situation as when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and there was six months to prepare, to put together a coalition, which was primarily a U.S.-U.K. operation.
SEN. HAGEL: Do you believe part of this problem is the perception in the Arab world that we’ve tilted way too far toward Israel in the Middle East peace process? SEC. ALBRIGHT: Some of them may think that. I do not think that.
SEN. HAGEL: You don't think that's the case?
SEC. ALBRIGHT: No, I do not. I think that these are two separate issues, clearly very difficult ones. But my own sense is we have to deal with both of them. We have to look at our national interests. We have to deal with them both separately. They are both very important to us. We have ties with Israel that are indissoluble. And I think that we have to work the Middle East peace process, which I do and so does the president. But you know, I think that some of them have stated those views, but I don't agree.
SEN. HAGEL: But surely you believe that they're linked? You don't believe that there's any linkage between the Middle East peace process and what's happening in Iraq?
SEC. ALBRIGHT: I'd prefer not to make that linkage.
SEN. HAGEL: You prefer not to make it?
SEC. ALBRIGHT: Yes.
SEN. HAGEL: What are we doing collaterally in political policy, working with our allies over there as what Senator Biden is referring to — what happens if we exercise the military option? What happens after that?
Are we doing anything in the political world to drive him from Iraq — working with dissidents — anything you can share with us on what our policy is outside, maybe, a military option, and just focusing on sanctions and resolutions?
SEC. ALBRIGHT: Senator, I have — as I stated, we have worked with oppositional groups in the past and are interested in working with them effectively. We — it's very hard to have this discussion in this setting, and we should probably discuss it somewhere else.
SEN. HAGEL: Thank you.
Several audience members were perturbed by [Bob] Dole’s brief comments, which included no mention of Palestinian suffering — the topic on everyone’s mind.
Ironically, it wasn’t an ADC official who finally addressed the audience’s concerns. When Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) took the microphone, he also took the entire audience by surprise: “Israel is our friend and ally, and we must continue our commitment,” he said, “but not at the expense of the Palestinian people.”
The cheers were deafening. Hagel went on: “What we need isn’t a cease-fire, leading to a sequential peace process, leading to negotiations on a Palestinian state, leading to negotiations on refugees, Jerusalem, etc. That time has passed. An end game must be brought to the front, now.”
— article in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2002, on a June speech Hagel gave to the American-Arab anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
Here, again, Hagel continues his balancing act between Israel and the Palestinians, even in the midst of a rash of Palestinian suicide bombings at the time. Unfortunately we have not yet found a complete transcript of this speech, but we did find another news report on it, by MSNBC.
This report notes that Hagel included pro-Israel comments in his speech:
Addressing the ADC convention as a keynote speaker, Hagel uttered words Arab-Americans long to hear — but seldom do — from national politicians. He called for the United States to recognize a Palestinian state, saying Washington should cultivate “a deeper level of understanding of what’s at stake and of what the people — especially the Palestinian people — have endured over the last 50 or 100 years.
Later, Hagel’s office emphasized that the senator was not choosing sides and pointed to the pro-Israel remarks in his luncheon speech. “I have said that the U.S. relationship with Israel is one of a friend and ally that has required and will continue to require a commitment to the freedom of Israel,” Hagel said.
Hagel’s willingness to show sympathy for Palestinians has earned him praise in the Arab-American community. A commentary by ADC chairman (and former Senator) James G. Abourezk (D-S.D.), written during Israel’s 2006 conflict with Hezbollah, declared:
Except for Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, no one in Congress is willing to stand up to the Israeli Lobby and call for an immediate cease fire and for fairness for Lebanon. They, along with George Bush and Condi Rice have a lot of blood on their hands for remaining silent and for re-arming Israel which allows the slaughter to continue.
“The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here…. I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator.”
— from a 2006 interview with former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller
This is probably the most controversial quote by Hagel, in part because he used the phrase “Jewish lobby,” appearing to single out the religion when in fact “pro-Israel” lobby would have been much more appropriate. (Not all Jews support Israel, and many advocates for Israel are not Jewish.).
Interestingly, Miller, who conducted the interview for his 2008 book “The Much Too Promised Land,” has praised Hagel, both in recent interviews and in his book, for being willing to say things that most lawmakers are unwilling to say.
The full transcript is generally not published, but some of the interview can be heard on his publisher’s Web site (see Chapter Three.). Here is what Hagel said, trying to make the case that advocates for Israel harm its interests by making lawmakers do “dumb things:”
“The political reality is that you intimidate, not you — that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. Again, I have always argued against some of the dumb things they do because I don’t think it’s in the interest of Israel. I just don’t think it’s smart for Israel.
Now, everyone has a right to lobby; that’s as it should be. Come see your senator, your congressman, and if you can get the guy to sign your letter, great, wonderful.
But as I reminded somebody not too long ago, in fact it was a group I was speaking to in New York, and we got into kind of an interesting give and take on Iran. A couple of these guys said we should just attack Iran. And I said, ‘Well, that’s an interesting thought; we’re doing so well in Iraq.’ And I said it would really help Israel.
And this guy kept pushing and pushing. And he alluded to the fact that maybe I wasn’t supporting Israel enough or something. And I just said let me clear something up here, in case there is any doubt.
I said, ‘I’m a United States senator. I’m 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 to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that. Now I know most senators don’t talk like I do.”
Though not on the recording on the publisher’s Web site, Miller also quotes Hagel as saying about Congress:
“This is an institution that does not inherently bring out a great deal of courage,” Hagel continues. Most of the time members play it safe and adopt an “I’ll support Israel” attitude. AIPAC comes knocking with a pro-Israel letter, and “then you’ll get 80 to 90 senators on it. I don’t think I’ve ever signed one of the letters.” When someone would accuse him of not being pro-Israel because he didn’t sign the letter, Hagel told me that he responds; “I didn’t sign the letter because it was a stupid letter.”
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