January 15, 2013

For the last few weeks, Republicans have been straining to present opposition to Chuck Hagel’s nomination as “bipartisan.” At first, it seemed like they would get an assist from Barney Frank — who criticized Hagel for his homophobic attack on James Hormel during his 1998 confirmation hearing for ambassador to Luxembourg — but this fell through, as Frank affirmed his support for Hagel earlier this month.

The only other hope for the appearance of bipartisan opposition was with New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who early on expressed doubts about Hagel’s commitment to the security of Israel. Privately, reported Politico, had told senators that it would be “very hard” for him to support Hagel for Defense Secretary, on account of the former Republican lawmaker’s past statements on Israel.

After meeting with Hagel yesterday, however, Schumer switched gears, and this morning he announced his support for Hagel, robbing Republicans of any pretense to bipartisanship. “Senator Hagel could not have been more forthcoming and sincere,” Schumer said in a statement. “Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.”

For the most part, there’s nothing remarkable about a Democratic senator supporting a Democratic president’s choice to lead the Department of Defense. Indeed, if there’s anything interesting about Schumer’s announcement, it’s in what it says about the bounds of our conversation over Israel. If Hagel has attracted the opposition of Republicans—and neo-conservatives in particular—it’s because of his statements on the Mideast. Specifically, an interview he gave in 2006, when he tried to make a point about his responsibilities as an American lawmaker:

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. […]

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.

It’s wrong to say “Jewish lobby”—not all Israelis are Jewish, and not all Jews support Israeli policy—but the basic idea is sound. Hagel sees himself as responsible for the interests of the United States. Sometimes those intersect with the interests of Israel, and sometimes they don’t.

Yet discussion around Israel is so narrow that this was enough to cause problems for his nomination. Which is to say that if there’s anything good about Hagel’s nomination, it’s that if he’s confirmed, he might be able to widen the scope of our discussion around Israel. That doesn’t seem like much, but given the nature of the opposition inspired by Hagel’s mild dissent, it’s a bigger step than it looks.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.