Largely unremarked upon, an incident in the 2008 presidential campaign reflects just how horrendous Chuck Hagel’s relationship with Israel was — and the Obama campaign’s full awareness of this phenomenon.
Sam Stein of Huffington Post in July 2008 accused the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) of misleading voters by calling on then candidate Barack Obama to disinvite Hagel from the Israel part of his Mideast trip that began in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stein wrote it wasn’t necessary to disinvite Hagel since the Obama campaign knew all too well he couldn’t be seen with the anti-Israel senator and had already disinvited him:
The problem: Hagel isn’t going to Israel with Obama. He and Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) are flying with the Illinois Senator to Iraq and Afghanistan, but not to Israel or Europe. The RJC should have known this, as it was already public knowledge. The UK Telegraph (among other outlets) reported.
The RJC later clarified that indeed Hagel wasn’t going to Israel but his closeness to Obama still was highly problematic. The liberal JTA covered the incident as well. The gist of the coverage was that of course Hagel was not going to Israel — duh! — and to suggest otherwise was to accuse the presidential candidate of being a dullard on Israel.
An official at a major Jewish organization with long-standing ties to the Democratic Party said, “The question is what did then-Sen. Obama know about Sen. Hagel’s views on Israel that caused him to ditch him at that critical time?”
Candidate Obama, or at least those advising candidate Obama, knew full well, of course, about Hagel’s acrimonious comments toward the Jewish state. My colleague Glenn Kessler has detailed many of these from the 1990’s and during the Bush administration. In 1998 for example Hagel seemed to excuse Palestinian terrorism: “‘What I fear more today is that desperate men do desperate things when you take hope away. And that’s where the Palestinians are today.” Kessler also dug up this exchange from the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee in which Hagel tries (unsuccessfully) to badger Secretary of State Madeleine Albright into accepting his premise on Israel (Hagel “clearly stated that there was a linkage between policy toward Israel and support from Arabs for other U.S. policies — something Albright rejected”):
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.
In short, due to these and other comments, as well as his voting record, Hagel by 2008 was not appropriate company for a national security newcomer struggling to burnish his pro-Israel credentials. (Imagine if in 2000 then-Gov. George W. Bush had taken Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) with him to Israel.) Hagel in fact was infamous for his departures from bipartisan pro-Israel policy and his celebration of moral equivalence (he told an Arab American group in 2002 “Israel is our friend and ally, and we must continue our commitment but not at the expense of the Palestinian people.”), even, as Kessler points out, “in the midst of a rash of Palestinian suicide bombings at the time.”
Hagel was a pariah with a key U.S. ally, Israel, and candidate Obama knew it. How does President Obama now expect Hagel to deal effectively with Israel and to communicate convincingly to other players, including the Palestinian Authority, our support for Israel? Obama hasn’t managed to go to Israel since elected — so will we now have a defense secretary who can’t go there either?