Chuck Hagel, in a notorious 2008 statement about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the leading institution of the pro-Israel lobby, claimed that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here [in Congress]. I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”
Then a strange thing happened: No sooner did Barack Obama nominate Hagel for secretary of defense on January 7 than AIPAC announced it would not oppose the former Republican senator from Nebraska. Indeed, so neutral did it wish to be on this delicate topic that its spokesman even avoided mentioning Hagel’s name, declaring only that “AIPAC does not take positions on presidential nominations.” AIPAC then maintained a complete silence through Hagel’s confirmation on February 26. More important, it did not lift a finger to influence the vote.
AIPAC’s initial logic made some sense: Obama, having just won an impressive reelection effort, had chosen his man, and Republicans were likely to put up a merely token resistance to him, so why antagonize a soon-to-be very powerful figure and a principal player in the U.S.-Israel relationship? As my colleague Steven J. Rosen explained back then, “AIPAC has to work with the secretary of defense.” It also did not want to antagonize increasingly skittish Democrats.
Subsequently, an intense search into Hagel’s record found more ugly statements about Israel. In 2006, he referred to Israel’s self-defense against Hezbullah as a “sickening slaughter.” In 2007, he pronounced that “the State Department has become adjunct to the Israeli foreign minister’s office.” And in 2010, he was cited as warning that Israel risked “becoming an apartheid state.”
Still, the senator who spoke of an intimidating “Jewish lobby” got a complete pass from that same lobby. It makes one wonder just how intimidating it is.
Other pro-Israel organizations took a different approach. The Zionist Organization of America produced 14 statements arguing against Hagel’s nomination between December 17 and February 22. Not itself primarily a lobbying organization, ZOA’s calculus had less to do with the prospect of preventing Hagel’s taking office and more to do with taking a principled and moral stand.
In large part because of the Nebraskan’s positions of appeasing Tehran and confronting Jerusalem, Republican opposition to Hagel became much more than token. Several senators indicated to the ZOA’s Morton Klein that if AIPAC “had come out and lobbied against Hagel, he would have been stopped.” Charles Schumer, indisputably the key Democratic senator on this issue, publicly cited the absence of “major Jewish organizations” as one reason why he had “no qualms” about endorsing Hagel. Still, despite the real and growing possibility of defeating Hagel’s nomination, AIPAC stayed quiet and did nothing.
Hagel squeaked through the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 12 with a party-line 14–11 vote. A vote to end debate on the nomination failed to win the needed 60 votes on February 14. He finally won confirmation by a 58-to-41 vote, facing the greatest number of “no” votes against any secretary of defense (George C. Marshall in 1950 came in a distant second with eleven nays). And so, the fringe figure who opposed even economic sanctions on Iran, the bumbling nominee who confused prevention with containment, the politician characterized by Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) as “the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the State of Israel in our nation’s history” — well, he took office on February 27.
As AIPAC holds its annual policy conference on March 3-5 in Washington, D.C., an event it calls “the largest gathering of the pro-Israel movement” (last year’s meeting had over 13,000 participants), it is hard not to conclude that the vaunted Israel lobby has focused so intently on access, process, goodwill, and comity that it rendered itself irrelevant on the most pressing issues facing Israel — Iran and the U.S. relationship.
Yes, AIPAC remains a force to contend with on secondary issues; for instance, it won an eye-popping 100–0 victory over the Obama administration in December 2011 on an Iran sanctions bill. But (ever since the AWACS battle of 1981) it has studiously avoided antagonizing the president on the highest-profile issues, the ones most threatening to Israel. As a result, it neutered itself and presumably lost the debate over Iran policy.
The age of Obama and Hagel needs the robust AIPAC of old.