Depending on who you ask, former Senator Chuck Hagel, the front-runner for Secretary of Defence in Barack Obama’s second administration, is “hardly Israel’s first choice”, an “outspoken critic of Israel” and just plain “anti-Israel”.
His friends include Professor Stephen Walt, who congratulated him on “not being a complete doormat for the Israel lobby”, whilst Mr Hagel himself has voted against sanctions on Iran and still argues for engagement with the regime. Most toxic for supporters of Israel, though, is the quote attributed to Mr Hagel by an anonymous Republican Senate aide and published by the conservative Weekly Standard: “The political reality is that … the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”
Not quite everyone agrees. Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer supports Mr Hagel’s nomination, telling influential Washington DC blog Politico this week that the criticism is “terribly misguided”. Dovish US-Israel organisation J-Street, which advocates a return to talks, is also enthusiastic about Mr Hagel’s nomination. Aaron David Miller, who advised six Secretaries of State on the Middle East, has called Mr Hagel “a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values”. Strained relations between Washington and Jerusalem were a consistent feature of the first Obama administration. Yet, the defence relationship between the two countries has never been better, we are told. It has also never been more important.
Leon Panetta, the outgoing Defence Secretary, has been a key interlocutor between Israel and the US in recent months, a valuable workaround to strained Clinton-Lieberman relations. The Iron Dome missile system, a joint US-Israeli project, was probably the difference between a limited offensive in Gaza last month and a far more costly ground operation. Intelligence co-operation on Iran has given valuable breathing space for further diplomacy.
If nominated, Mr Hagel’s next obstacle would be a Senate confirmation hearing, no mere formality. Last week, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice withdrew her candidacy for secretary of state in the face of sustained Senate criticism of her handling of the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi. Her decision leaves Senator John Kerry, with a strongly pro-Israel voting record, the likely replacement for Hillary Clinton. Mr Hagel should expect to face rigorous questioning about his own positions, and those of the administration he would join. That is as it should be. With new defence ministers taking charge in Israel and the US as we approach an Iranian end-game, the stakes could not be higher.