by Marsha B. Cohen
The resignation of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Monday, Nov. 24 after less than two years in his post was all over the morning news here in the United States. But the story was ultimately trumped by the imminent Grand Jury decision on whether or not to indict the officer who shot a black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, record snowfalls in upstate New York, and the extension of the talks on Iran’s nuclear program.
In Israel, however, Hagel’s departure was received with great regret and made lead headlines all day.
“Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon reacted to US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s departure by calling him a ‘true friend of Israel,’ words that stood in stark contrast to the way Hagel was perceived by some in Washington prior to his appointment two years ago,” Michael Wilner and Herb Keinon reported in the Jerusalem Post.
“Ya’alon said that Hagel’s contribution to Israel’s security establishment and to the ties between Jerusalem and Washington have been ‘large and significant,’” continued the article.
Indeed, from the Israeli perspective, Ya’alon’s close relationship with Hagel had gone a long way in offsetting some of the tensions with President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry:
“Over the last two years the relationship between Chuck Hagel and myself has been open, genuine and very friendly, and characterizes the special relationship between the Israeli and American security establishments,” he [Ya’alon] said. He described that relationship as “deep and intimate, and unprecedented in its scope and contribution to Israel’s security and strength.”
During Ya’alon’s visit to Washington in October, Hagel was the only Obama administration official who met with him, greeting him with a small honor guard. In a statement issued before his departure, Ya’alon said the relationship between the two country’s defense establishments was “unprecedented in scope and importance for Israel’s security.” He also exalted the “close, tight relationship” with his “friend,” Chuck Hagel. Of course, Ya’alon had also hoped to hold consultations with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and interpreted it as a snub when they were unavailable to him.
Ironically, the claim that initially put Hagel in headlines less than a year ago—predominantly spread by neoconservative pundits—that Hagel was anti-Israel, and even anti-Semitic had been at the heart of his confirmation battle even before he was nominated.
Questions about Israel dominated the televised Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearings, during which Hagel was faulted for giving a lackluster “performance.” Yet Hagel not only survived the confirmation process (bruised and battered), he became the very model of a US Defense Secretary from the Israeli government’s point of view.
Writes the US editor of the Israeli daily, Haaretz: “Given that Hagel’s harsh questioning was mainly driven by right-wing opposition to his supposedly anti-Israel views, it is no small irony that the Israeli defense establishment, with which Hagel maintained excellent ties, may be the most sorry to see him go.”
Of course, Hagel’s popularity in official Israeli circles may have had at least something to do with his ability to sit by silently in the face of Israeli talking points. Take for example a joint press conference in Israel this past May, when Hagel confined himself to Obama administration talking points after Ya’alon issued broad and scattershot rhetorical blasts against Iran, alleging that the threat posed by the country extended far beyond its nuclear program and impacted almost every country in the Middle East, not to mention the entire continent of South America. Well, Hagel, who certainly knows better, had nothing to say about that, but he did manage to reiterate the importance of the US’ relationship with Israel:
…President Obama has said that he will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. Because we are on a diplomatic track with a time frame, does not preclude all of the other security defense measures that we continue to pursue outside that diplomatic track, including this relationship with – with Israel.
Indeed, while it’s not yet exactly clear why Hagel resigned, we can be certain that it had nothing to do with his relationship with Israel, which was ironically the greatest criticism against him during his confirmation hearings. As Shalev points out:
Hagel was brought in to withdraw American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan at a time of severe budgetary cuts, but reality in the Middle East and elsewhere had other plans. Rightly or wrongly, through its own fault or that of others, the Pentagon has been perceived in recent months as being caught flat-footed by the rampage of Islamic State in Iraq, the survival of Bashar Assad in Syria, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the belligerency of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine and more. Under these circumstances, the credibility of America’s veiled threat that “all options are on the table” against Iran also took a serious hit.
Looking ahead to the naming of Hagel’s successor, Shalev observes that “it will be hard to muster the kind of nasty opposition that Hagel was subjected to in late 2012, especially at a time of severe defense challenges around the globe.” He points out that a frequently named replacement for Hagel, former Under Secretary of Defense Michelle Flournoy, had been “the favorite of many Republican conservatives as well as the pro-Israel lobby last time around as well…providing ample fodder, if any is needed, to those who believe that Israel controls Congress in the first place.”
Nevertheless, in the vetting of the next Defense Secretary by the Senate Armed Service Committee, it is unlikely that Israel will play the dominant role that it did in Hagel’s confirmation hearings. Indeed, the next nominee will likely already have an established record as an unequivocal supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship. This means SASC’s members, whether in this Congress or the next, will have to do their homework on other issues, which could cause some unease among members of the Israeli defense establishment. Either way, they are sorry to see Chuck Hagel go.
Photo: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel holds a joint press conference with Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon in Tel Aviv, Israel May 15, 2014.