Recycling the “Friends of Hamas” Canard Against Chuck Hagel

by Marsha B. Cohen

Taking advantage of the delay in the vote on Chuck Hagel’s nomination to the Senate, the spinmeisters of the anti-Hagel propaganda machine have a new charge to hurl at the former Nebraska Senator. Ben Shapiro of claims that “Senate sources” have told him that Hagel secretly accepted a campaign contribution from “Friends of Hamas.” The allegation has been picked up and promulgated by numerous right-wing websites and blogs, including Algemeiner and the Sheldon Adelson-owned news daily, Israel HaYom (Israel Today).

Putting aside the common sense realization that no real “friends of Hamas” would be dumb enough to actually form an organization in the US or anywhere else, with a bank account that writes checks to political candidates on behalf of an internationally recognized terrorist organization, we have to ask when and where we have heard that phrase ‘Friends of Hamas’ before”?

The first time was during President Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign in 1996, when it festooned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Steve Emerson headlined Friends of Hamas in the White House.

As Ali Mazrui of the International Policy and Strategy Institute (IPSI) pointed out, while “Clinton’s administration had been more pro-Israel than any other U.S. administration since Lyndon Johnson, this same Clinton administration had domestically made more friendly gestures towards U.S. Muslims than any previous administration.” In 1995, Vice President Al Gore had visited a mosque. The following year, President Clinton sent greetings to Muslims for their Ramadan fast. First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted an Eid el Fitr celebration at the White House at the end of Ramadan in 1996, and would do so again in 1998. During the Clinton administration, the first Muslim chaplain in the US Air Force was sworn in. President Clinton discussed a wide range of domestic and international issues with a delegation of Arab Americans at the White House. National Security Adviser Anthony Lake met with a delegation of Muslims to get their views on the Bosnian crisis. Not everyone was pleased by this outreach:

The Clinton gestures towards Muslims were sufficiently high profile that a hostile article in the Wall Street Journal in March 1996 raised the spectre of “Friends of Hamas in the White House” – alleging that some of the President’s Muslim guests were friends of Hamas, and supporters of the Palestinian movement. The critic in the Wall Street Journal (Steve Emerson) had a long record of hostility towards U.S. Muslims. His television programme on PBS entitled Jihad in America (1994) alleged that almost all terrorist activities by Muslims worldwide were partially funded by U.S. Muslims. President Clinton’s friendly gestures to Muslims probably infuriated this self-appointed crusader of Islamophobia.

How exactly did reaching out to Muslims equate “Friends of Hamas” being in the “White House”? Emerson explained:

In response to the terrorist carnage committed by Hamas in Israel, President Clinton has organized an anti-terrorist summit in Egypt to begin today. But other participants at the conference, and the American public as well, might be a bit surprised to learn that both the president and first lady have closely embraced an Islamic fundamentalist group in the U.S. that champions and supports Hamas. This group also openly supports, lobbies for, and defends other Islamic terrorist groups.

The contacts between the White House and the Islamic radicals began on Nov. 9, 1995, when President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore met with Abdulrahman Alamoudi, executive director of the American Muslim Council, as part of a meeting with 23 Muslim and Arab leaders. A month later, on Dec. 8, Mr. Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, met with Mr. Alamoudl at the White House along with several AMC board members and other American Islamic leaders. By Feb. 20, Mrs. Clinton was allowing the AMC to draw up the Muslim guest list for the first lady’s historic White House reception marking the end of Ramadan. One person familiar with the situation says that Mrs. Clinton’s syndicated newspaper column of Feb. 8, “Islam in America,” was based on “talking points” provided by the AMC.

As we all know, those pro-Hamas Clintons survived the assault by Emerson and his echo-chamber. Clinton won re-election. The First Lady almost made it to the top slot on the Democratic ticket twelve years later, and then distinguished herself as Secretary of State for four years. No doubt there’s someone, somewhere, already preparing opposition research to use  against the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign if there is one, diligently compiling the former Secretary of State’s meetings with Arab leaders and chronicling all of the nice things she might ever have said about Muslims. All too soon Jennifer Rubin will be regurgitating them in her Washington Post blog, “Right Turn.”

Emerson’s ominous warning in Middle East Quarterly the following year that Americans should “Get Ready for Twenty World Trade Center Bombings” the following year would elevate him to the status of prophet in the media immediately after 9/11, and make him the face and voice of anti-terrorist Islamophobia. More recently, Emerson was faced with questions about donor transparency with regard to his nonprofit and tax-deductible, Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation, which avoids revealing much of the information that charities are routinely required to disclose. Emerson is currently making headlines with an entire dossier of  “soft on Islam” charges against John Brennan, whose nomination as Director of the CIA is also under consideration in the Senate.

Such is the origin and journalistic debut of the phrase “Friends of Hamas” now being used against Chuck Hagel.

A recrudescence of political Hamasteryia occurred in the spring of 2012, when redrawing the boundaries of New Jersey’s 9th congressional district  pitted two Democratic incumbents — Rep. Steve Rothman and Rep. Bill Pascrell — against one another. The heated June primary attracted outside interest, media attention and several endorsements of each candidate by prominent political figures. President Obama remained neutral, but his campaign adviser, David Axelrod, supported Rothman. Bill Clinton favored Pascrell, who had endorsed Hillary Clinton in her run for the White House. Both House members were considered to be pro-Israel. Each had received funding and endorsements in their previous campaigns from NORPAC, a pro-Israel political  action committee headquartered in New Jersey, but NORPAC ultimately threw its support behind Rothman.

The primary deteriorated into an Islamophobic hate fest when certain overzealous Rothman supporters tried to smear Pascrell by claiming he had the support of members of New Jersey’s Muslim community. Conservative “investigative journalist” Joel Mowbray was clearly alluding to Emerson’s attack on Clinton when he wrote an article for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies headlined “The Friends of Bill Pascrell“:

Because of redistricting, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D, NJ) is running for re-election this coming Tuesday against a fellow Democratic incumbent Congressman. Pascrell’s slogan: “100% New Jersey Fighter.”

Given his troubling associations with Muslim figures who have espoused fiery anti-Israel rhetoric and turned a blind eye to Hamas sympathizers, though, it’s hard to tell against whom he’s actually fighting.

Take, for example, one of Pascrell’s closest allies for at least a decade: Mohamed El Filali, who is an executive with a local mosque whose founding imam is in jail on terrorism charges and whose current imam is fighting deportation on terror-related grounds.

El Filali leads what could seem like a strange existence, leading grotesque rallies by day and then cozying up at night with Congressmen — or at least one Congressman in particular, Bill Pascrell…Pascrell appears to be actively targeting the Arab and Muslim community, last week bringing out the first elected Muslim Congressman, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), who has become one of the most vocal critics of Israel in Congress…While Pascrell has voted in favor of foreign aid for Israel, he has also engaged in caustic Israel bashing, such as signing on to the so-called “Gaza 54” letter, the Keith Ellison-led effort which accused the Jewish state of collective punishment against Gaza.

…Of course there is no problem with courting support in the Arab and Muslim community. But there seems to be a troubling pattern with the associations Pascrell has chosen to cultivate in garnering that support. Should a congressman be condoning – by accepting contributions and other support – the most radical elements as part of his outreach?

Nonetheless, Pascrell went on to defeat Rothman, facing Republican challenger Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who was much more subtle in brandishing the pro-Hamas charge against Pascrell. In an op-ed constructed in the form of an “open letter”, Boteach called on Pascrell to repudiate the “Gaza 54 letter”:

Bill, I will not repeat the earlier error made by some members of our community in labeling you an “enemy” of Israel. My religion commands me to speak truth and show gratitude, and you have voted in favor of foreign aid to Israel on numerous occasions. To perpetuate the myth, started in the Democratic primary, that you are a foe of Israel would contravene my value system, which obligates me to thank you for votes in favor of the Jewish state. By assisting in the continuity of American aid to Israel, you have made the Middle East safer, not just for Jews, but for the hundreds of millions of Arabs whose freedom under their own tyrannical regimes is largely predicated on Israel setting an example of a viable democracy in a region which Arab dictators claim can never be democratized.

…I respectfully request of you, Bill, to either explain your signature on the Gaza 54 Letter, or, if it was a mistake to sign it, as I suspect you now believe, to please repudiate it.

Pascrell won the House seat by a landslide, taking 75% of the votes cast.  Even with the financial backing of Sheldon Adelson, Boteach received less than a quarter of the congressional district’s votes, and was livid when NORPAC declined to support him.

Now it’s Chuck Hagel’s turn. Will the Hamas canard prove to be “strike three” for the Islamophobic and “pro-Hamas” smear? Or will a phantom campaign contribution break the neoconservative losing streak — and usher in  a new era of transparency whereby every political candidate is responsible for the views and ties of their campaign donors, both real and imagined?

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.