Chuck Hagel’s 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 had President Obama nominated Mr. Hagel for secretary of defense on Jan. 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 Mr. Hagel’s name, declaring only that “AIPAC does not take positions on presidential nominations.” The organization then kept a complete silence through Mr. Hagel’s confirmation on Feb. 26. More important, it did not lift a finger to influence the vote.
AIPAC’s initial logic made some sense: Mr. Obama, having just won an impressive re-election 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 Mr. Hagel’s record found more ugly statements about Israel. In 2006, he referred to Israel’s self-defense against Hezbollah as a “sickening slaughter.” In 2007, he pronounced that “The State Department has become adjunct to the Israeli foreign minister’s office.” 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 Mr. Hagel’s nomination. On Dec. 17, it urged Mr. Obama not to nominate the “Iran- and terrorist-apologist and Israel-basher Chuck Hagel.” On Feb. 22, it published “Ten important reasons to oppose Chuck Hagel.” Not itself primarily a lobbying organization, the group’s calculus had less to do with the prospect of winning and more to do with taking a principled and moral stand.
In large part because of the Nebraskan’s Middle East policies of appeasing Tehran and confronting Jerusalem, Republican opposition to Mr. Hagel became much more than token. Several senators indicated to the Zionist Organization of America’s Morton Klein that if AIPAC “had come out and lobbied against Hagel, he would have been stopped.” Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, 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 Mr. Hagel. Still, despite the real and growing possibility of defeating Mr. Hagel’s nomination, AIPAC kept radio silence and did nothing.
Mr. Hagel squeaked through the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 12 with a party-line vote of 14-11. A vote to end debate on the nomination failed to win the needed 60 votes on Feb. 14. He finally won confirmation by a 58-41 vote, facing the greatest number of “no” votes against any secretary of defense (George C. Marshall in 1950 came in a distant second with 11 no’s). The fringe figure who opposed even economic sanctions on Iran, the bumbling nominee who confused prevention with containment, the politician characterized by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, as “the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history,” took office on Feb. 27.
AIPAC holds its annual policy conference on March 3-5 in Washington. With more than 13,000 participants last year, the event is described as “the largest gathering of the pro-Israel movement.” 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 in the most pressing issues facing Israel — Iran and its relationship with the United States.
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. Yet ever since the battle over airborne warming and control system aircraft in 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 Barack Obama and Chuck Hagel needs the robust AIPAC of old.
Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum.