Why Are Right-Wingers So Crazy in Love with Israel?

It’s much more than evangelical Christians hoping for the rapture.

January 14, 2013  |  

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Ever since word leaked that Chuck Hagel would be nominated for Secretary of Defense, Senate Republicans have launched a non-stop attack against their former colleague from Nebraska. It’s not just neoconservatives. The assault comes from across the ranks of the GOP. The charge that first dominated the headlines and is still, in many quarters, the loudest: Hagel is “anti-Israel.”

To call the evidence for this charge thin is an understatement. In the Senate Hagel went on record with the same pro-Israel sentiments expected of every senator: “The United States will remain committed to defending Israel. Our relationship with Israel is a special and historic one,” he said.

TheL.A. Times notes that he put American money where his mouth was, “voting repeatedly to provide [Israel] with military aid.” He supported an Israeli-Palestinian peace as long as it did not compromise Israel’s security or its Jewish identity — a crucial demand for most Israelis.

So what are his alleged “anti-Israel” crimes?

  1. He suggested that Israel should negotiate directly with Hamas — which in fact Israel is already doing, since it’s obvious that no peace agreement can endure and keep Israel secure unless Hamas signs on to it.

  1. When Hagel affirmed America’s enduring support for Israel, he added that “it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships.” In other words, he wants an even-handed policy that puts American interests first.

  1. In an interview Hagel once said that, as a senator, he did put U.S. interests first: “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people [on Capitol Hill]. … I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States.” The interviewer, the State Department’s long-time (and Jewish) Mideast expert Aaron David Miller, said that Hagel was merely stating “a fact: the pro-Israeli community or lobby has a powerful voice. … To deny that is simply to be completely out of touch with reality.” Miller called the attempts to paint Hagel as anti-Semitic “shameful and scurrilous.”

To sum up the charge, Hagel has shown that when it comes to the Israel-Palestine issue he faces the facts, takes a reasonable view, and as Secretary of Defense would put his own country’s interest first.

To his critics, that’s simply unacceptable. Like most supporters of the Israeli government, they treat even the slightest hint of criticism as if it were a mortal attack on Israel itself. The slightest deviation from their “Israel can do no wrong” agenda evokes howls of condemnation.

Who are these American devotees of (right-wing) Israel? Here is the one place Hagel can be faulted. His widely cited comment about the power of “the Jewish lobby” suggests that Jews are to blame for keeping U.S. Mideast policy so blatantly one-sided all these years. Hagel later apologized, saying that he really meant the “pro-Israel lobby.” But the mistaken stereotype persists that Jews control U.S. Mideast policy.

In fact, what American Jews do is debate vigorously among themselves about Israel and U.S. policy. There are multiple Jewish “pro-Israel” lobbies promoting quite different views. A spokesman for one of those lobbies, J Street, rightly says that by now “the center of the community is exactly where Sen. Hagel is on issues relating to Israel.” And J Street has recent polling data to prove it.

Maybe that’s one big reason AIPAC (the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee), the Anti-Defamation League, and other old-guard Jewish groups that typically support Israel, right-wing and wrong, are so far remaining silent on the Hagel nomination. Maybe they’re finally recognizing the truth that Peter Beinart and so many others are revealing: Those big-name organizations are run by aging conservatives who are out of step with the rest of American Jewry. Few serious observers credit their claim to speak for the Jewish community as a whole. As their credibility fades, so does their political power.