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 did Barack Obama nominate Hagel for secretary of defense on Jan. 7, when 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 Hagel's name, declaring only that "AIPAC does not take positions on presidential nominations." AIPAC then kept a complete silence through 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: Obama, having just won an impressive reelection 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 Hagel's record found more ugly statements about Israel. He referred in 2006 to Israel's self-defense against Hizbullah as a "sickening slaughter." In 2007, he pronounced that "The State Department has become adjunct to the Israeli foreign minister's office." And 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 Hagel's nomination between Dec. 17 (urging Obama not to nominate the "Iran- & Terrorist-Apologist & Israel-Basher Chuck Hagel") to Feb. 22 (a listing of "Ten Important Reasons to Oppose Chuck Hagel"). Not itself primarily a lobbying organization, ZOA's calculus had less to do with the prospect of winning and more to do with taking a principled and moral stand.
Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) took up the fight.
Hagel squeaked through the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 12 with a party-line 14-11 vote. 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-to-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). And so, the fringe figure who opposed even economic sanctions on Iran, the bumbling nominee who confused prevention with containment, the politician characterized by Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican of South Carolina) as "the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the State of Israel in our nation's history" – well, he took office on Feb. 27.
The mammoth Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where the AIPAC policy conference takes place.
Yes, 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 Dec. 2011 on an Iran sanctions bill. But (ever since the AWACS battle of 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 Obama and Hagel needs the robust AIPAC of old.
Mr. Pipes (DanielPipes.org) is president of the Middle East Forum. © 2013 by Daniel Pipes. All rights reserved.
Mar. 6, 2013 update: I explore the subtleties of this topic at "The Hagelian Dialectic."
Sep. 8, 2013 update: The Times of Israel has published "An open letter to AIPAC from a frustrated friend" that is far more stinging than my criticism of a half year ago. Neil Lazarus writes about the AIPAC readiness to support Barack Obama in his preparation to attack the government of Syria over its use of chemical weapons that it
has placed itself fully on the side of a short sighted, if not dangerous policy. AIPAC has become for Obama, what Hezbollah is for Syria. A blind supporter of a war that may ignite the region. Maybe AIPAC should rebrand to OPAC; Obama's Public Affairs Committee. Clearly on the issue of Syria, they don't represent the interests of Israel. …
by supporting Obama's Syrian policy, many will blame Israel for leading the USA into another war and not a lobbyist group that has overstepped the mark.
Feb. 27, 2014 update: In an e-mail to members attending its forthcoming policy conference, AIPAC sent out an awkward admonition to its members to behave while unpopular administration figures address them. It bears the subject line "Welcoming Guests into Our Home" and reads in part:
We have always had the perspective that these speakers and guests have been invited into our home, and we will treat them with the warmth, respect, and appreciation that anyone would be accorded as such.
Therefore, how we conduct ourselves during the conference, individually and collectively, is a matter of great importance. Because we know that you—Democrats, Republicans, and Independents—come to this conference with one overriding concern—a stronger U.S.-Israel alliance—we ask that you act and react to every speech, address, and briefing that will be offered as part of the conference program in only the most positive manner.
The chairman of the board, president, chief executive officer, and vice chief executive officer all signed the letter.
Part of AIPAC's letter to participants in its policy conference.