Stop the Presses: SecDef Heads to Israel Yet U.S.-Israeli Alliance Remains Intact

  • Share
  • Read Later
DoD photo / Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel shares a crystal globe, and a laugh, with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, at the Pentagon March 5.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit to Israel this weekend shows that the military cooperation between the two allies continues to deepen despite the dire warnings of conservatives who went to the mats in January in an all-out bid to defeat his nomination.

Relying on quotes taken out of context and in some cases wildly distorted, Hagel’s opponents gave a good impression of Chicken Little, arguing that the sky would fall on U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation if he took over at the Pentagon.

But earlier week, when Hagel came to Capitol Hill to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee, everything was sweetness and light.

“My friend, Secretary – former Senator Hagel. We worked together for a long period of time. Had some difference of opinion. We’ll always remain good friends,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the committee. Before his confirmation, Inhofe said reports that Iranian leaders had praised Hagel’s nomination was an endorsement and “you can’t get any cozier than that.”

Far from throwing Israel under the bus, Hagel’s Pentagon has requested $220.3 million in 2014 to augment Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, despite broad cuts to U.S. military spending. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency also is requesting an additional $175.9 million in fiscal year 2015 for Israel’s homegrown missile defense network, according to the agency’s budget proposal. That’s in addition to the record $3.4 billion the U.S. will provide to Israel in military aid.

It is now clearer than ever that the attacks on Hagel were a politically-motivated attempt to damage the Obama Administration and embarrass the President, based on spurious “facts” rather than a reasoned argument against a superbly-qualified nominee.

The Israel-U.S. military relationship is important in its own terms, and for the role it plays in keeping Israelis safe. But it’s equally important in underpinning U.S. efforts to launch a new peace initiative between Israel and the Palestinians, which Secretary of State John Kerry is working hard to bring about.

Israelis will only go along with such an initiative if they feel secure. Hagel, a passionate advocate of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, is well placed to give them that sense of security.

Topping Hagel’s agenda in Israel are Iran’s nuclear program and the civil war in Syria. On Iran, Obama won an important endorsement of his policy of trying to engage the Iranians while keeping up the economic pressure on the Tehran regime from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to Israel last month.

Nonetheless, we’ve seen in recent days some more belligerent language from top Israeli officials, including its military chief of staff, who said that Israel has the capability to attack Iran without American support. This was followed by a Senate resolution stating that if Israel were “compelled” to take military action against Iran’s nuclear weapons program in “legitimate self defense,” the United States should “authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.”

To the extent that such resolutions stoke the fires of war, or encourage the Israelis to consider a unilateral military strike — especially when the diplomatic track is far from exhausted — they are unhelpful.

On Syria, the Obama Administration has been hesitant to arm the rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad because the disparate coalition of anti-Assad forces includes jihadists linked to al-Qaeda.

Hagel is likely to find the Israelis sharing his nervousness. Last week, Netanyahu warned Britain, which wants to start supplying some rebels with weapons, to be extremely cautious to carefully vet a rebel group’s intentions before sending it any arms.

In short, Hagel will be well-received in Israel during his visit as a true friend. The accusations against him have already melted into oblivion – which is where they deserve to be.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the president and founder of J Street, the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.