Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s brutal confirmation battle in early 2013 looks ironic today, when he submitted his resignation. When President Barack Obama nominated the former Republican senator, Senate Republicans seized on his occasional critiques of Israeli policy, his apparent sympathy for Palestinian suffering, and a passing reference he once made to the influence of the “Jewish lobby” as signs that Hagel would be “the most anti-Israel defense secretary in history.” But as Israeli officials increasingly sniped at Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, Hagel emerged as one of the few remaining senior national security officials who has a smooth relationship with senior Israeli leadership.
Before Obama even announced Hagel's nomination, the Emergency Committee for Israel (a staunchly Republican group run by Bill Kristol) launched an attack campaign against him. They claimed he “sought to distance the United States from Israel, blame Israel for Palestinian terrorism, pressure Israel to surrender territory and retreat to indefensible borders, and has consistently attempted to increase pressure on Israel and reduce it on Israel’s foes.” As a senator, the group said, “Chuck Hagel has sought to protect Iran from U.S. sanctions and diplomatic pressure.” Weeks before the Senate confirmed Hagel by the thinnest margin in the history of the position, ECI paid $15,000 for a 30-second ad on "Meet the Press" to reiterate “Chuck Hagel is not a responsible option.” Pro-Israel Hagel detractors resurrected quotes from a 2006 interview with Aaron David Miller in which he professed that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.” In one particularly lovely moment, freshman Senator Ted Cruz even suggested that he might be in the pay of North Korea or Saudi Arabia.
Even at the time, these attacks were transparently unfair. Hagel was never anti-Israel—rather, just slightly more nuanced in his support than some others. As a senator, he testified, “We understand Israel's right to defend itself. We are committed to that right. We have helped Israel defend that right. We will continue to do so. But it should not be at the expense of the Palestinian people—innocent Palestinian people and innocent Israelis who are paying a high price.” On Iran as well, Hagel’s views were very much in line with the political realism he claimed to espouse with issues all over the globe. “America’s refusal to recognize Iran’s status as a legitimate power does not decrease Iran’s influence, but rather increases it,” he wrote in his 2008 book. In recognition of Iran’s influence in the Middle East, Hagel supported diplomatic engagement over punitive action, including sanctions and military intervention. He described what he saw as obvious hypocrisy of the negotiations between the West and Iran over its nuclear program: “Iran will not be deterred from developing nuclear arms only because the United States and the EU say they must—especially if they feel threatened and if the United States, Great Britain, France, and Israel, among others, all retain their nuclear weapons.”
But in light of the past two years, the attacks on Hagel were clearly off the mark, even by the standards of contemporary partisan hackery. The rockier elements of U.S.-Israel diplomacy were largely handled by the White House and Kerry, and Hagel seem to have devoted himself to the more bureaucratic elements of the special relationship: weapons transfers, joint training, security coordination, etc. Hagel has thus found himself insulated from the personal animosity and recriminations that now seem to constantly scar relations between the two administrations.
When White House concerns about Palestinian deaths held up a transfer of weapons during this summer’s Gaza war, Israel simply got the weapons directly from Hagel’s defense department. As peace talks neared their collapse, it was Kerry who found himself dismissed as “messianic” by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon; Hagel, on the other hand, was welcomed with "ebullient warmth.” And when Yaalon visited the U.S. a few weeks ago to find that nearly every senior national security officials couldn’t make room in their schedule, Hagel still met with him. According to Amos Harel, the military correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz, Hagel played the role of “good cop” in the Obama administration’s relations with Israel. And in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg last year, he suggested that Iran was at the negotiating table because it was "responding to the constant pressure from Israel."
None of this is to say that Hagel’s exit represents a blow to U.S.-Israel relations. Hagel’s excellent working relationship with Yaalon and the Israeli leadership is largely a product of structural forces rather than personal chemistry. The close institutional cooperation of Israeli and American militaries transcend, and in some ways make irrelevant, the personal characteristics of an American defense secretary. This is especially true when the defense secretary becomes a bureaucrat who is largely left out of the policy process. Hagel’s relationship to Israel is not a bad metaphor for Hagel writ large. He was a small man lost in larger forces and among larger personalities, for good and ill.
This article has been updated.