Most observers agree that U.S.-Israel military relations are now stronger than ever. During Israel’s summer war against Hamas in Gaza, for instance, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel pressed Congress to provide $225 million in additional funding to Israel for the Iron Dome missile defense system. And when Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon came to Washington in October, he was greeted by Hagel — reportedly the only member of the administration who did not shut his door to Ya’alon during a time of tense relations between the two countries.
Just two years ago, as he was being considered for the Pentagon post, Hagel was branded as anti-Israel. A comment he made about the “Israel lobby” was even deemed “borderline” anti-Semitic by the ADL’s Abe Foxman. While in the end, the ADL supported Hagel’s confirmation, he didn’t get that support across the board. Rather, the former Republican senator from Nebraska was attacked as anti-Israel by some Republican politicians, the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Zionist Organization of America and the Emergency Committee on Israel, led by the editor of the The Weekly Standard, William Kristol.
The bellicosity of the “stop Hagel drive” — which attacked Hagel’s irascibility, lack of sympathy for Israel and outsider’s view of the Jewish community — caused us to defer judgment in these pages on his confirmation. Instead, we recommended that the Senate and the pro-Israel community ask serious questions about Hagel’s positions regarding Israel’s security, not about the level of his love for Israel. In the end, Hagel was, of course, confirmed as secretary of defense and was unquestionably a good steward of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
That all ended last week when Hagel resigned from his post. Pundits differ over whether the resignation was caused by frustration over Hagel’s lack of authority within the Obama administration over defense matters or because he was pushed out during a lame-duck session house cleaning and retooling of White House strategy regarding the so-called Islamic State. The truth is probably a little of both.
But given Hagel’s performance, what accounts for the disconnect between Sen. Hagel and Secretary Hagel? The answer, we think, is “the job.” A strong military relationship between the U.S. and Israel is good for both countries, irrespective of the person temporarily holding the Pentagon post. That dynamic would be wise to keep in mind when evaluating whoever is nominated to lead the Defense Department for the remainder of the Obama term. And in making that evaluation, we should not overrate the importance of the person selected being “a friend of Israel.” Instead, as we learned from the Hagel experience, look for someone who is looking out for America’s best interests, because a strong United States is ultimately good for the Jewish state’s security.