Point of View

Why we need Chuck Hagel at Defense

January 29, 2013 

Now that President Obama has been sworn in for his second term, those of us in the Jewish community are especially eager for him to re-engage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and match his vision for Middle East peace with concrete action.

And there are promising signs, as the president has nominated real champions of the two-state solution, in Sen. John Kerry for secretary of state and former Sen. Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense. Both Kerry and Hagel are strong advocates of the U.S.-Israel relationship and recognize the urgent opportunity for U.S. leadership on this issue.

But already forces on the far right have organized to oppose Hagel’s nomination, with an arsenal of mischaracterizations, words taken out of context and outright falsehoods. Groups leading the charge, like the neoconservative Emergency Committee for Israel, are the fringe organizations that we see every year seeking to undermine President Obama’s efforts to achieve Middle East peace. They in no way speak for the American Jewish community, which voted overwhelmingly to re-elect the president and strongly supports U.S. action toward a two-state solution.

The vast majority of American Jews are much more in line with Hagel, who had a proven pro-Israel record over his 12-year Senate career. He voted for over $40 billion in aid to Israel and supported tough sanctions against Iran. He co-sponsored legislation that condemned the use of terrorism against Israel and supported Israel in its struggle against terrorist groups. Hagel also recognizes that a two-state solution is the only way for Israel to secure its Jewish and democratic future, and that it is in the best interest of the United States to make it a reality.

And time is running short for the two-state solution. The lack of progress toward peace is causing Israelis and Palestinians to lose hope, strengthening extremists and weakening the moderates who would support a deal. Ongoing settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is eating away at the viability of a future Palestinian state, while the day is fast approaching when Israel as we know it will cease to exist.

Without a two-state agreement, non-Jews will soon outnumber Jews in the area under Israeli control, forcing Israel to lose its Jewish character or cede its democracy and face increasing global isolation.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a prime example of why we need leaders like Hagel who understand the value of political over military solutions. We saw during the recent war in Gaza that, with its vast military superiority, Israel can win every altercation on the battlefield without bringing long-term security to its people. Ultimately, these military operations cannot end the conflict because they do not address the underlying cause of the conflict: the absence of a political two-state peace agreement. Israel will find long-term security only when it negotiates peace with the Palestinians, through the achievement of a two-state solution.

That is why we need statesmen like Hagel who recognize the limitations of military power and the benefits of diplomacy. Hagel’s unique experiences in the Vietnam War taught him the personal and sometimes devastating costs of war, and that war must ever be used only as a last resort. These lessons made him an indispensable voice in the debates over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they will make him a tremendous asset to President Obama as he works to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace and other U.S. foreign policy interests.

We need a leader at the Pentagon like Chuck Hagel: a true friend to Israel and real patriot. Rather than looking out for Israel’s best interests, the campaign against Hagel is merely a last-ditch attempt to tie the president’s hands and prevent him from executing his foreign policy agenda.

Chuck Hagel is exceptionally qualified to be our next secretary of defense, and with him at the president’s side, we may finally see the U.S. leadership in the Middle East for which we have been waiting.

John Friedman is the rabbi of Judea Reform Congregation in Durham. Frank Fischer is the retired rabbi of the N.C. Hillel Foundation.

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