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Philip Klein: Chuck Hagel nomination shows AIPAC's limits

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The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, is often described as one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington. Its backers tout its efforts to maintain strong ties between the United States and Israel, while its critics see it as the central player in a plot to control U.S. foreign policy.

But President Obama's decision to nominate Chuck Hagel as his secretary of defense has exposed the limits of AIPAC's influence and mission.

Over the course of his career, Hagel has shown hostility toward the state of Israel in general, and toward AIPAC specifically. One of the main activities of AIPAC is to get members of Congress to sign letters taking stands on issues related to Israel. In a 2006 interview with Aaron David Miller, Hagel boasted about his courage in being one of a handful of senators who routinely refused to sign such letters, which he called "stupid." He complained that "the Jewish Lobby intimidates a lot of people up here."

Yet for all his opposition to signing letters circulated by the nefarious "Jewish lobby," in 2009, he had no problem signing onto a letter circulated by the U.S./Middle East Project asking Obama to open up talks with the terrorist group Hamas.

On Iran -- the largest threat to Israel today and a major focus of AIPAC's lobbying efforts -- Hagel has also been at odds with the pro-Israel community. He has not only condemned the idea of military action against Iran, he has opposed tough sanctions and instead has called for negotiations with the radical Islamic regime. This even though Iran has routinely used negotiations as a ploy to buy time for its nuclear program.

Obama can talk all he wants about all options being on the table to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, but his choice of Hagel signals to Iran that he isn't serious, effectively giving the regime a green light to develop a bomb.

Choosing Hagel as secretary of defense is the equivalent of Obama extending his arm and pointing his middle finger at AIPAC. But AIPAC has not taken a position on the appointment, not even to express concern. Marshall Wittmann, an AIPAC spokesman, responded in an email that "AIPAC does not take positions on presidential nominations."

There's also no evidence of the group twisting arms behind the scenes. "There is zero activity on the Hill from AIPAC," a Senate aide who is following the nomination closely told me.

Defenders of AIPAC argue that it is not a crusading political group that takes stands on nominees or candidates, but works with all sides to advance its policy goals. Under this line of thinking, the pro-Israel community isn't a monolithic "lobby" but a diverse collection of groups with different functions. The Emergency Committee for Israel and Christians United for Israel, for instance, are fighting hard against the Hagel nomination.

That said, the Hagel pick has brought to light a deeper challenge facing AIPAC. The organization prides itself on making support for Israel a bipartisan issue. Half of Congress attends its annual gala, and leaders of both parties speak at its policy conference, touting the "unbreakable bond" between the two countries.

But it's become increasingly difficult to maintain the facade of bipartisan support for Israel when both sides aren't equally supportive. A Pew poll released last month found that conservative Republicans sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians by a 75 percent to 2 percent margin. Among liberal Democrats, just 33 percent sympathized with Israel, compared with 22 percent who named Palestinians.

The gravity of Democratic politics, fueled by liberals who argue that the U.S. is too reflexively pro-Israel, is naturally pulling the party to a more critical posture toward our traditional ally. No matter what empty rhetoric Obama may spout out when he speaks at AIPAC conferences, the Hagel pick has exposed his true prerogatives.

In such an environment, this illusion that support for Israel is truly bipartisan is only defining down what it means to support Israel. If the Hagel pick is any indication, Obama's second term is going to be a challenging high-wire act for AIPAC.

(Disclosure: In 2008, the author took a trip to Israel funded by the AIPAC-linked American Israel Education Foundation.)

Philip Klein (pklein@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @philipaklein.

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Philip Klein

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