Israel risks its place in America's affections by its tone-deaf policy

The nomination of Chuck Hagel as the US' Defence Secretary is a signal of changing relations between the superpower and Israel

Pep Montserrat for The National
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Chuck Hagel's Senate confirmation hearings are over, and while the presumptive US secretary of defence seemed somewhat ill-prepared for the barrage of questions he received from his former Republican colleagues, it is safe to say that he will be swiftly confirmed in the post.

As expected, a number of the questions asked of Mr Hagel were about his views on Israel, which was mentioned a staggering 166 times during the hearings (compared to 20 mentions of Afghanistan, a country in which US troops are dying every day). The senators were disturbed by statements Mr Hagel had made in the past concerning the so-called "Jewish lobby" (by which he meant the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac) and how it tends to "intimidate" members of Congress.

"I have always argued against some of the dumb things they do because I don't think it's in the interest of Israel," Mr Hagel said in 2006. "I just don't think it's smart for Israel."

Mr Hagel has also bluntly dismissed those critics who have accused him of not being sufficiently pro-Israel. "I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator," he told Aaron David Miller for his 2008 book, The Much Too Promised Land.

"I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the constitution of the United States, not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for senate in Israel, I'll do that."

Of course, in the current climate, suggesting that a US senator's primary concern is to ensure America's national security interests, rather than Israel's, is tantamount to political suicide. That explains why Mr Hagel bent over backwards to assure the senate that he loves Israel just as much as the next red-blooded, freedom-loving American congressman, and that he is committed to ensuring that America's relationship with its "most important ally" remains just as strong as ever.

Don't believe it. Mr Hagel's views are not only far from the congressional mainstream (and that is a good thing), they signal a perceptible and significant shift in the Obama administration's strategy in dealing with Israel. Indeed, Mr Hagel's nomination is a tacit admission by President Barack Obama of something that is becoming increasingly clear with each passing year: Israel is no longer America's "most important ally" in the region.

On the contrary, not only do America's national security interests in the Middle East no longer align with Israel's, but under the intractably right-wing leadership of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the interests of the two countries have mostly diverged in recent years.

Take the events of the past few months as an example. The stated policy of the United States towards Palestine is to bolster the moderates of Fatah while isolating and weakening Hamas. Yet Israel's most recent incursion into Gaza, coupled with its decision to punish the Palestinians for pursuing non-member status at the United Nations by withholding tax revenues from the Palestinian Authority (a decision decried by the Obama administration and ultimately reversed - temporarily -by Israel), has severely hampered that policy, leaving Hamas emboldened and Fatah irrelevant.

The US maintains that the only hope for peace and stability in the Middle East is through a two-state solution. Yet Israel's outrageous push for new settlements in the E-1 zone, which would split eastern Palestinian land and put off any hopes of restarting peace talks, has more or less put an end to the possibility of two states.

The US has based its Iran strategy on a policy of sanctions and negotiations, and has begrudgingly accepted that Iran to enrich low levels of uranium in exchange for greater access and international scrutiny of its nuclear sites. Yet Mr Netanyahu's rhetoric on Iran, his firm insistence that Iran permanently give up all enrichment at any level, and his blatant attempts to push the US into a war of his choosing have put the Obama administration in the dangerous position of essentially taking containment off the table in favour of a military response.

In none of these recent cases have Israel's actions benefited America's strategic goals. In fact, in some cases Israel has acted aggressively against America's best interests.

Just ask the CIA, which now considers the "most important ally" to be its "No 1 counterintelligence threat in the agency's Near East Division".

Read that sentence again. Not only does the intelligence agency believe Israel is not acting in America's best national security interest, it considers Israel to be the greatest counterintelligence threat in the region. Greater than Syria. Greater even than Iran.

Regardless of its many public statements to the contrary, it appears that the Obama administration is finally getting the message. That's where the nomination of Mr Hagel as secretary of defence comes in. Despite the scurrilous attempts by some Republicans to smear him as anti-Israel or worse - anti-Semitic - Mr Hagel is clearly neither.

However, what Mr Hagel recognises (and what seems to drive some in the pro-Israel camp crazy) is that the decisions made by successive US administrations to aid Israel's best interests have severely damaged America's own interests in the region.

Mr Hagel's nomination is an indication that the president feels the same way. Otherwise, there is simply no way the president would have chosen him to lead the Pentagon. Mr Obama knew that the pro-Israel hawks in Congress would pound their fists and pull their hair at his nominee's perceived lack of devotion to Israel. But the truth is, Mr Obama agrees with Mr Hagel and has been sending signals about his position for some time.

Consider the president's new approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what the American journalist Peter Beinart refers to as "benign neglect". Recognising that Israel's self-defeating actions and the increasing insular nature of the government are severely damaging US interests in the region, the Obama administration has decided, in Beinart's words, to stop "trying to save Israel from the consequences of its actions" and, for its own good, to distance itself from those actions.

Or consider the message the president sent to Mr Netanyahu in a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. "Israel," the president said, "doesn't know what its own best interests are."

As Goldberg put it: "With each new settlement announcement, in Obama's view, Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation."

The fact is that the United States wants peace in the Middle East. It wants safer and cheaper oil. It wants security for its embassies in the region. It wants an end to the civil war in Syria, stability in Iraq, democratic progress in Egypt and a lasting solution to Iran's nuclear ambitions. Most of all, it wants to pivot its military focus away from the Middle East and towards Asia, where Mr Obama believes America's true future interests lie.

Yet so long as Israel keeps pursuing its isolationist policies at home, so long as it threatens to start new wars, be it in Syria or Iran, so long as it continues to defy international opinion with its untrammelled settlement activity, the United States cannot afford to disentangle itself from the region. This is something that Mr Hagel recognises instinctively. And with the blessings of his boss, the president of the United States, it is something he intends to address in the Pentagon.

Make no mistake, the United States is still a solid supporter of Israel. It is unlikely the "special relationship" between the two countries will end any time soon. But the more Israel focuses on its own interests in the region, the more those interests clash with America's. Thank goodness, then, that the United States is about to have a secretary of defence who recognises this.

Reza Aslan is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and founder of, an online journal about the Middle East and the world. He is the author of No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War

On Twitter: @rezaaslan