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Reviving the significance of the Arab world

Impending visits to the region by Obama and Kerry likely to set the tone for future deliberations in the wake of Arab Spring

Gulf News

It was unbelievable, if not sickening, to watch how Republican Congressmen shamelessly drilled the respected former senator Chuck Hagel, who was nominated by President Barack Obama to serve as his Secretary of Defence during his second term. It virtually amounted to a circus-like hearing as Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, one after another, primarily questioned the Vietnam War hero about his support of Israel rather than his stance on US defence policy.

Shockingly, the former senator was asked only two questions about military suicides — locally, a hot subject — among US forces who served overseas. The latest figures, released last week by the Department of Veterans Affairs, show that more veterans are killing themselves than previously thought, with 22 deaths a day — or one every 65 minutes, on an average. At the just-concluded hearing, Israel was mentioned 178 times and Iran 171.

The all-day hearing was disappointing to supporters of Hagel, who, some believe, had prostrated himself before the pro-Israel lobby and their Republican supporters, including Senator John McCain, a onetime presidential nominee, and Senator Lindsey Graham.

Philip Weiss, founder and co-editor of, a “progressive Jewish” website, wrote that “this hearing [was] a wonderful event because it demonstrate[d] the naked influence of the Israel lobby in our political life”. He added: “Zionism has so influenced the American political culture, via political money and think-tanks and columnists and editors, that it has folded Israel’s war against Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinians and Iran into our outlook on the Middle East. The conflation of American and Israeli interests has become an article of faith in the (US) establishment.”

Other commentators believed Hagel’s Obama administration handlers “urged him to be something he is not”. It is common practice in the US that all nominees for senior government positions are usually warned not to allow their hearings to turn combative although one commentator described Hagel as “quite compelling when he’s mad”.

Editorially, the New York Times had his to say on the subject, probably much to the surprise of many Congressmen: “The sad truth is that there is a more honest discussion about American-Israeli policy in Israel than in this country. Too often in the United States, supporting Israel has come to mean meeting narrow ideological litmus tests. J Street, a liberal pro-Israel group that was formed as a counterpoint to conservative groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has argued for vibrant debate and said ‘criticism of Israeli policy does not threaten the health of the state of Israel. In fact, it is essential.” ‘

Despite the Republican diatribe against Hagel, who appeared to have caved in to some of the criticism, it is not expected to deny the former senator the coveted cabinet position, especially that the Democrats hold the majority at the Senate committee. Moreover, the announcement that Obama is planning a visit to Israel, Palestine and Jordan next month, energised Hagel’s bid in assuming the top position at the Pentagon.

Although Obama’s trip will be generally welcomed, particularly in the region, there are many pitfalls ahead. For one, the diminished status of the Premier-designate, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has lost many of his supporters within the new Knesset after the recent Israeli elections and has been tasked by President Shimon Peres to form a new government that will be committed to peace. Yet, this is no guarantee that the thuggish Israeli prime minister will do so. For one, he did not seem concerned about the issue since he never mentioned the word “peace” in the election campaign. More importantly, he will have to abandon his expansionist plans in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and a delay in transferring Palestinian tax revenues from Israel as happened recently.

Adding fuel to the fire has been Israel’s launching of two air strikes against Syria last week, a step shockingly undertaken with prior American knowledge. Israel has not officially acknowledged this unlawful, serious event, much as it did in 2007 when it bombarded an alleged Syrian nuclear site. This will certainly come up for discussion with the new US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who also revealed that he too would be visiting Israel, Palestine and Jordan in March.

Virtually coinciding with the upcoming visits by the two American leaders is the surprise arrival last Tuesday of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Egypt where attended an Islamic summit.

There is hope that these visits will once again revive the significance of the Arab world which is still churning in the wake of the Arab Spring that has sowed the seeds of democracy in the region.

George S.Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at