One wonders what it feels like to be Chuck Hagel visiting Israel, not very long after his contentious confirmation battle in which accusations related to his views on Israel were front and center; one wonders what Hagel really thinks as he talks to his Israeli counterparts whom he knows disagree with him and are possibly skeptical about his true feelings; one wonders if the battle-scarred Hagel is more likely to be more approachable (because he doesn’t want Israel to become an issue), less so (because his feelings were hurt) or just about the same (because he is the Secretary of Defense and has no time to waste on feelings).
On the plane on his way to Israel, prior to Hagel’s good, short, visit, the Secretary of Defense told reporters that “Iran presents a threat in its nuclear program and Israel will make the decisions that Israel must make to protect itself and defend itself”. The Jerusalem Post quoted him saying this under the headline: “Hagel: Israel has right to decide on Iran strike” – but that’s not necessarily an accurate summary of what Hagel said. He didn’t talk about a “right” to make this or that decision - he talked about the actual making of a decision. In fact, he said nothing but the most obvious: “Israel will make the decisions that Israel must make” is like “Shmuel will write about Chuck what Shmuel must write”. That is to say: the decision that will be made is the decision that will be made.
Look at all the other things he said.
He said that the unprecedented aid package to Israel would guarantee Israel's “military superiority over any enemy state, non-state or coalition”. That might be true and is definitely positive. But this also means that the Obama administration can now more forcefully argue that Israel's superiority should have a calming effect – namely, that it doesn’t need to be as nervous about Iran’s growing power.
He also said: “it’s important that we all keep our eye focused on the objective… there is no daylight there at all — that Iran is prevented from acquiring that nuclear capacity.” Keeping one's eyes focused is naturally the better option, and it is good that the objective is clear. Note, though, that the “no daylight” comment is specifically related to the “objective” and not to the measures that are to be taken to reach this objective. What this means is that there is still daylight on the issue of time tables and the use of credible threat.
Hagel said that the aid to Israel and to other countries in the region is “another very clear signal to Iran”. But I’m not sure if this signal will be interpreted in Tehran the way Hagel expects it to be. Maybe the Iranians will see it as sign that the Americans are reluctant to act and will only give weapons to countries in the region to defend themselves – a threat not as great as the that of a possible direct US intervention. Or maybe the Iranians will think that this is the American way of telling other countries – such as Israel – to not use force against Iran. Or maybe they’ll think: that’s all very impressive, but not nearly as impressive as a nuclear bomb.
"The military option is one option that remains on the table, must remain on the table," Hagel said. "But military options, I think most of us feel, should be the last option". Again, a statement with which no one can even argue. The question isn’t whether the military option should be “last” – of course it should. The question was always: when is “last”? How much time do we have before reaching the moment that is “last”, the moment after which the “option” would no longer be available. It has become boringly clear in the last months and years that Israel’s timetable and the US’ timetable are different. This difference makes Israel nervous – because it makes it possible for the US to wait with the Iranian crisis until after Israel can no longer operate – and it makes the US nervous – because it might make Israel jump its guns and preempt a possible peaceful solution to the crisis.
Thus, Hagel’s visit was a good visit not because there’s no daylight between Israel and the US on Iran. It was good in the sense that there was no detectible “daylight” between Hagel’s message from today, and President Obama’s message from a couple of weeks ago.