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Why Israel was Chuck Hagel's biggest fan

Chuck Hagel at the grave of Theodor Herzl.
Chuck Hagel at the grave of Theodor Herzl.
Pool/Getty Images

Pop quiz: aside from Chuck Hagel himself, who is most mourning the Defense Secretary's just-announced departure from the Obama administration? This week's reporting suggests a somewhat surprising answer: Israel, a country that seemed to oppose Hagel when he was first nominated just two years ago. In an effusive statement, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon called Hagel a "true friend of Israel" whose "dedication to ensuring Israel's security has been unwavering."

On the surface, this would seem to make little sense. US-Israel relations are currently on the rocks: just this October, Ya'alon was denied permission to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden during a Washington visit, punishment for having repeatedly trashed Kerry's Israel-Palestine diplomacy. What's more, Hagel gained a bit of a rep as a critic of Israel during his time as a Senator. After Hagel was nominated for Defense Secretary, former Bush official Elliott Abrams labelled him a flat-out anti-Semite, part of a larger wave of accusations from the pro-Israel right. So how did Hagel end up becoming one of the Israeli government's favorite Americans?

Despite all of the political controversies, the truth is that the US and Israeli militaries cooperate very closely. Supervising that cooperation was Hagel's job, and put him and his Israeli counterparts on the same page. And that's why the so-called crisis in US-Israel relations is only skin-deep: the US-Israel alliance is sustained by forces well beyond the control of any one American president or Israeli prime minister.

Why Hagel was tight with Israel

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Hagel at joint US-Israel defense exercises. (Mandel Ngan/Pool/Gety Images)

The consensus among observers of Israeli politics is that Hagel was well-loved among the Israeli leadership.

"It is a real shame Hagel is leaving — he was great with us," an Israeli official told Israeli reporter Barak Ravid.

"The Israeli defense establishment, with which Hagel maintained excellent ties, may be the most sorry to see him go," Ha'aretz's Chemi Shalev says. Channel 2's Udi Sagal writes that Hagel's departure is "is bad news for Israel," citing Hagel's close personal relationship with Ya'alon.

It makes sense that Hagel would be Israel's favorite American: he's basically the Israeli military's Santa Claus. The US gives Israel about $3 billion worth of aid every year; it's overwhelmingly military aid. Hagel's office is in charge of that.

US defense officials also cooperate with Israelis in other ways, including information sharing and joint research and development. "During my nearly three years at the Pentagon, I traveled to Israel 13 times and participated in more than 100 meetings with senior Israeli civilian and military officials," former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl recalls. "Although Israel was only one of 14 countries in my portfolio, no other country received that level of attention."

The point, then, is that Hagel got to supervise some of the most positive elements of the US-Israel relationship. Unlike President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, whose political positions forced them to work on contentious disputes such as the Israel-Palestine peace process and Iran nuclear talks, Hagel merely had to give Israelis what they wanted. Which he did — and the Israelis loved him for it.

Hagel shows why the US-Israel relationship is so durable

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Former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak with American soldiers. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

The significant thing about Hagel's relationship with Israel is that nothing about his politics or personality put him in Israel's good graces. It's simply part of the US Secretary of Defense's job to help the Israeli military out.

This means that, over time, Israeli and American military leaders have grown very close. As Defense Minister Ya'alon puts it, "the special ties between the defense establishments of the United States and Israel [have] contributed to Israel's security in an unprecedented manner."

These deeper ties help show why the disputes between Obama and Netanyahu, though significant in the short term, don't fundamentally threaten the US-Israel relationship. Defense links between the US and Israel are cemented by the aid relationship, which enjoys nearly universal support in Congress. Aid cooperation has created close ties between American and Israeli defense officials, who continue to work together on security issues even as their political and diplomatic counterparts spar publicly.

Presidents, then, are boxed in by the formal structure of the US-Israel relationship. Obama officials can tell reporters that Netanyahu is a "chickenshit" all they want, but they simply don't have the ability to fundamentally remake the US-Israel relationship even if they wanted to, which they probably don't.

Whether this state of affairs is good or bad depends on your view of Israel and the US-Israel alliance, of course. But Hagel's popularity in Israel shows that, as an analytic fact, the US-Israel alliance is built on very strong foundations.