There is no wonder that Israel's Defense Ministry is overcome by a feeling of ongoing abandonment of colleagues, which reached its peak Monday with Hagel's departure.
Can anyone remember the nonsense and insults directed at Hagel by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's associates when he was announced as US President Barack Obama's candidate for the position? Jerusalem flew into a state of hysteria in light of the "anti-Semitic" secretary of defense appointed by a "hostile president." Today, they are bidding farewell to him almost tearfully. Now we have to get used to new people.
But the United States is a much more organized country than we think. Our mode of work with the new senior officials at the Pentagon may change, but the essence won't, as it is determined by only one person: The president of the United States.
It was Obama who dictated to at least three defense secretaries – Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and Hagel – the policy which states that the US is committed to Israel's security. And this is the instruction he will give whoever replaces Hagel.
It's very unreasonable to assume that after the failure of the nuclear talks with Iran in Vienna, the American president will choose to open a new front against Israel by making a sudden change in the security relationship between the two countries.
The American foreign policy got another slap in the face Monday. The administration met the Iranians half way in the most creative and generous manner imaginable. Obama, two years before the end of his term, saw the success of talks with Iran as the biggest achievement of his foreign policy, a legacy which his term would leave America and the world. But the Iranians pulled the rug from under his ambitions and left the president with a humiliating failure.
He has two options now: He can decide that there is no chance of reaching a reasonable agreement and work to step up the sanctions against Iran, or he can continue the compromises which will eventually lead to some kind of agreement. In any event, Obama will need people around him who are capable of convincing the oppositional Republican Congress to accept whatever he decides to do about Iran. And he realized a long time ago that Hagel would not be able to do this for him, despite coming from the Republican Party.
Obama is likely beginning to come to terms with the fact that he will have to pass the hot potato known as a nuclearizing Iran to whoever will succeed him as president. Until then, he must complete his term without tearing the ends of threads between the US and Iran, which allow the West to contain the growing strength of the Iranian nuclear project and the progress made towards a bomb.
Israeli defense officials were not surprised by Hagel's dismissal. Both sides, the president and the secretary of defense, were unhappy with each other. Hagel complained that the White House was too involved in the Pentagon's performance. The White House was unsatisfied with its performance on a series of tasks it received from Obama, starting with the pullout from Afghanistan to the defense budget cuts.
Candidates have strong ties to Israel
In the remaining two years of his term, Obama is looking for a creative secretary of defense who will be capable of providing a good response to the challenges on the agenda: The war against the Islamic State, the renewed conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq and how to deal with Iran and Syria. In other words, the president is preparing for the last waltz of his term with a more vigorous partner.
The Defense Ministry is following the list of candidates to replace Hagel with great interest. The names are known and familiar (unless Obama pulls a rabbit out of his hat). Two of them competed against Hagel for this position in the past, and both of them developed in the Pentagon: Michele Flournoy served as undersecretary of defense for policy, and Ashton Carter served as undersecretary of defense for acquisition.
There is no room for concern: They both have strong ties with Israel. Flournoy had friendly relations with the heads of the IDF's Planning Directorate, Major-Generals Nimrod Sheffer and Amir Eshel (the current Air Force commander). Major-General (res.) Amos Gilad, director of policy and political-military affairs at the Defense Ministry, is a close colleague of hers.
When Flournoy attended the Herzliya Conference two years ago with her children, she received the royal treatment and personal hospitality from her friends in the Air Force.
But no one has any illusions: She is a professional who will give Israel a hard time on issues where Israeli and American interests clash. She has a good chance of being selected as she is very close to Obama. In the past, she left her work at the Pentagon to help with his election campaign.
Ashton Carter is also very familiar with and respects the Israel defense establishment. He had tight friendly relations with the Defense Ministry's director-generals and the officials in charge of acquisition and budget.
The political candidate mentioned for the position, Senator Jack Reed (who is the most senior Democrat on the Senate Committee on Armed Services), is also very familiar with Obama's favorable policy on Israel's security needs.