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President Barack Obama on Monday nominated former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, who has been criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike for his record on Israel, for Secretary of Defense.
U.S.-based Jewish groups reacted swiftly to the news—some slamming the move, and others deferring to Obama’s judgment but expressing the desire for the Senate confirmation hearings on Hagel to address the issues surrounding him.
Meanwhile, in Israel, the general sentiment was concern. Monday evening news broadcasts on the Jewish state’s three main televison stations depicted Hagel as “cool toward Israel,” according to Israel Hayom. On Tuesday, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin weighed in.
“Because of [Hagel’s] statements in the past, and his stance toward Israel, we are worried,” Rivlin said.
Hagel chairs the Atlantic Council think tank, which last month published a column titled “Israel’s Apartheid Policy.” In 2008, he infamously took a direct shot at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), telling former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller in a quote that appeared in Miller’s book, The Much Too Promised Land, that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” in Washington.
Reacting to the Hagel nomination on Monday, the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) said that although there have been concerns about Hagel, “setting policy starts and stops” with Obama.
“While we have expressed concerns in the past, we trust that when confirmed, former Senator Chuck Hagel will follow the President’s lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel—on strategic cooperation, missile defense programs, and leading the world against Iran's nuclear program,” NJDC said in a statement.
When Hagel was being considered for the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board appointment in 2009, Ira Forman—then the director of NJDC, and in 2012 the Obama campaign’s Jewish Outreach Director—opposed the move.
“If [Hagel] was taking a policy role, we’d have real concerns,” Forman said at the time.
NJDC also doubted Hagel’s credentials in 2007, when the senator was considering a run for president, saying he “has a lot of questions to answer about his commitment to Israel.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) on Monday called the Hagel nomination “a blow to U.S.-Israel relations, to the President’s relationship with the American Jewish community, and to U.S. security in the Middle East.”
“It signals that the President, having been re-elected, will now distance himself from Israel,” RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks said in a statement. “We hope that when Senator Hagel’s weak record is laid on the table, Senators will rightly decline to support his nomination.”
American Jewish Committee (AJC) Executive Director David Harris on Monday said “there are serious concerns about Hagel’s commitments to the efficacy of sanctions and a credible military option against Iran, on pressing the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, on sustaining the U.S. policy on the terrorist Hamas regime in Gaza, on the special nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship and Israel’s quest for peace and security, and on gay rights.”
Harris said in a statement that while the president “has the prerogative to select members of his Cabinet,” the Senate “is obligated to probe the record and vision of every nominee.”
“While AJC honors Senator Hagel’s record of service to our country and the people of Nebraska, his statements and actions on a range of core U.S. national security priorities raise questions that require clarification,” Harris said.
Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Abe Foxman said Monday that Hagel “would not have been my first choice,” but added that he respects “the President’s prerogative.”
Like AJC’s Harris, Foxman looked forward to the Senate confirmation process as a chance to address concerns about Hagel.
“I particularly hope Senator Hagel will clarify and explain his comments about the ‘Jewish Lobby’ that were hurtful to many in the Jewish Community,” Foxman said in a statement.
A number of senators last month had already vowed to press Hagel on his “Jewish lobby” comment during the confirmation process. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said that he knows of no “Jewish lobby” and hopes Hagel “would identify who that is.” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said Hagel will “have to answer” for his Jewish lobby comment if nominated for defense secretary.
“I don’t agree with that [‘Jewish lobby’] statement [by Hagel],” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said. “If he is nominated, there’ll be a hearing. His entire public record and all his public pronouncements will be reviewed as a part of that process. And we’ll move on from there.”
When rumors of Hagel’s nomination surfaced last month, the RJC pointed to a number of letters signed by most other senators, but not Hagel: an August 2006 letter asking the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization (12 senators did not sign), a November 2001 letter asking President George W. Bush not to meet Yasser Arafat until Arafat took steps to end violence against Israel (11 senators did not sign), and an October 2000 letter in support of Israel (four senators did not sign).
But on Monday, Hagel told the Lincoln Journal Star that critics have “completely distorted” his record on Israel and that there is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli.”
“I didn’t sign on to certain resolutions and letters because they were counter-productive and didn’t solve a problem,” Hagel said.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (R-RI) last month defended Hagel’s appointment on the basis of his time as a Vietnam veteran.
“Chuck Hagel has the experience as a combat veteran with two purple hearts and an understanding that the decisions that are made in Washington ultimately are carried out by young men and women across the globe,” Reed told Politico. “That is a very important intellectual, emotional asset.”
Additionally, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Hagel would be “very well-qualified” for defense secretary, despite his disagreement with the former senator’s “Jewish lobby” comment.
But U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) was among a number of Democrats who immediately opposed a Hagel appointment when the rumors of one began last month. She said in a statement that Hagel’s “dismal record on issues affecting the Middle East stands in sharp contrast to the stated policies of our nation.”