WASHINGTON — The prospect of former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., taking over as the next secretary of defense sparked swift, negative reaction among some conservatives worried about his approach to Israel.
As reports circulate that a Hagel appointment could come as early as this week, the Republican Jewish Coalition issued a statement denouncing the pick as a “slap in the face.”
“Chuck Hagel's statements and actions regarding Israel have raised serious concerns for many Americans who care about Israel,” said Matt Brooks, the coalition's executive director. “The Jewish community and every American who supports a strong U.S.-Israel relationship have cause for alarm if the president taps Hagel for such an important post.”
Obama himself has been criticized over the years by those who see him as insufficiently supportive of Israel. He could stoke those fires more by appointing Hagel, who has declined World-Herald interview requests.
Hagel lines up with Obama generally on many areas of foreign policy, stressing the importance of so-called soft power, the role of diplomacy and the benefits of direct engagement with even hostile regimes.
But that kind of talk doesn't sit well with those who advocate a harder-line stance toward those who could threaten Israel's safety, whether that's a nuclear-armed Iran or groups lobbing rockets across the border at Israeli civilians.
The Republican Jewish Coalition assembled a list of Hagel's sins, most of which involved decisions to sign or not sign various letters of support or opposition.
For example, the group said Hagel refused to sign a 2006 letter asking the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization and put his support behind a 2009 letter urging Obama to open direct talks with the leaders of Hamas.
In an interview with PBS's Tavis Smiley this year, Hagel said no one believes an Israeli strike on Iran is the best solution, talked up increasingly tighter sanctions by the international community and warned that the situation in Iran is combustible and uncertain. He cautioned that an Israeli strike against Iran would drag the United States and other nations into a conflict that could spiral out of control.
He also talked down the idea of U.S. military action against Iran, calling a military strike now “a terrible mistake because we don't know what ... the consequences would be.”
Writing in the conservative publication the Weekly Standard, right-leaning intellectual William Kristol referred to Hagel's “anti-Israel, pro-appeasement-of-Iran bona fides.”
The magazine saluted Republicans for opposing the potential nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice at the State Department. (The president now is expected to nominate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.)
“But let's be clear: Chuck Hagel would do far more damage at Defense than Rice would have done at State,” Kristol wrote. “To have blocked Rice and then roll over for Hagel would be a disgrace.”
Hagel still is likely to be confirmed, based on the responses of current senators, many of whom praised their former colleague, including the top Republican and the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
And there are commentators coming to his defense, praising him as someone who won't rush Americans into another war.
Stephen Walt, co-author of “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” wrote a retort to Kristol's piece, saying Hagel has been supportive of Israel and holds views similar to those of prominent Israeli officials.
“But he hasn't been as slavishly devoted to Israel as fanatics like Kristol would like,” Walt wrote, “and he's skeptical about the merits of a war with Iran (as are many Israeli experts).”
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