Nominee Hagel picks up Sen. Schumer's support

Former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Obama has nominated Hagel to replace Panetta in the Pentagon post.

WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary got a big boost Tuesday with the backing of a senator influential in Jewish communities.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s No. 3 Democrat, said he was prepared to vote for Hagel’s confirmation.

“I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him,” Schumer said in a statement.

Hagel’s critics have portrayed the former Republican senator from Nebraska as insufficiently supportive of Israel, with some even suggesting that his past statements and record might hint at anti-Semitism. Hagel and his allies have strongly rejected those characterizations.

Schumer, who is Jewish and represents a large pro-Israel constituency, said he initially was concerned about Hagel’s nomination.

“I had genuine concerns over certain aspects of his record on Israel and Iran,” Schumer said. “I agreed to keep these reservations private until I had the opportunity to discuss them fully with Senator Hagel in person.”

Then Hagel and Schumer met for an hour and a half Monday at the White House, addressing Schumer’s concerns one-by-one.

“Sen. Hagel could not have been more forthcoming and sincere,” Schumer said.

Schumer said Hagel rejected a containment strategy toward Iran.

“Sen. Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force,” Schumer said. “He said his ‘top priority’ as secretary of defense would be the planning of military contingencies related to Iran. He added that he has already received a briefing ... on this topic.”

Schumer said Hagel assured him that he supports the idea that future unilateral sanctions against Iran could be effective and necessary, that he has always considered Hezbollah a terrorist organization and now “believes that there should be no negotiations with Hamas, Hezbollah or any other terrorist group until they renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.”

Hagel pledged to work toward delivering new strike fighters to Israel and to continue other U.S.-Israel military cooperation.

Hagel has taken much criticism for saying in the past that the “Jewish lobby” intimidates American lawmakers.

“Regarding his unfortunate use of the term ‘Jewish lobby’ to refer to certain pro-Israel groups, Sen. Hagel understands the sensitivity around such a loaded term and regrets saying it,” Schumer said. “I know some will question whether Sen. Hagel’s assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post. But I don’t think so. Sen. Hagel realizes the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago. His views are genuine, and reflect this new reality.”

Schumer also said Hagel gave him assurances on gay rights and abortion issues. Hagel’s camp declined to elaborate or to clarify Schumer’s statement.

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