As speculation swirled in recent weeks about Hagel succeeding Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a number of Democratic senators -- along with Republicans -- have voiced concern about Hagel’s views.
Much attention has focused on his reference in a 2006 interview to “the Jewish lobby [that] intimidates a lot of people” on Capitol Hill, and Democratic senators including Carl Levin (Mich.) – chairman of the Armed Services Committee – Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Bob Casey (Pa.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.) have expressed unease about the comment.
Beyond the “Jewish lobby” remark – quoted in former Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller’s 2008 book, The Much Too Promised Land – Hagel also took positions as a senator that fed a perception in some quarters that he was too willing to engage hostile regimes, uneasy about imposing sanctions and equivocal on taking a hard line towards terrorist groups.
The Republican Jewish Committee is outspoken in its opposition to Hagel’s nomination, saying it would be a “slap in the face” for pro-Israel Americans.
Its Democratic counterpart, the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) has been mute on the matter, however – although the NJDC in 2007 accused Hagel of having a “questionable Israel record” and took issue with his decision a year earlier not to sign a bipartisan letter urging the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
The NJDC’s silence on Hagel contrasts with a statement it issued on Friday expressing “outrage” over the appointment of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to the Foreign Relations Committee on the grounds, it said, that he opposes U.S. aid to Israel.
(Paul, who in general opposes all foreign aid, said on the Senate floor on December 29, “it’s always been my purpose that we start by taking the money from countries that hate us, countries that are burning our flag. I’ve not seen anyone in Israel burning the American flag…”)
Asked about Hagel on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) did not question the expected nomination, but noted that the former senator was a decorated Vietnam war veteran and described him as “a serious candidate if the president chooses to name him.”
Durbin said the move would signal for him that Obama “not only won the election but he wants to lead this country – you know, sitting back here and avoiding any confrontation and any controversy is going to make a weakened presidency.”
On the same program, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) predicted that the Hagel nomination “will get a lot of bipartisan concern,” citing his views on Israel, Iran, sanctions, Hamas, Hezbollah and Afghanistan.
“This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel,” Graham said. “I don't know what his management experience is regarding the Pentagon – little, if any – so I think it’s an incredibly controversial choice.”
On “Fox News Sunday,” freshman Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz questioned the anticipated nomination and said it was “very difficult to imagine the circumstance in which I could support his confirmation.”
“I do think it is interesting that the president seems hell-bent on nominating him despite of the fact that a number of prominent Republicans have criticized him and the Democratic senators have been surprisingly silent on it,” he said.
“He doesn’t seem terribly concerned that there’s not a lot of support for Chuck Hagel in the Senate.”
News of Hagel’s expected nomination is being closely watched in Israel, where left-wing Ha’aretz columnist Chemi Shalev commented that whatever the outcome, a difficult confirmation battle could harm Israel’s interests.
“With Obama in the White House, Kerry in the State Department and Hagel in the Pentagon, America seems intent on continuing to lose stature in the world,” Boaz Bismuth, a former Israeli ambassador and foreign affairs editor of the Israeli daily Israel Hayom wrote on Sunday.
“Hagel believes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict destabilizes the Middle East,” he said. “Let’s hope there are people in the Pentagon who can point out Iran to him from time to time, if not in aerial photos, then at least on the map.”