Would a Hagel Nomination Really Be a Slap in Israel's Face?

Israel supporters have come out against the possible nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel for the Secretary of Defense post – and this isn’t a first.

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The Obama administration's support of Israel's right to defend itself against Gaza rocket fire and its vote against the Palestinian bid for non-member observer status should have put to rest the claims about the U.S. president unleashing an anti-Israeli agenda after the elections.

Yet, in recent days, a new storm has been brewing, specifically over reports of the possible nomination of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel for the Secretary of Defense post. And this isn't the first such commotion related to the planned reshuffling of the next Obama cabinet: U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Dr. Susan Rice, already announced her decision to withdraw from the running to be the next Secretary of State claiming that her vetting would be a lengthy and costly process. Rice has been criticized by Republicans for her comments on the Benghazi crisis during which the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed along with three other staffers. So the safe choice - Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - became the inevitable choice.

But what about Hagel? What great sin did he commit that earned him the reputation, in certain circles, for being anti-Israel? The Republican Jewish Coalition issued a statement denouncing the potential nomination as a “slap in the face,” and also drafted a list of Hagel's problematic actions (or lack thereof) when it comes to Israel, including: his refusal to sign Senate letters of support for Israel, to pressure the Palestinian Authority, to call on the EU to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Hagel also has ruled out military action against Iran as "non-viable" and called for direct negotiations with Hamas.

In the Weekly Standard, Bill Kristol argued that Hagel "has a record of consistent hostility to Israel over the last decade." Hagel boasted in 2008 that, unlike his peers, he isn't intimidated by “the Jewish lobby.”

Former New York Mayor Ed Koch told American Jewish newspaper The Algemeiner that Hagel would be "a terrible appointment," adding that his selection "would give great comfort to the Arab world that would think that President Obama is seeking to put space between Israel and his administration."

Josh Block, former AIPAC spokesman who today leads the Israel Project, told Haaretz: "While in the Senate, Hagel voted against designating the IRGC [the Iranian Revolutionary Guard] as a terrorist organization, refused to call on the EU to designate Hezbollah a terrorist group even though they have killed more Americans - most of them U.S. marines - than any terrorist organization except Al-Qaida, and consistently voted against sanctions on Iran to stop their pursuit of nuclear-weapons capability. It is a matter of fact that a record like that is well outside the mainstream of both Democratic and Republican consensus on these issues."

In the liberal camp, there was some enthusiastic support for Hagel's possible nomination from those who praised his experience and bipartisan mindset. Time columnist Joe Klein called Hagel "the voice of sanity" in the Middle East, stressing that President Obama "would like nothing better than to send a message" to neo-cons and Netanyahu who "worked against [him] in the 2012 campaign."

Pro-Israel, pro-peace group J Street also rebuffed critics, saying it's "appalled by efforts surfacing in recent days to question his commitment to the state of Israel and to Middle East peace." Hagel, the group argued, has been "a staunch friend of the state of Israel and a trusted ally in the Senate, speaking out on behalf of America’s commitment to Israel’s security."

Hagel, the Vietnam War hero and popular Senator who criticized the Bush administration's policy in Iraq as the war there dragged on, has been praised by many as a moderate, bipartisan policymaker. And this isn't the first time his name has made its way to the top of the list of possible candidates to lead the Pentagon. He was floated for the post in 2008, and even then his critics played the Israel card. Asked back then about the prospect of joining the Obama administration as a Secretary of Defense, he joked, "There are rumors Warren Buffet is going to buy the whole government; I am seeking a job as his driver." On a more serious note, however, he said that the world still wants America to lead - but not to conquer and dictate. That still holds true.

Another possible nominee - former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy of the United State Michele Flournoy, would not have a so-called "Jewish problem" - while serving in Pentagon, she was one of the most frequent interlocutors of the Israeli officials.

Lambasting Israel over E-1

Meanwhile, the Israeli government didn't wait for Senator Hagel's formal nomination to create additional tension between Washington and Jerusalem. Netanyahu's government decided to punish the Palestinians for their move at the UN and announced plans to build in the controversial E-1 corridor. The State Department reiterated its opposition to the settlement expansion as it complicates "efforts to resume direct, bilateral negotiations, and risks prejudging final status issues and the outcome of those negotiations as this area [E-1] is particularly sensitive and construction there would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution."

Leftists in the Jewish community also said they were appalled by the Netanyahu government's "retaliation." More than 400 rabbis, cantors and rabbinical students signed a letter to Netanyahu, expressing concern that the settlements in E-1 "would be the final blow to a peaceful solution" - and undermine relations between Israel and the U.S. Jewish community.

Remembering Sen. Daniel Inouye, a friend of Israel

Administration officials, lawmakers, Jewish organizations and the Israeli Embassy on Monday all mourned the passing of veteran Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye. Hawaiian-born President Obama called him "a true American hero" who "worked to strengthen our military, forge bipartisan consensus, and hold those of us in government accountable to the people we were elected to serve. But it was his incredible bravery during World War II – including one heroic effort that cost him his arm but earned him the Medal of Honor – that made Danny not just a colleague and a mentor, but someone revered by all of us lucky enough to know him."

Pro-Israel lobby AIPAC cited Inouye's deep understanding of the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship. "As chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Inouye worked tirelessly and effectively to ensure that America’s ally, Israel, had the necessary resources to defend her people."

National Jewish Democratic Council leaders called Inouye a "true mensch in every sense of the word."

Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said that, "our people have a long memory, and throughout the thousands of years of our history we have remembered our friends. We will never forget Senator Daniel K. Inouye."

John Kerry, Susan Rice and Chuck Hagel.Credit: Reuters, AFP, Bloomberg

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