Hagel: 'I Intend to Expand the Depth and Breadth of U.S.-Israel Cooperation'

In letter to senator, Obama’s controversial Pentagon nominee regrets the term 'Jewish lobby' and expresses 'overwhelming support for strong U.S.-Israel strategic and security relationship.'

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

U.S. Secretary of Defense designate, former senator Chuck Hagel, has expressed regret for using the term “Jewish lobby” and has reiterated his support for “a strong U.S.-Israel relationship” and for “Israel’s right to defend itself against attack.”

In a letter to California Senator Barbara Boxer, Hagel wrote: “America’s relationship with Israel is one that is fundamentally built on our nations shared values, common interests and democratic ideals. The Middle East is undergoing dramatic and historic changes, ones which surround Israel with tremendous uncertainty. We are working together daily, hand in hand, in unprecedented ways, to counter old, new and emerging mutual threats. I fully intend to expand the depth and breadth of U.S.-Israel cooperation.”

Hagel’s letter to Boxer is part of a concerted effort led by the White House to convince hesitant Democratic senators to support confirmation of his nomination to the Pentagon. Senator Boxer announced last night that Hagel’s answers in writing and in a separate telephone conversation had allayed her concerns and that she would support his nomination.

Hagel is slated to meet later this week with New York Senator Charles Schumer, who has expressed deep reservations about the appointment. Political observers believe that securing Schumer’s support is critical to ensuring that the Democratic majority in the Senate will line up solidly behind Hagel and thus ensure his confirmation.

In his letter, Hagel acknowledged his “very poor choice of words” in using the term “Jewish lobby,” which his critics have described as an offensive, even anti-Semitic term. “I recognize that this kind of language can be construed as anti-Israel,” Hagel wrote.

“I know the pro-Israel lobby is comprised of both Jewish and non-Jewish Americans. In the Senate, I was a strong supporter of Defense appropriations, which provided enduring support for Israel’s security. Most Americans, myself included, are overwhelmingly supportive of a strong U.S.-Israel strategic and security relationship.”

Hagel also addressed other concerns about his past statements and positions, though he stopped short of explicitly backtracking from them. He expressed full and explicit support for sanctions against Iran “that are applied in concert with allies and partners.” On the issue of unilateral sanctions, which he has opposed in the past, Hagel wrote that he has told the President “I completely support his policy on Iran.”

“I agree that with Iran’s continued rejection of diplomatic overtures, further effective actions, both multilateral and unilateral may be necessary, and I will support the President,” Hagel wrote.

Hagel also sidestepped the issue of his past opposition to European designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group, saying “I have always believed that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and often stated so in my 2008 book and in many public remarks.” In the context of the 2006 Lebanon War, Hagel noted that he condemned Hezbollah as terrorists and “spoke out in favor of Israel’s right to defend itself.”

On other matters of concern to liberal senators such as Boxer, Hagel said that he fully supported the 2010 repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and fully supports complete integration of homosexual soldiers. He promised Boxer to combat sexual assault in the U.S. Army and to work to ensure that female soldiers are granted full health care privileges, including birth control, “as women in the civilian population.”

Chuck Hagel on the day of his nomination as secretary of defense, January 7, 2013. Credit: Reuters

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