By: Josh Gerstein, Politico
December 15, 2012 04:24 PM EST
President Barack Obama’s administration has backed down from one major Senate confirmation fight — and may be running headlong into another one.
Some in the Jewish community and other Israel backers are reacting with alarm to reports that Obama is preparing to nominate former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) as secretary of defense. A senior administration official told POLITICO Friday that Hagel is the leading contender to replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who’s expected to step down early next year.
(PHOTOS: Chuck Hagel’s career)
Few believe Hagel’s troubles would lead the Senate to vote him down, but Obama will have to assess how big a furor pro-Israel forces will raise and whether the White House wants to deal with it. United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice this week withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of state, saying she had concluded that her “confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly” for Obama and his agenda.
Advocates for Israel have a variety of policy disagreements with Hagel, but one of their biggest concerns may be his frank and unflattering public assessments of their work and role in Washington.
“The political reality is … that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” Hagel told former Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller in a 2006 interview. “I have always argued against some of the dumb things they do because I don’t think it’s in the interest of Israel. I just don’t think it’s smart for Israel.”
(Also on POLITICO: 10 facts about Chuck Hagel)
Hagel also said he didn’t think he had ever signed one of the letters the American Israel Public Affairs Committee regularly circulates to demonstrate support for Israel or tough stands against its enemies such as Iran. “I didn’t sign the letter because it was a stupid letter,” he said in the interview with Miller, referring to one such missive.
Hagel has also been blunt in dismissing those who think he’s not sufficiently supportive of Israel.
“I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator,” the Nebraska Republican told Miller for his book “The Much Too Promised Land,” released in 2008.
“I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States, not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that,” the senator said.
(Also on POLITICO: 2012 policy report card: Defense forecast)
A spokesman for AIPAC, Marshall Wittmann, had no comment on Hagel’s record or his possible nomination. But as Hagel was mulling a presidential bid in 2007, the National Jewish Democratic Council said the senator “has a lot of questions to answer about his commitment to Israel.”
“The record speaks for itself, on issues like consistently voting against sanctions on Iran to stop their pursuit of nuclear weapons capability, against naming [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] a terrorist organization, refusing to call on the European Union to name Hezbollah — which has killed more Americans than any terrorist group in the world except Al Qaeda — as a terrorist organization,” said Josh Block, a former AIPAC spokesman.
While in office, Hagel sometimes challenged Republican Party orthodoxy on foreign policy issues. He was the first Republican senator to publicly criticize the war in Iraq and has declined to say that the U.S. should use force if negotiations don’t persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program.
In 2009, Hagel signed a policy statement urging Obama to encourage a unity government between the two major Palestinian factions: Fatah and Hamas, which the U.S. formally considers a terrorist group. The statement stopped short of calling for direct U.S. contact with Hamas at that time, but said the U.S. should encourage other parties in the region to engage with Hamas in an effort to promote moderation in the Islamic movement.
A White House spokesman declined to comment Friday about the comments and policy views that seem most likely to cause trouble for Hagel on Capitol Hill — a place where he remains well-respected among his former colleagues.
Hagel did not respond to a request for comment made through a spokesman for the Atlantic Council, where he serves as chairman.
Daniel Kurtzer, a U.S. ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush, said Hagel’s comments about “the Jewish lobby” may have been impolitic, but his views on that point are far from unusual among lawmakers.
“Anybody who has ever talked to senators or congressmen behind closed doors knows you hear a lot of that,” Kurtzer said. “A lot of people won’t talk about that publicly, but Hagel talks about it in public. One can question whether it’s good politics from his standpoint, but it’s not a view that’s foreign on the Hill. … A lot of lawmakers resent being called anti-Israel if they don’t sign these letters. Then, they go out and sign these letters.”
Kurtzer called the criticism of Hagel’s policy views “terribly misguided.”
“I found him in all the years I served, including as ambassador to Israel, to be a supporter of Israel and a man also ready to discuss very frankly with the Israelis the concerns we had about certain Israeli policies,” he said.
An official for a group of liberal American Jews said Thursday they would welcome Hagel’s nomination — and talk of resistance to him is exaggerated.
“Sen. Hagel, should he be nominated, would be an outstanding choice for secretary of defense, and we’d be surprised by any concerted effort by anyone claiming to represent [the] mainstream of the Jewish American community raising any opposition,” said Dylan Williams of J Street. “The center of the community is exactly where Sen. Hagel is on issues relating to Israel.”
Miller, who calls himself an admirer of Hagel, told POLITICO he expects the senator’s views and statements on Israel to cause problems for his nomination but doubts they will derail it.
“I would think there will be some very tough questions,” said Miller, a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “He’ll come up with all the right answers, but it will still create some measure of disquiet and concern among Israel supporters.”
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) said Friday he thought Hagel would make “an excellent defense secretary.”
“He’s certainly very knowledgeable about our defense and our intelligence establishment. He has, without doubt, the personal skills that are important for a Cabinet officer,” Hamilton told POLITICO.
Hamilton said he isn’t deeply familiar with Hagel’s views on Middle East issues. He joined Hagel in signing the 2009 statement encouraging the new administration to try to engage Hamas in diplomacy.
“I really don’t see how you solve that [Israeli-Palestinian] problem without the U.S. becoming directly involved and without involving the parties that are in a position of power,” Hamilton said. “I understand there are a lot of people who would not agree with that position.”
Obama was engaged in indirect contacts with Hamas through Egypt during the most recent crisis that stemmed from rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and an assertive response by the Israeli military, he noted.
Both Israel and the U.S. “are talking to Hamas,” Hamilton said. “There’s a public position and a private position. … You can’t stick your head in the sand and say these people do not exist. They have power.”
In 2009, the pro-Israel lobby helped torpedo an Obama administration appointee viewed by some as unfriendly to Israel. Chas Freeman, whom Obama appointed to chair the National Intelligence Council, withdrew in March 2009 after coming under attack from figures such as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y).
“The libels on me and their easily traceable email trails show conclusively that there is a powerful lobby determined to prevent any view other than its own from being aired, still less to factor in American understanding of trends and events in the Middle East,” Freeman wrote as he bowed out.
A Hagel nomination could be troublesome for the White House because it could revive talk about tension between the White House and Israel. That storyline persisted through much of Obama’s first term, although Obama aides pointed to unprecedented U.S. assistance for Israel. Exit poll results from last month’s election didn’t seem to show much of a dent in Obama’s strong support in the Jewish community.
One awkward point for Hagel’s potential nomination to head the Pentagon is that Panetta has served in recent months as a key intermediary between the White House and Israel. Swapping the former senator for Panetta could complicate America’s military relationship with Israel just as the prospect of military action against Iran looms.
Soon after taking office, Obama named Hagel to an intelligence oversight board, which he still co-chairs with former Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.). At that time, a top figure in Jewish Democratic circles said he would not favor a more significant job for Hagel.
“If [Hagel] was taking a policy role, we’d have real concerns,” Ira Forman, then the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, told the Weekly Standard in 2009.
Forman, who served as the 2012 Obama campaign’s staff liaison to the Jewish community, did not respond to a telephone message seeking comment.
In addition to Hagel, Obama is considering Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and former Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy for the top defense post, an administration official said.
Mike Allen contributed to this report.