Israel responds with concern and caution to Hagel nomination

Israel responded coolly to President Obama's nomination Monday of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a frequent critic of the Jewish state, to head the Department of Defense.

Conservative U.S. Jews have been vocally criticizing Hagel since his name was first floated last month, for his past warnings against the “Jewish lobby” and his preference for engagement with Iran and the Palestinian group Hamas. Israeli officials, wary of intruding in U.S. politics and facing their own elections in two weeks, had largely stayed out of the fray until Monday, but finally acknowledged their unease after the nomination was made official.

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“Because of his statements in the past, and his stance toward Israel, we are worried,” Israeli parliament Speaker Reuven Rivlin, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative Likud Party, told The Associated Press. Rivlin added, however, that “one person doesn't determine policy.”

The wire service also pointed out that Israel's three main television stations portrayed Hagel as “cool toward Israel” in their evening broadcasts.

Netanyahu's government has so far stayed mum after receiving widespread criticism from Democrats for “meddling” in the presidential election after he faulted Obama for not setting clear “red lines” on Iran. With Obama newly reelected to a final term and Netanyahu now facing his own electoral challenge, the balance of power has shifted to the U.S. president.

“Israeli officials are very wary of appearing to meddle in U.S. politics, given the criticism Netanyahu received during the U.S. presidential campaign,” Natan Sachs, a Research Fellow at the Saban Center at Brookings, told The Hill.

“The response here has been low-key; Israel is just weeks away from an election and nearly all the energy and time of politicians and reporters is geared towards that,” he said via email. “There have been some concerned responses, including in Israel Hayom, a daily widely viewed as very pro-Netanyahu, but in general there hasn't been much talk of it.”

The U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League, which has criticized Hagel as “out of sync” with Obama on the subject of Iran sanctions and strong U.S.-Israeli ties, acknowledged Monday that it had not heard of any Israeli officials raising concerns with Hagel.

“We have not, but keep in mind that not everything is always about Israel,” the league told The Hill via email. “This nomination has ramifications as to global U.S. policy, which includes Israel and a host of other issues as well.”

Israeli newspapers have also largely stayed out of the fray, reporting on opposition to Hagel by U.S. Jews rather than staking out their own position. A December article, for example, in the Jerusalem Post, a conservative English-language newspaper largely geared towards a U.S. readership, quoted Weekly Standard editor William Kristol but not a single Israeli source to buttress its argument that Hagel is “a Republican with a problematic voting record on Israel.”

Part of that silence could be an acknowledgment that Hagel's nomination is likely to get through the Senate, and a vocal Israeli protest could only worsen already poor relations between two leaders who will have to work together for years to come if Netanyahu is reelected, as expected. In what are believed to be the first public comments by an Israeli official, The Times of Israel on Sunday quoted a “top Israeli source” as saying that Netanyahu's government isn't necessarily opposed to Hagel.

“The only question we have is about his policy on the Iranian question,” the newspaper quoted the official as saying. “Some of those views will be cleared up in the [Senate confirmation] hearings. And we always have to keep in mind that the president makes the decision [about a possible Iran strike],” not the secretary of Defense.

As for Hagel's comments deriding the “Jewish lobby,” the source said “nobody in Israel cares about that.”

Jewish Democrats and the Obama administration say Hagel is a decorated veteran committed to U.S. service members whose nomination should not raise any concerns with Israel.

“We've not become aware of any statement from Israel other than they have no problem with this,” said Dylan Williams, the director of government relations at the liberal Jewish lobby J Street, which supports Hagel. “I don't think the Hagel nomination has any impact and it isn't meant to send a message to Netanyahu.”

White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew has been reaching out to Jewish American groups ahead of Hagel's confirmation hearing, spokesman Jay Carney confirmed Monday.

“Sen. Hagel has been a staunch supporter of Israel, of the Israeli-American relationship, of the United States' support for Israel's security throughout his career,” Carney said.

But some Netanyahu critics contend that Hagel's nomination should indeed be interpreted as a warning to Israel.

“What better way for Obama to pay back Benjamin Netanyahu for all the 'cooperation' Obama received from him during the first term, as well as Bibi's transparent attempt to tip the scale for Romney last fall?” Stephen Walt, co-author of a book on the Israel lobby and U.S. foreign policy, wrote in Foreign Policy last month.