By Jeremy Herb - 12/19/12 10:00 AM EST
Jewish Democrats are divided over whether former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s (R-Neb.) views on Israel might prevent them from supporting his potential nomination as secretary of Defense.
Hagel is considered President Obama’s likely choice to succeed Leon Panetta at the Pentagon next year, but Jewish groups are mounting a furious lobbying campaign to prevent that from happening.
While Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) fiercely defended Hagel’s qualifications, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said he has questions and concerns. Other Jewish senators declined to weigh in on whether they’d support his nomination.
The questions surrounding Hagel’s views on Israel could complicate the confirmation process for a nominee who would otherwise boost the Obama administration’s bipartisan bona fides.
The Republican Jewish Coalition said Hagel’s nomination would be “a slap in the face.” National Jewish Democratic Council officials had raised their own concerns with Hagel back when he was appointed co-chairman of the president’s intelligence advisory board.
Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, on Tuesday said Hagel’s “record relating to Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship is, at best, disturbing, and at worst, very troubling,” The Washington Post reported.
Asked about the concerns of Jewish groups, Feinstein defended Hagel and said she did not see any issues arising over his views toward Israel during a Senate confirmation.
“He would be outstanding,” Feinstein said. “I think he calls them as he sees them and I think that’s important. I think he’s honest and he’s direct and he’s smart.”
Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), whose committee would handle Hagel’s nomination, said the Republican would be “very well-qualified.”
“If those comments are accurate I’d disagree with the comments, but I think he’s very well-qualified to be Defense secretary,” Levin told reporters when asked about Hagel’s statements on Israel.
Other Jewish lawmakers were less supportive. Lieberman, who is retiring and would not be around for the confirmation process, said there are concerns about Hagel.
“I have questions, but I wouldn’t say, ‘Absolutely not now,’ ” Lieberman said. “But I’d want to hear what he has to say.”
Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said they also would have questions, but that it was too soon to comment one way or the other on whether they’d support him.
Jewish groups that are opposing Hagel point to several comments and decisions he made, mostly while in the Senate, from which he retired in 2009.
The most frequently cited issue is an interview he gave to Aaron David Miller, wherein he said, "The political reality is that ... the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here."
Miller, author of “The Much Too Promised Land,” defended Hagel over Twitter on Tuesday evening. “Hagel's interview w/me reflected common sense; not anti-israel bias. he'd make a fine Secdef if given chance,” Miller tweeted.
The Republican Jewish Coalition has cited Hagel’s decisions not to sign letters that asked the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization and that urged President George W. Bush not to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The organization also highlighted his support for negotiations with Hamas, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization.
Hagel’s views on Israel aren’t the only potential obstacle to his nomination, as he broke with his party during the George W. Bush administration to oppose the Iraq war and the surge, although he initially supported the invasion.
The Vietnam veteran’s about-face on the Iraq war endeared him to many liberals, and has kept him in the discussion for Cabinet positions since Obama won the White House.
While he and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have long been friends, Hagel did not endorse McCain in the 2008 presidential race and criticized his selection of Sarah Palin for vice president.
McCain has not said much in recent weeks about whether he would support Hagel’s nomination.
McCain’s ally Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters Tuesday that he thought Hagel would be a rare case where his confirmation hearing would really matter in determining how senators land on his potential confirmation.
“I want to listen to what he has to say,” Graham said. “He has a stellar military record, but I think these comments disturb a lot of people and he’ll have to answer those questions. I think this hearing will really matter.”