U.S. Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel is moving to assuage concerns over his nomination raised by pro-Israel Democrats, laying out a hawkish posture toward Iran and Hezbollah and apologizing for characterizing powerful activists as the “Jewish lobby,” the U.S. news website POLITICO reported Tuesday.
According to the report, Hagel sent a letter to California’s Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Jewish Democrat, in which he said he fully supported unilateral sanctions on Iran and condemned Hezbollah as a terrorist threat to Israel. He said his reference in a 2006 interview to the “Jewish lobby” that tended to “intimidate” lawmakers was “a very poor choice of words,” and that he understood how such words “can be construed as anti-Israel.”
“Most Americans, myself included, are overwhelmingly supportive of a strong U.S.-Israel strategic and security relationship,” Hagel said in the letter, adding he would work to “expand the depth and breadth” of the countries’ ties if he was confirmed as defense secretary, POLITICO reported.
“This broad support comes from both Jews and non-Jews alike,” Hagel wrote.
Hagel, the former senator who is President Barack Obama’s choice to be his new defense secretary, has reached out to all 100 senators and will be meeting personally with dozens of them starting this week, according to an official working on his confirmation.
The sessions — and, more importantly, what Hagel says — will be vital for a nomination that faces outright opposition from a handful of Republicans, including the second-ranking Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas; nervous questions from influential Democrats such as New York Sen. Chuck Schumer; and plenty of non-committal senators.
According to Bloomberg, Hagel was scheduled to meet Monday with Schumer, the No. 3 Senate Democratic leader and a supporter of Israel who has said he needs to hear Hagel respond to questions before deciding whether to support him.
Hagel’s very public confirmation hearing before the Armed Services Committee will probably occur within weeks.
In the letter to Boxer, Hagel said he had “always” considered Hezbollah a terrorist group, pointing to comments he made over the years making that case as well as past statements referring to Iran as a “state sponsor” of terrorism. He said the 2006 conflict was not the fault of the Lebanese government, but of Hezbollah, which he called a “threat” to Israel and Lebanon. He argued that he supported defense appropriations bills that included foreign aid to Israel. He also pointed out that he has previously called Hamas a terrorist group too.
“America’s relationship with Israel is one that is fundamentally built on our nation’s shared values, common interests and shared ideals,” Hagel said.
Boxer, a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said late Monday that she would support Hagel’s nomination. She said he had provided answers to a range of questions and had promised to support Obama’s policies “without reservation.”