Former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, who has come under fire for both his record and statements on Israel since his name surfaced as a candidate for Secretary of Defense in December, on Tuesday was confirmed for that position in President Barack Obama’s cabinet following a 58-41 Senate vote in his favour.
No Secretary of Defense had ever been confirmed with more than 11 opposing votes, a group of 14 U.S. senators opposing Hagel’s nomination noted in a letter to Obama last week.
Both Democratic and Republican legislators, as well as several Jewish groups, had criticized the nomination of Hagel, who in 2008 infamously said, “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” in Washington, DC. In his confirmation hearing Jan. 31, Hagel mistakenly expressed support for a U.S. policy of “containment” in dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat.
“Chuck Hagel’s statements on Israel and the ‘Jewish lobby’ raised serious concerns about his fitness to serve,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement reacting to his confirmation on Tuesday. “His views on Iran are also deeply troubling.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), however, congratulated Hagel on his confirmation and praised his “statements during the nomination process in strong support of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and against a policy of containment as well as his clear understanding of the importance of achieving the two-state solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict].”
“We know Secretary Hagel will support President Obama on these issues that are critically important to the Jewish community,” NJDC said in a statement.
A 2009 report Hagel co-authored that surfaced in media reports a day before his confirmation recommended the internationalization of Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, as part of a two-state solution that would be enforced by a “U.S.-led multinational force.” According to the recommendations in the report, titled “A Last Chance For A Two-State Israel-Palestine Agreement,” Jerusalem would have “a special security and administrative regime of its own” under that multinational force, which would “feature American leadership of a NATO force supplemented by Jordanians, Egyptians and Israelis.”
Jewish groups including the RJC, American Jewish Committee, Zionist Organization of America, Anti-Defamation League and StandWithUs had all expressed concern about Hagel. The former senator’s reported comment in a 2007 speech at Rutgers University that the U.S. State Department “is an adjunct to the Israeli Foreign Minister’s office” implies that Hagel “may buy into very troublesome ideology that accuses Jews of controlling the government, the media, and so on,” StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein told JNS.org Feb. 17.
Hagel did not sign various pro-Israel letters backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) while he served in the Senate, but did sign a 2009 letter asking Obama to directly negotiate with Hamas.
Last week, the senators who asked Obama to withdraw his nomination of Hagel raised their concern that he “displayed a seeming ambivalence about whether containment or prevention is the best approach [to Iran’s nuclear program]” during his confirmation hearing.
“Any sound strategy on Iran must be underpinned by the highly credible threat of U.S. military force, and there is broad bipartisan agreement on that point,” the senators said. “If Senator Hagel becomes Secretary of Defense, the military option will have near zero credibility.”