WASHINGTON – After reaching out to Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and former White House Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, Chuck Hagel picked up support Tuesday from the two key pro-Israel figures.

Schumer’s announcement that he would vote to confirm Hagel and urge his colleagues to do the same could seal the nomination for the controversial secretary of defense pick. Schumer is one of the most powerful members of the Senate and a strong backer of Israel who withheld his support for Hagel when the former Nebraska senator’s name was first floated as a possibility to head the Pentagon.

Many Republican senators are still indicating they intend to vote against a former colleague from their own party, but with Democrats holding the majority of the Senate, it is likely that Hagel will be confirmed.

Separately, in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Ross said that he had spoken personally with Hagel in recent days and heard clarifications from the senator on Iran, Israel and his remark that the “Jewish lobby” intimidated many in Washington.

“I think he is a supporter of Israel, and the more important thing is that I think he’ll continue a policy in defense that is rooted in a fundamental premise of deep strategic cooperation,” Ross told the Post.

While it was important “to be sensitive” about a term like “Jewish lobby,” he added, “in my experience he’s not anti-Semitic – and one has to be careful about how one uses that term.”

Hagel addressed the issue head-on in a letter he wrote Monday to California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, another strong supporter of Israel, following a phone conversation that covered similar ground.

“I’ve acknowledged that this was a very poor choice of words. I’ve said so publicly and I regret saying it,” he wrote.

Hagel continued, “Most Americans, myself included, are overwhelmingly supportive of a strong US-Israel strategic and security relationship. This broad support comes from both Jews and non-Jews alike.”

In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Boxer described Hagel as offering his “sincere regret” for his comments and that “he was devastated” about what he’d said.

Though Boxer noted her concerns with those comments and that she differed with Hagel on several points, she still said she was pleased to be announcing her support for his nomination.

In his statement reporting that he would back Hagel, Schumer said he had talked with Hagel for 90 minutes and been reassured that, in contrast to previous remarks on the subject, the nominee rejected containment of an Iranian nuclear weapon and supported unilateral sanctions against Iran.

“In our conversation, Senator Hagel made a crystal clear promise that he would do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force,” Schumer said. “He said his ‘top priority’ as Secretary of Defense would be the planning of military contingencies related to Iran.”

Schumer also noted that though Hagel had called for the US to hold conversations with Hamas in 2009, “Hagel assured me that he today believes there should be no negotiations with Hamas, Hezbollah or any other terrorist group until they renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.”

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