Obama faces possible backlash by Hagel nomination

Pro-Israel Democrats voice criticism over possible selection of former GOP senator as secretary of defense.

Obama laughs with Hagel in Amman 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Majed Jaber)
Obama laughs with Hagel in Amman 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Majed Jaber)
WASHINGTON – Among the voices criticizing the possible selection of former GOP senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense are pro-Israel Democrats who worked hard to reassure the Jewish community about White House support of Israel before last month’s US election.
“He has one of the least pro- Israel records of any senator in recent memory. He is a uniquely toxic figure for the pro-Israel community,” said a Democratic pro-Israel activist who campaigned heavily within the Jewish community for US President Barack Obama. “We pro-Israel Democrats have no good explanation or response for people who criticize Hagel.”
He added, “Many of the people who had questioned [Obama’s] record on Israel and ended up voting for him in the end will feel betrayed were he to nominate Senator Hagel.”
Some Democratic politicians have also begun to publicly question the choice, with senators Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Barbara Boxer of California and Carl Levin of Michigan all being quoted as having concerns, particularly over Hagel’s quote that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here” on Capitol Hill.
Democrat Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada, who has been one of Israel’s strongest defenders in Congress but is leaving at the end of this term after losing her race for Senate, went so far as to put out a statement opposing Hagel’s selection.
“The bottom line is that Chuck Hagel’s dismal record on issues affecting the Middle East stands in sharp contrast to the stated policies of our nation and he would be the wrong choice for America’s next secretary of defense,” Berkley said.
Democrats who supported Obama within the Jewish community feel an extra degree of consternation that they would see their work undone and that Republicans who for years have railed against the president’s stance on Israel would now crow “I told you so.”
Pro-Israel activists on both sides of the aisle have circulated objections to Hagel’s selection, including his past opposition to stiffer Iran sanctions, call for direct US talks with Hamas and his unwillingness to urge the EU to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
The activists have also started to send out criticisms raised by other groups about the potential nomination, including feminists who want to see a woman appointed to one of the top three cabinet posts.
With Sen. John Kerry expected to be nominated for secretary of state after US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice removed herself from contention and wide speculation that Obama will tap White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew for Treasury, these groups would like to see the other rumored defense pick – former defense under secretary for policy Michele Flourney – given the nod.
Some Jewish groups, however, have stood up for Hagel, including J Street and Americans for Peace Now.
“Attacks on Senator Hagel for his record on Israel and the Middle East are disconnected from Senator Hagel’s actual record,” Americans for Peace Now said in a statement.
“These attacks appear to reflect, more than anything, a desire to impose a very narrow ideological litmus test on senior US officials – a litmus test that is in no way linked to their abilities to carry out the responsibilities of the office for which they are being considered.”JTA contributed to this report.