Chuck Hagel, bracing for a bruising Senate confirmation as the next US defense secretary, pledged Monday “total support” for Israel after lawmakers criticized his views on the Middle East.
There is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli, not one vote (of mine) that matters that hurt Israel,” the former Republican senator told The Lincoln Journal Star, a newspaper in his home state of Nebraska.
Hagel and Democratic President Barack Obama did not address the controversy as he was nominated at the White House. But the Nebraska newspaper quoted the famously blunt senator as saying critics have “completely distorted” his record.
Hagel said that, until his nomination was announced, he had been “hanging out in no-man’s land unable to respond to charges, falsehoods and distortions” and that he has shown “unequivocal, total support for Israel.”
Pro-Israel lawmakers have denounced Hagel, with some commentators accusing him of anti-Semitism, for his past comments that “the Jewish lobby” intimidated members of Congress and that he is “not an Israeli senator.”
In what could be a preview of his case in confirmation hearings, Hagel told the newspaper he did not sign on to largely symbolic resolutions in Congress supported by a pro-Israeli group because they were “counter-productive.”
“How does that further the peace process in the Middle East?” Hagel asked. “What’s in Israel’s interest is to help Israel and the Palestinians find some peaceful way to live together.”
Hagel’s critics have also denounced him for opposing economic sanctions on Iran. US lawmakers accuse Iran of developing nuclear weapons, although the clerical government says that its program is for peaceful purposes.
Hagel told the newspaper that he opposed sanctions that were imposed only by the United States.
“United Nations sanctions are working. When we just decree something, that doesn’t work,” he said.
The Obama administration, after initial outreach to Iran, has worked through the United Nations to impose sanctions. Obama also signed a tough law initiated by Congress that punishes countries that buy Iran’s oil, its key export.
On cue as Obama announced the nomination, the conservative Emergency Committee for Israel put online a website that attacks Hagel as “not a responsible option.” The website is www.chuckhagel.com, the nominee apparently having failed to secure the address with his name.
Senator James Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee that must approve Hagel, said his nomination “deserves to be fully vetted” under the “time-tested process.”
But Inhofe said he would seek clarifications about “serious concerns” over some of Hagel’s positions.
Republican Senator John McCain, who also serves on the committee, congratulated the fellow Vietnam veteran on the nomination and said Hagel “served our nation with honor,” but also said he had “serious concerns.”
Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat who heads the committee, said that Hagel was “well-qualified” and promised “prompt and careful consideration” of the nomination.
In the House of Representatives, which does not confirm nominations, Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he was “profoundly concerned” and called Hagel’s past statements on Israel “inflammatory.”
Cantor, the sole Jewish Republican in Congress, said Hagel’s views “are well outside the mainstream and raise well-founded doubts that he can be trusted to manage the special relationship the United States shares with our greatest Middle Eastern ally.”
Hagel still has shrapnel in his chest from Vietnam, a war that fueled his belief that military action should be a last resort. He angered fellow Republicans through his blunt criticism of the Iraq war which included calling the efforts of President George W. Bush’s administration “beyond pitiful.”
Hagel, however, was conservative on most issues in the Senate and opposed an ambassador named by former president Bill Clinton because the nominee was openly gay. Hagel recently apologized for the episode.
Democrat Tammy Baldwin, the first openly gay senator, told MSNBC that she wanted to speak to Hagel to “see if his apology is sincere and sufficient.”