Hagel nomination: Israelis ask 'what's the big deal?'

While American pro-Israel groups sound the alarm on President Obama's choice of Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense, Israel itself seems much less concerned.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama shakes hands with former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel during a new conference in the East Room of the White House, Monday, Jan. 7, in Washington, to announce that he is nominating Hagel, as the new secretary of defense.

President Obama’s choice of Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense, hotly contested by the American Jewish community, has received a muted response in Israel. While some echo concerns that the former Republican senator is dangerous or anti-Semitic, others here ask, “Who’s that?”

To be sure, the appointment of a man who is seen as soft on Iran and eager to talk to terrorist groups on Israel’s borders isn’t generally popular here.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said today that Israel should be "concerned, but not afraid of Hagel's isolationist ideas." But he and other politicians, including candidates in Israel's Jan. 22 elections, have emphasized that US-Israel ties go deeper than any one personality and have expressed confidence that the two countries would remain strong allies.

“It’s none of our business, it’s America’s prerogative,” said Naftali Bennett of the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home) party, whose popularity has surged in recent weeks. “Israel and America’s bond goes way beyond certain relationships between individuals.”

Mr. Bennett's shrug comes despite the fact that Hagel’s record diverges sharply from Bennett’s views on Iran, which he identifies as the most pressing foreign policy issue facing Israel. While representing Nebraska in the Senate, Hagel voted repeatedly against US sanctions on Iran and has expressed opposition to a military strike on Iran – a country seen by some Israelis as an existential threat to the Jewish nation.

“Zionism was about creating a shelter, the most secure place on earth for Jews,” said Bennett, speaking at a foreign policy debate at Hebrew University of Jerusalem today. “By having a nuclear Iran, Israel by one fell swoop would turn into the most dangerous place for Jews.”

Obama has promised to prevent a nuclear Iran, but his appointment of Hagel signals to some that Obama may be more lenient than they feel comfortable with.

“[Hagel] is dangerous,” says Eliyahu Ben Haim, one of the few Jerusalemites out and about on a very stormy day. “He’s anti-Semite. He’s against attacking Iran, he’s against sanctions, and he wants us to talk to Hamas and Hezbollah.”

But in the same shopping area, Fred Sternberg says Hagel essentially shares Obama’s views on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and thus his appointment would not trigger any major policy change. The bigger conflict is between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and Obama, he says.

“The problem is that we don’t have a government that is very friendly toward Obama,” says Dr. Sternberg, who has lived here for 40 years. “I do not agree with the policy of the Israeli government. So I am not very far from Obama.”

Others on the political left here even go so far as to support Hagel’s nomination.

“I listened yesterday to some remarks that Mr. Hagel said – one was his critique about the behavior of Israel in the Palestinian issue. I share his views,” said Yaakov Peri, former director of Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet. He notes that Hagel supports a Palestinian state and thinks Israel “should go for it, initiate it.

“I rely on the president of the United States that Chuck Hagel is a responsible and capable guy to do his job and I share the view that the US and Israeli bond and relationship and cooperation will remain, and hopefully strengthen,” said Mr. Peri, a member of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party.

Isaac Herzog of the Labor Party, another participant in today’s foreign policy debate, said it’s fine for American officials to criticize Israel as long as they know the facts.

“After that, they can be a critical friend, because that’s what friends are for,” said Mr. Herzog, the son of former Israeli president Chaim Herzog.

Yitzhak Hanegbi of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc joked during today’s debate that all of Israel’s friends, even tiny Micronesia, are critical friends. On a more solemn note, he added that part of being a friend is trying to understand Israel’s “fears and hopes,” and expressed gratitude to the US for striving to do just that – despite personal tensions between Obama and Netanyahu.

“We believe that the president feels for Israel,” he said. “Even though sometimes personal tensions do occur, it has nothing to do with the strategy and with the instincts of the US toward Israel.”

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