Israel Stays on Sidelines In Brawl Over Hagel

YERUSHALAYIM (Reuters) -

The Israeli government kept clear on Tuesday of a brewing battle in Washington over President Obama’s choice for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak offered no immediate comment on the pick.

Parting with the government’s reticence were Homefront Minister Avi Dichter and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, neither of whom is expected to stay on after Israel’s election on Jan. 22.

“There have already been nominations in the past which looked very troubling to us, and ultimately reality turned out totally differently, both for better and for worse,” Dichter told Israel Radio in an interview.

“Therefore I think we should be careful. We do not nominate people in agencies in other countries in general, and especially in the United States. So, as it is customary to say to those being nominated there: Welcome.”

The pro-Netanyahu daily Yisrael Hayom quoted an unnamed government official as saying the choice of Hagel was “very bad news,” adding: “Clearly it won’t be easy with him.” The official suggested having Hagel in the Pentagon would allow the president “to play ‘good cop’” with Netanyahu.

Hagel sought to beat back the bias allegations on Monday, telling the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper his record showed “unequivocal, total support for Israel” and that he had “said many times that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism.”

Moshe Arens, a former Israeli defense minister, played down the impact of Hagel’s nomination on Obama’s strategies. “In the United States, policy is made by the president, not by the members of the cabinet,” he told Reuters, noting that Ronald Reagan, considered warm to Israel, had a less sympathetic defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger.