Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel made significant strides on Tuesday in convincing critics in Washington that he is neither anti-Israel nor soft on Iran.
Hagel apologized for a comment about a “Jewish lobby” in Washington which has dogged him since President Barack Obama announced him as his choice for the post and jeopardizes his confirmation in the Senate.
In a letter to California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer publicized on Tuesday, Hagel apologized for his assertion made in 2006 that a “Jewish lobby” in Washington tends to “intimidate” lawmakers.
He deemed it “a very poor choice of words” and said he understands how such words “can be constructed as anti-Israel.”
But Hagel reiterated that he is “overwhelmingly supportive of a strong U.S.-Israel strategic and security relationship,” and pledged to work at strengthening the ties between the two countries.
Hagel also addressed the issue of his refusal in the past to sign a letter calling on the European Union to list Hizbullah as a terrorist organization. In his letter to Boxer, Hagel tried to pacify critics by describing Hizbullah as a terrorist threat to Israel, according to Politico.
In response, Boxer said that she would support Hagel’s nomination. She said he provided answers to a range of questions and promised to support Obama’s policies “without reservation.”
The former Republican senator from Nebraska won over another skeptic on Tuesday, Sen. Chuck Schumer, an influential Democrat, who endorsed Hagel after a 90-minute meeting held on Monday.
In a lengthy statement, Schumer said that he was satisfied with the assurances he received.
“On Hamas, I asked Senator Hagel about a letter he signed in March 2009 urging President Obama to open direct talks with that group’s leaders. In response, Senator Hagel assured me that he today believes there should be no negotiations with Hamas, Hizbullah or any other terrorist group until they renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist,” Schumer said.
“Regarding his unfortunate use of the term ‘Jewish lobby’ to refer to certain pro-Israel groups, Senator Hagel understands the sensitivity around such a loaded term and regrets saying it.
“I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him,” Schumer said.
The face-to-face meeting took place in the West Wing of the White House. While there, Schumer also met with Obama in the Oval Office, according to a Senate aide. Schumer told Obama that Hagel’s responses on Israel were critical to his decision on the nomination, The Associated Press reported.
Schumer telephoned Hagel Tuesday morning and informed him of his decision, according to the aide.
The support of Schumer and Boxer, both prominent Jewish senators, will boost Hagel’s chances of surviving what promise to be very rough confirmation hearings.
Schumer is the third-ranking Senate Democrat; Boxer is the senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The New York lawmaker said Hagel told him that he backs all steps necessary, including the use of military force, to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Schumer also said Hagel told him that he has always supported Israel’s right to retaliate militarily against attacks by Hizbullah or Hamas.
“I know some will question whether Senator Hagel’s assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post. But I don’t think so,” Schumer said. “Senator Hagel realizes the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago. His views are genuine, and reflect this new reality.”
Hagel has reached out to all 100 senators and his meeting with Schumer was the first of a dozen one-on-one sessions planned over the next few weeks.
Hagel’s confirmation hearing before the Armed Services Committee will probably occur within weeks.
“A lot of charges rise up and fall when the facts are presented,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a friend of Hagel’s, said in an interview Monday. “That’s the same thing that’s going to happen here. These claims — suddenly claims are debunked — and we get on to substance.”