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Jewish groups are seconding the call of Senate Republicans for further review of defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, whose controversial past comments on Israel continue to be unearthed, before a final vote is held on his confirmation.
A 58-40 Senate vote on Feb. 14 delayed a final yes or no vote on the former Nebraska senator’s appointment. Sixty votes were needed to proceed.
The Washington Free Beacon reported last week that Hagel said the U.S. State Department “is an adjunct to the Israeli Foreign Minister’s office” during a 2007 speech at Rutgers University, a remark that alarmed major Jewish groups.
Roz Rothstein, CEO of the pro-Israel education group StandWithUs—which first expressed its concern about Hagel in a Jan. 9 statement—told JNS.org Feb. 17 that Hagel’s comment at Rutgers “implies that he may buy into very troublesome ideology that accuses Jews of controlling the government, the media, and so on.”
“One would expect that this raises a red flag, so I am sure he will be given an opportunity to explain exactly what he was thinking when he made such an egregious statement,” Rothstein said.
On Feb. 15, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) joined the chorus of those publicly expressing their concern about Hagel.
“Chuck Hagel has served this country, and his state, with distinction, as we have had the privilege to tell him in person,” AJC Executive Director David Harris said in a statement Feb. 15. “But in light of his complex record in the Senate and controversial statements he has made since his public service on strategic and political affairs—notably grappling with the range of pressing Middle East issues—AJC believes that further Senate deliberation is called for before any final vote is taken.”
B’nai B’rith International in a Feb. 21 statement said it “remains concerned with many aspects of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel’s responses to questions during his confirmation hearing for the position of secretary of defense.”
“We are troubled that Hagel, during his confirmation hearings, undermined the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” B’nai B’rith said. “He appeared to endorse a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran before being advised that containment was not administration policy.”
B’nai B’rith also noted that Hagel “underestimates the threat of the Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah.”
“Hagel was in the minority when 88 of his then-Senate colleagues called on the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization,” the group said.
Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) Executive Director Matthew Brooks demanded a response from Hagel to his Rutgers comment, saying, “Senate Republicans are right to insist that final action on this nomination not be rushed.” Hagel previously came under fire after the revelation of 2008 remarks to Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller that “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here (on Capitol Hill).”
AJC’s Harris said regarding Hagel’s controversial comments, “we feel it especially important that Senator Hagel be given a full opportunity to clear the air, so that the Senate can have a more thorough picture of the nominee’s views.”
The AJC’s warning on Hagel is a sign that mainstream Jewish groups—not just partisan groups such as the RJC—are increasingly concerned about Hagel.
“AJC is a strictly non-partisan organization,” Harris said. “We speak up now only out of concern for policies we deem vital to our nation and central to our organizational mission.”
Before the AJC’s statement, Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) President Mort Klein last week called out Jewish groups, including the AJC, for not only declining to publicly oppose Hagel’s nomination, but also contacting him personally to stop ZOA’s opposition of the nomination because making Hagel a “Jewish issue” is “bad for the Jews,” the Jerusalem Post reported.
“I was called by major Jewish leaders, personally called, and [they] told me to stop our campaign against Hagel,” Klein told the Post.
Klein on Feb. 12 explained Jewish organizations have been slow to express concern about Hagel publicly because they are “frightened of making an issue seem more important to Jews than others.” He said “AJC, AIPAC, ADL [and] the Conference of Presidents never came out and said we oppose this man [Hagel] because he is horrible on Iran, he is horrible on terrorism, horrible on Israel, horrible on fighting radical Islam.” AJC, then, made its statement on Hagel on Feb. 15.
Hagel chairs the Atlantic Council think tank, which in December published a column titled “Israel’s Apartheid Policy” as well as a policy paper predicting that Iran “should be viewed as a potential natural partner” for the U.S. He did not sign various pro-Israel letters backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) while he served in the Senate, but did sign a 2009 letter asking Obama to directly negotiate with Hamas. But in his Senate confirmation hearing, Hagel said, “No one individual vote, no one individual quote or no one individual statement defines me, my beliefs, or my record.”
If true, the newly revealed 2007 comment by Hagel that the U.S. State Department “is an adjunct to the Israeli Foreign Minister’s office” is “part of a very troubling pattern with Chuck Hagel,” according to RJC’s Brooks.
“We continue to believe that America can do better than Chuck Hagel and that the Senate should reject this nomination, but at the very least, Senator Hagel needs to address this report before the Senate can responsibly vote whether to confirm him,” Brooks said.