A right-wing pro-Israel group in the US has stepped up its campaign against defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, registering a website with the former Nebraska senator’s name aiming at seeing him borked.
The Emergency Committee for Israel, a New York-based non-profit with a history of running campaigns against US politicians seen as critical of Israel, went live with www.chuckhagel.com last week. The website calls into question Hagel’s ability to serve as defense secretary, highlighting a number of statements seen as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.
The website has no connection to the Israeli government.
On Monday, US President Barack Obama nominated Hagel to lead the Pentagon, calling him “the leader our troops deserve.”
Yet Hagel is expected to face a tough nomination battle, not least for his anti-war stance and views on Israel.
Hagel, who says he’s a strong supporter of Israel, stirred bad feelings in the past by referring to pro-Israeli Americans as “the Jewish lobby” and suggesting they wield undue power in Washington.
“The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people. … I’ve always argued against some of the dumb things they do, because I don’t think it’s in the interest of Israel,” Hagel told former Mideast peace negotiator and author Aaron David Miller in a 2006 interview.
Hagel continued: “I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator. I support Israel, but my first interest is, I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States, not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel.”
The comments have been denounced by some of his former Senate colleagues, including John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
Some lawmakers and pro-Israel activists criticize Hagel for seeking direct negotiations with Iran over its disputed nuclear program and sometimes opposing sanctions against Iran. They were angered by his suggestion that Iran be at the table for talks on future peace in Afghanistan. And many view him as too soft on Hamas and Hezbollah.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina declared that if confirmed, Hagel “would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history.” He also threatened to filibuster the nomination.
Hagel, who is also Republican, tried to quiet his critics Monday, telling the Lincoln Journal Star in Nebraska that there is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli, not one (Senate) vote that matters that hurt Israel.”
Yet the Emergency Committee website urges Internet users to write to their senators urging against Hagel’s nomination, saying he “is too extreme to be Secretary of Defense.”
The website provides a rap sheet of anti-Hagel talking points, from his refusal to sign an open letter to then-Russian premier Boris Yeltsin to combat anti-Semitism to his urging of Obama to talk with terror group Hamas in 2009.
The Emergency Committee was founded in 2010 by Weekly Standard editor William Kristol. The conservative group has run campaigns opposing anti-Israel congressional candidates and also produced videos in the run-up to the 2012 elections criticizing Obama’s record on Israel.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, a former envoy to the United States, told Yedioth Ahronoth on Tuesday: “I have met him (Hagel) many times, and he certainly regards Israel as a true and natural US ally.”
On Sunday, a senior Israeli official told the Times of Israel that Jerusalem was not necessarily worried about the pick of Hagel.
“The only question we have is about his policy on the Iranian question,” the official said.
Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report.