In move likely to raise pro-Israel hackles, Obama reportedly set to nominate Hagel as defense chief

President reportedly met to discuss position with ex-Republican congressman, who has been critical of Jerusalem

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Former senator Chuck Hagel (left) shakes hands with Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta in May 2012. (photo credit: CC BY Glenn Fawcett, DoD, Flickr)
Former senator Chuck Hagel (left) shakes hands with Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta in May 2012. (photo credit: CC BY Glenn Fawcett, DoD, Flickr)

The Obama administration is expected to select former Republican senator Chuck Hagel to succeed Leon Panetta as the United States secretary of defense, Bloomberg News reported on Thursday, citing sources in Washington.

The nomination of Hagel would likely worry Israel supporters, who have criticized the former Republican senator for what they see as a chilly stance toward the Jewish state.

Following weeks of speculation, Hagel reportedly met with US President Barack Obama at the White House last week to discuss America’s top security position. It has neither been confirmed that Hagel accepted, nor that Obama has officially offered the former Nebraska senator the position.

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Some critics of Hagel point at what they regard as a questionable policy in respect to Israel. He criticized the Bush administration in 2002 for refusing to meet with late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and rebuked Israel for not engaging in negotiations with an Arafat-led Palestinian Authority.

“Israel must take steps to show its commitment to peace,” he wrote in the Washington Post at the time. “This does not mean giving up or limiting its right to self-defense against terrorism. But Palestinian reformers cannot promote a democratic agenda for change while both the Israeli military occupation and settlement activity continue.”

During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hagel broke party ranks by calling for an immediate unilateral ceasefire by both Israel and Hezbollah.

“The sickening slaughter on both sides must end and it must end now,” the then-senator from Nebraska said. “President Bush must call for an immediate cease-fire. This madness must stop.”

Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, was also an outspoken critic of the Bush administration’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Iraq, and rebuked his party’s approval for deploying more troops later in the war.

“There will be no victory or defeat for the United States in Iraq. These terms do not reflect the reality of what is going to happen there,” he wrote in the Washington Post in 2006. “The time for more US troops in Iraq has passed. We do not have more troops to send and, even if we did, they would not bring a resolution to Iraq.”

Foreign Policy author Kevin Baron wrote last week that “Inside the Pentagon, Hagel’s name is drawing more skeptical smirks than nods of approval.”

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