Israel not necessarily worried about Hagel nomination, top Israeli source indicates

‘The only question we have is about his policy on the Iranian question,’ senior official tells Times of Israel

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

In this June 26, 2008 file photo, then-senator Chuck Hagel speaks on foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC (photo credit: AP/Lauren Victoria Burke)
In this June 26, 2008 file photo, then-senator Chuck Hagel speaks on foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC (photo credit: AP/Lauren Victoria Burke)

NEW YORK — Israel is not necessarily worried about the likely nomination of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, a top Israeli source told The Times of Israel Sunday.

The comment is thought to be the first Israeli foray into the debate over a possible Hagel nomination since it was initially reported in mid-December. With reports Sunday that key Congressional leaders were being notified by the White House that the nomination is final, the comment out of Israel suggests the Israeli government is less opposed to Hagel’s nomination than the senator’s adversaries in Washington.

Hagel has been the presumed nominee for weeks, dating back to a leak last month from the White House. But since that time, the senator has drawn withering criticism from foreign policy hawks who oppose his views on Iran, Cuba and other issues; Republicans angered by his criticism of former president George W. Bush over the Iraq War and support for Democratic candidates in recent elections; gay rights groups who recall disparaging remarks he made in the 1990s about gays; and some Democrats who have objected to appointing a Republican to head the Defense Department.

But these issues are not relevant to Israel. When it comes to the criticism leveled at the presumptive nominee, including even a 2006 comment about the power of the “Jewish lobby,” which the ADL has said bordered on anti-Semitism, “nobody in Israel cares about that,” the source said.

“The only question we have is about his policy on the Iranian question,” the senior official emphasized.

“Some of those views will be cleared up in the [Senate confirmation] hearings,” the source noted, “and we always have to keep in mind that the president makes the decision [about a possible Iran strike],” not the secretary of defense.

But the source, a top official in Jerusalem, went further, suggesting there could be possible benefits to Israel with Hagel in the Defense Department, especially in a period when further escalation, and even possible military action, against Iran’s nuclear program is on the table.

“It is possible that certain actions will have greater legitimacy if they are taken by certain people who have opposed them in the past,” the source said.

Israeli officials will still be asking their counterparts in Washington how a Hagel nomination “fits” with Obama’s apparent election-season shift toward the Israeli position regarding the conditions for military intervention in Iran.

“The president said two things in the third debate that changed the debate in our minds,” the official said. “He said it can’t go on forever. We can’t let the Iranians play with us indefinitely.”

Obama also vowed to prevent Iran from achieving “breakout capacity,” or the ability to quickly manufacture a nuclear weapon, “which is closer to our position than in the past,” said the source.

Israeli officials are also unfazed by the support Hagel has garnered from “realist” veteran officials in the United States such as former Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

When it came to America’s Israel policy, “Brzezinski and his ilk have always asked, ‘What will the Saudis say?’” the official said. “But on the Iranian issue, we know what the Saudis will say. The old notions of pro-Israel and pro-Arab have no meaning today. The Israelis and Saudis look at the Iranian question from more or less the same angle.”

The official stated that Israeli officials were “allergic” to questions of who is “pro-Israel” and who is “anti-Israel.” Asked about criticism leveled at Hagel by some pro-Israel activists and pundits that suggested he was “anti-Israel,” the official said, “We don’t have to be dragged into those corners. We don’t gain from these sorts of brawls.”

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