Israel, Iran quarrel on Obama’s Pentagon pick

Israel, Iran quarrel on Obama’s Pentagon pick

Israel, Iran quarrel on Obama’s Pentagon pick

Former US Sen Hagel (R) walks past President Obama after the latter announced the nomination of him to be his new Secretary of Defense at the White House. Hagel braces for a harsh grilling before assuming his new defense job. REUTERS photo

President Barack Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as the next U.S. secretary of defense has caused jitters in Israel, where some circles view the former senator as unsympathetic or even hostile. Meanwhile Iran, Israel’s arch-foe, says it is hopeful that Hagel will be appointed to lead the Pentagon. Hagel’s positions on Israel’s two most pressing foreign policy issues, Iran’s nuclear program and relations with the Palestinians, appear to be at odds with the Israeli government, and critics fear the appointment could increase pressure on Israel to make unwanted concessions. The appointment could also signal further strains in what is already a cool relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

‘Cause for concern’

The foreign policy outlook of Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, Hagel, is “cause for concern” for Israel, Israeli Parliamentary Speaker Reuven Rivlin said yesterday. Rivlin’s comments reflected what has been a common sentiment among analysts and commentators in recent days. “This concept of ‘splendid isolation’ which Hagel espouses changes U.S. strategy in the world and accordingly it also affects Israel,” Rivlin said in a statement.

“This outlook must give Israel cause for concern but not scare it,”said Rivlin, adding it was “important that Israel know how to deal with” such a worldview. “Splendid isolation” is a foreign policy characterized by a lack of intervention in international affairs and was first used to describe the British Empire’s stance toward continental Europe at the end of the 19th century. Known as a maverick in the Senate, Hagel has raised eyebrows in Israel with a series of comments and actions over the years that some here have deemed insufficiently supportive of Israel.

Hagel once said “the Jewish lobby [in the United States] intimidates a lot of people here” and does some “dumb things” that aren’t “smart for Israel.” He also said that “I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a U.S. senator.” “I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the U.S., not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel,” he said. Six years ago, he refused to sign a letter pressing the EU to declare the Lebanese Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Hagel’s call in a bipartisan letter in 2009 for a “pragmatic” approach toward Hamas has also drawn criticism. The 66-yearold Hagel, who faces a tough confirmation battle in the Senate, has also criticized discussion of a potential military strike by either the
U.S. or Israel against Iran, and has backed efforts to bring Tehran to the table for future peace talks in Afghanistan.

‘Iran hopeful on practical changes’
Countering widespread beliefs in Israel, a senior Israeli diplomat gave a positive assessment of Hagel’s nomination. “I have met him [Hagel] many times, and he certainly regards Israel as a true and natural U.S. ally,” Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, a former envoy to the United States, told the daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

In Tehran, asked about Hagel’s nomination, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said yesterday that Tehran was hopeful that there would be “practical changes” to U.S. foreign policy, and that nations would change their attitude towards the U.S. if it respected their rights. Hagel meanwhile pledged “total support” for Israel on Jan. 7.

There is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli, not one vote [of mine] that matters that hurt Israel,” Hagel told The Lincoln Journal Star, a newspaper in his home state of Nebraska. The Nebraska daily quoted the blunt senator as saying critics have “completely distorted” his record.

Hagel said that, until his nomination was announced, he had been “hanging out in no-man’s land unable to respond to charges, falsehoods and distortions” and that he has shown “unequivocal, total support for Israel.” Turkish officials also voiced optimism about Obama’s new Cabinet, including Hagel. Turkey’s ambassador to Washington, Namık Tan, praised Obama’s choice of John Kerry to the top diplomat post. “John Kerry is a man who has close and warm relations with Turkish leaders and it is a positive step for Turkey,” Tan said.

Compiled from AFP, AP and Reuters stories by the Daily News staff.