December 20, 2012
Pro-Israel groups, neoconservatives and even some former colleagues on Capitol Hill are confronting President Barack Obama with a growing backlash against Chuck Hagel, the ex-Republican senator tipped as his leading candidate for defense secretary.
Obama’s aides have given no sign of dropping Hagel from consideration - even after several American Jewish leaders privately complained about his policy views, most notably on Israel and Iran, at a White House-hosted Hanukkah party last week, according to one attendee.
But what has become clear in recent days is that the Democratic president will have a Senate confirmation fight on his hands if he decides to nominate the former Nebraska lawmaker, regarded as a moderate Republican, to replace Leon Panetta at the Pentagon.
The White House is preparing for a major realignment of Obama’s national security team, possibly by the end of this week, sources familiar with the process have said. But the announcement could be delayed by the difficult “fiscal cliff” negotiations with congressional Republicans.
That could provide more time for Hagel’s critics to marshal opposition to his nomination, in public and behind the scenes. But even they are skeptical of being able to derail it.
Obama himself has faced questions from American Jewish leaders about his approach to close U.S. ally Israel, especially given his strained relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and may decide to take a risk with Hagel.
“This is a nomination that could be toxic to some degree for the White House,” a Senate Republican foreign policy aide said. “Do they really want this in the first months of a second term?”
Some of Israel’s leading U.S. supporters contend that Hagel, who left the Senate in 2008, at times opposed Israel’s interests, voting several times against U.S. sanctions on Iran, and made disparaging remarks about the influence of what he called a “Jewish lobby” in Washington.
William Kristol of the conservative Weekly Standard wrote in a recent column that Hagel “has anti-Israel, pro-appeasement-of-Iran bona fides.”