Chuck Hagel comes under fire for views on Israel

US Senator Chuck Hagel waits for Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso at the premier's official residence on October 16, 2008 in Tokyo, Japan. Junko Kimura/Getty Images

With reports circulating that President Obama may nominate former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., as his next Defense Secretary, pro-Israel groups are pre-emptively attacking the former senator's views on Israel and the Middle East. Hagel and his allies are starting to push back against the mostly right-wing criticism, even as it grows louder.

The conservative Emergency Committee for Israel announced today it's airing an ad attacking Hagel for his record on Iran. It points out that Hagel voted against designating Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization and voted against Iran sanctions. The ad is airing Thursday and Friday in the Washington, D.C. area.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports, several pro-Israel groups are reaching out to members of Congress to highlight his record on Middle East issues, in an apparent effort to discourage Mr. Obama from nominating him.

"He has a checkered past on Israel," Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy organization, told the Times. "At the least, it's disturbing; at worst, it's troubling."

Josh Block, the chief executive of the Israel Project, a pro-Israel educational group, told the Times that Hagel's record "is well outside the mainstream of both Democratic and Republican positions on such issues."

One unnamed Republican Senate aide went so far as to tell the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard that Hagel is an "anti-Semite." The aide said the basis for that charge was Hagel's remarks in a 2006 interview in which he said, "The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here." The aide told the Weekly Standard, "Hagel has made clear he believes in the existence of a nefarious Jewish lobby that secretly controls U.S. foreign policy. This is the worst kind of anti-Semitism there is."

The criticism turned more mainstream this week when the Washington Post editorial board said Hagel's positions on Iran and Defense spending cuts "place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him."

Hagel and his supporters stress that he is a firm ally of Israel and that his positions have been misrepresented. Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush, said the criticism is "terribly misguided."

"I found him in all the three years I served, including as ambassador to Israel, to be a supporter of Israel and a man also ready to discuss very frankly with the Israelis the concerns we had about certain Israeli policies," he said.

Hagel's office has put out a fact sheet to clarify Hagel's record on issues such as his opposition to labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. The "fact sheet" notes the nonbinding agreement was opposed by 21 other senators because it would have had minimal practical impact but could have been seen as a "backdoor method of gaining congressional validation for military action." It points out that Hagel in his book "America: Our Next Chapter" wrote that Iran is a "state sponsor of terrorism" that "provides material support to Hezbollah and Hamas."

Hagel's office points out that while the former senator opposes unilateral sanctions, he has supported numerous sanctions on Iran.

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