CT senators split, Jewish groups express concern
By JNS.org and Judie Jacobson
As the Ledger went to press on Tuesday, Connecticut’s two U.S. Senators, both Democrats, appeared somewhat divided on their position concerning President Obama’s nomination on Monday of former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Monday that, despite his respect for “the President’s right to select cabinet members, I have a responsibility as a member of the Armed Services Committee to ask Senator Hagel’s views on critical defense policy issues confronting our nation. I will reserve judgment until the hearing, when I will ask about such issues – the submarine and Joint Strike Fighter programs, the Afghanistan War, and others. I have tremendous respect for his extraordinary, distinguished public service, and his heroism in uniform.”
Senator Christopher Murphy, who was sworn in as the state’s junior senator just last week, however, appeared to be more supportive of the nomination. In an interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien just prior to the President’s announcement of his pick for the Pentagon’s top spot, he blamed the controversy over Hagel on the opposition party.
“I think Republicans are spoiling for a fight,” said Murphy. “I think they recognize that [President Obama is] coming into his second term with a head of steam, that he’s very well regarded on issues of foreign policy
and Republicans are used to holding an advantage on that matter. They have lost it to an extent and so they just want to pick a fight.”
Admitting that he did not yet know much about Hagel, with whom neither he nor Blumenthal served in the Senate, Murphy told O’Brien, “The things I know about Chuck Hagel tell me he’d be a very strong pick here. He’d be the first Vietnam veteran, first enlisted soldier as Secretary of Defense. He’s a guy with foreign policy chops and someone who, frankly, hasn’t been afraid to depart from his party when he thought they were wrong.”
U.S.-based Jewish groups had a different take on the subject. Reacting swiftly to the news, some slammed the move. Others deferred to Obama’s judgment, but expressed the desire for the Senate confirmation hearings on Hagel to address the issues surrounding him.
Meanwhile, in Israel, the general sentiment was concern. Monday evening news broadcasts on the Jewish state’s three main television stations depicted Hagel as “cool toward Israel,” according to Israel Hayom. On Tuesday, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin weighed in. “Because of [Hagel’s] statements in the past, and his stance toward Israel, we are worried,” Rivlin said.
Hagel chairs the Atlantic Council think tank, which last month published a column titled “Israel’s Apartheid Policy.” In 2008, he infamously took a direct shot at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), telling former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller in a quote that appeared in Miller’s book, “The Much Too Promised Land,” that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” in Washington.
Reacting to the Hagel nomination on Monday, the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) said that although there have been concerns about Hagel, “setting policy starts and stops” with Obama.
“While we have expressed concerns in the past, we trust that when confirmed, former Senator Chuck Hagel will follow the President’s lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel — on strategic cooperation, missile defense programs, and leading the world against Iran’s nuclear program,” NJDC said in a statement.
When Hagel was being considered for the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board appointment in 2009, Ira Forman — then the director of NJDC, and in 2012 the Obama campaign’s Jewish Outreach Director —
opposed the move.
“If [Hagel] was taking a policy role, we’d have real concerns,” Forman said at the time.
NJDC also doubted Hagel’s credentials in 2007, when the senator was considering a run for president, saying he “has a lot of questions to answer about his commitment to Israel.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) on Monday called the Hagel nomination “a blow to U.S.-Israel relations, to the President’s relationship with the American Jewish community, and to U.S. security in the Middle East.”
“It signals that the President, having been re-elected, will now distance himself from Israel,” RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks said in a statement. “We hope that when Senator Hagel’s weak record is laid on the table, Senators will rightly decline to support his nomination.”
American Jewish Committee (AJC) Executive Director David Harris on Monday said “there are serious concerns about Hagel’s commitments to the efficacy of sanctions and a credible military option against Iran, on pressing the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, on sustaining the U.S. policy on the terrorist Hamas regime in Gaza, on the special nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship and Israel’s quest for peace and security, and on gay rights.”
Harris said in a statement that while the president “has the prerogative to select members of his Cabinet,” the Senate “is obligated to probe the record and vision of every nominee.”
“While AJC honors Senator Hagel’s record of service to our country and the people of Nebraska, his statements and actions on a range of core U.S. national security priorities raise questions that require clarification,” Harris said.
Anti-Defamation League (ADL) National Director Abe Foxman said Monday that Hagel “would not have been my first choice,” but added that he respects “the President’s prerogative.”
Like AJC’s Harris, Foxman looked forward to the Senate confirmation process as a chance to address concerns about Hagel.
“I particularly hope Senator Hagel will clarify and explain his comments about the ‘Jewish Lobby’ that were hurtful to many in the Jewish community,” Foxman said in a statement.
A number of senators last month had already vowed to press Hagel on his “Jewish lobby” comment during the confirmation process. U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said that he knows of no “Jewish lobby” and hopes Hagel “would identify who that is.” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said Hagel will “have to answer” for his Jewish lobby comment if nominated for defense secretary.
“I don’t agree with that [‘Jewish lobby’] statement [by Hagel],” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said. “If he is nominated, there’ll be a hearing. His entire public record and all his public pronouncements will be reviewed as a part of that process. And we’ll move on from there.”
On Monday, Hagel told the Lincoln Journal Star that critics have “completely distorted” his record on Israel and that there is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli.”
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Hagel would be “very well-qualified” for defense secretary, despite his disagreement with the former senator’s “Jewish lobby” comment.
But U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) was among a number of Democrats who immediately opposed a Hagel appointment when the rumors of one began last month.
She said in a statement that Hagel’s “dismal record on issues affecting the Middle East stands in sharp contrast to the stated policies of our nation.”