Hagel nomination: Israelis ask 'what's the big deal?'
While American pro-Israel groups sound the alarm on President Obama's choice of Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense, Israel itself seems much less concerned.
President Obamaâ€™s choice of Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense, hotly contested by the American Jewish community, has received a muted response in Israel. While some echo concerns that the former Republican senator is dangerous or anti-Semitic, others here ask, â€śWhoâ€™s that?â€ť
To be sure, the appointment of a man who is seen as soft on Iran and eager to talk to terrorist groups on Israelâ€™s borders isnâ€™t generally popular here.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said today that Israel should be "concerned, but not afraid of Hagel's isolationist ideas." But he and other politicians, including candidates in Israel's Jan. 22 elections, have emphasized that US-Israel ties go deeper than any one personality and have expressed confidence that the two countries would remain strong allies.
â€śItâ€™s none of our business, itâ€™s Americaâ€™s prerogative,â€ť said Naftali Bennett of the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi (The Jewish Home) party, whose popularity has surged in recent weeks. â€śIsrael and Americaâ€™s bond goes way beyond certain relationships between individuals.â€ť
Mr. Bennett's shrug comes despite the fact that Hagelâ€™s record diverges sharply from Bennettâ€™s views on Iran, which he identifies as the most pressing foreign policy issue facing Israel. While representing Nebraska in the Senate, Hagel voted repeatedly against US sanctions on Iran and has expressed opposition to a military strike on Iran â€“ a country seen by some Israelis as an existential threat to the Jewish nation.
â€śZionism was about creating a shelter, the most secure place on earth for Jews,â€ť said Bennett, speaking at a foreign policy debate at Hebrew University of Jerusalem today. â€śBy having a nuclear Iran, Israel by one fell swoop would turn into the most dangerous place for Jews.â€ť
Obama has promised to prevent a nuclear Iran, but his appointment of Hagel signals to some that Obama may be more lenient than they feel comfortable with.
â€ś[Hagel] is dangerous,â€ť says Eliyahu Ben Haim, one of the few Jerusalemites out and about on a very stormy day. â€śHeâ€™s anti-Semite. Heâ€™s against attacking Iran, heâ€™s against sanctions, and he wants us to talk to Hamas and Hezbollah.â€ť
But in the same shopping area, Fred Sternberg says Hagel essentially shares Obamaâ€™s views on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and thus his appointment would not trigger any major policy change. The bigger conflict is between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahuâ€™s government and Obama, he says.
â€śThe problem is that we donâ€™t have a government that is very friendly toward Obama,â€ť says Dr. Sternberg, who has lived here for 40 years. â€śI do not agree with the policy of the Israeli government. So I am not very far from Obama.â€ť
Others on the political left here even go so far as to support Hagelâ€™s nomination.
â€śI listened yesterday to some remarks that Mr. Hagel said â€“ one was his critique about the behavior of Israel in the Palestinian issue. I share his views,â€ť said Yaakov Peri, former director of Israelâ€™s internal security service, the Shin Bet. He notes that Hagel supports a Palestinian state and thinks Israel â€śshould go for it, initiate it.
â€śI rely on the president of the United States that Chuck Hagel is a responsible and capable guy to do his job and I share the view that the US and Israeli bond and relationship and cooperation will remain, and hopefully strengthen,â€ť said Mr. Peri, a member of Yair Lapidâ€™s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party.
Isaac Herzog of the Labor Party, another participant in todayâ€™s foreign policy debate, said itâ€™s fine for American officials to criticize Israel as long as they know the facts.
â€śAfter that, they can be a critical friend, because thatâ€™s what friends are for,â€ť said Mr. Herzog, the son of former Israeli president Chaim Herzog.
Yitzhak Hanegbi of Mr. Netanyahuâ€™s Likud-Yisrael Beitenu bloc joked during todayâ€™s debate that all of Israelâ€™s friends, even tiny Micronesia, are critical friends. On a more solemn note, he added that part of being a friend is trying to understand Israelâ€™s â€śfears and hopes,â€ť and expressed gratitude to the US for striving to do just that â€“Â despite personal tensions between Obama and Netanyahu.
â€śWe believe that the president feels for Israel,â€ť he said. â€śEven though sometimes personal tensions do occur, it has nothing to do with the strategy and with the instincts of the US toward Israel.â€ť