Israel's subdued response to Obama's pick of Chuck Hagel


US President Barack Obama (right) speaks during a news conference with former US Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) in the East Room at the White House on January 7, 2013 in Washington, DC. Pending approval by the Senate, the nomination of Hagel as Secretary of Defense will replace Leon E. Panetta.


Mark Wilson

JERUSALEM — The response to former Sen. Chuck Hagel's Secretary of Defense nomination was remarkably subdued here in Israel on Monday, a sign that Israeli politicians are far less worried about President Barack Obama's Pentagon pick than their US counterparts. 

Hagel's appointment is "interesting," a senior Israeli official told Business Insider. "But it's just interesting — it doesn't change anything between Israel and the US" 

"We have seen a lot of people hold this position, some better than others," the official added. "It's a relationship between two countries — Israel and the US, we are like brothers. No one person can change that." 

This reaction to Hagel's nomination was echoed in conversations with three senior Israeli government officials, as well as by political leaders across the Israeli political spectrum. 

"Regarding Chuck Hagel, it's none of our business, it's their prerogative — President Obama should be able to appoint whoever he wants to appoint," Neftali Bennett, leader of the far-right Jewish Home party, said Tuesday during a briefing with members of the foreign press. "Israel and America's bond goes way way beyond any two people." 

"I fully concur with Mr. Bennett," chimed in Labor leader Isaac Herzog, Bennett's ideological opposite. "If my wife can be a critical friend, the United States can be a critical friend — of course there can be critical friends, that's what friends are for." 

Israelis' zen attitude toward Hagel stands in stark contrast to the reaction from pro-Israel groups and lawmakers in the US. Since rumors of Hagel's nomination began percolating last month, the former Nebraska senator has faced intense criticism from Republicans and pro-Israel Democrats over his past positions and statements on Iran and Israel, including a statement he made in 2006 criticizing the power of the "Jewish lobby" in Washington. 

Israelis we spoke to brushed off these issues as mostly irrelevant.

"What someone says when they are outside of the office is always different from what they say when they are in office," said one defense official, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. "First you take the job, then someone explains everything to you." 

The officials we spoke to did say, however, that the one potential area of concern with Hagel is the issue of Iran, Israel's largest security threat. As a senator, Hagel voted against sanctions on Iran and strongly spoke out against the use of military force to stop the Iranian nuclear program. 

"Hopefully, he will explain all of that before he is approved [in Senate confirmation hearings]," one official said. 

That official added that worries over Hagel's position on Iran are also mitigated by the setup of US executive branch, which concentrates power in the Oval Office. Obama, the official said, reassured Israelis during the presidential debates this fall, when he said that the back-and-forth over Iran's nuclear program "cannot go on indefinitely." 

During Tuesday's briefing, Bennett and other Israeli political leaders concurred. 

"I take Obama at his word when he says that he cannot accept a nuclear Iran," Bennett said.

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