Pro-Israel groups, neoconservatives and even some former colleagues on Capitol Hill are confronting US President Barack Obama with a growing backlash against former US senator Chuck Hagel, the Republican tipped as his leading candidate for defense secretary.
Obama’s aides have given no sign of dropping Hagel from consideration, even after several US Jewish leaders complained about his policy views, most notably on Israel and Iran, at a White House-hosted Hanukkah party last week, one attendee said.
However, 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 US Minister of Defense 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 have said.
However, 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. However, even they are skeptical of being able to derail it.
Obama himself has faced questions from US Jewish leaders about his approach to close US ally Israel, especially given his strained relations with Israeli 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 US Senate Republican foreign policy aide said. “Do they really want this in the first months of a second term?”
Some of Israel’s leading US supporters contend that Hagel, who left the Senate in 2008, at times opposed Israel’s interests, voting several times against US 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.”