Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has joined a list of prominent Jewish leaders who are supporting former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination for secretary of defense, despite objections from a vocal segment of the pro-Israel community.
A statement by Lautenberg’s office described his meeting with Hagel on Jan. 24.
“Senator Hagel and I had a constructive meeting, during which he answered a wide range of questions and allayed many of my concerns,” said Lautenberg, according to the statement. “Senator Hagel clarified his position on Iran sanctions and Israel, and I am confident he is firmly committed to ensuring a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. It also is clear to me that Senator Hagel will work to promote equal treatment and opportunities for all service members.”
Lautenberg said he and Hagel worked on a number of veterans’ initiatives during their time together in the Senate, and that Hagel’s military experience — he served in the Vietnam War — “will be an important guide as he moves forward in this new role.”
“He will have my support for Defense Secretary when the Senate votes on his nomination in the coming weeks,” said Lautenberg. “As we discussed in our meeting today, my colleagues and I will be watching his actions closely to ensure that issues of concern do not emerge as he takes on this critical position.”
“Sen. Lautenberg is standing by his statement,” his press secretary, Caley Gray, told NJ Jewish News. “He has nothing further to add.”
Critics of Hagel — including the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Zionist Organization of America, the Emergency Committee for Israel, and the Englewood-based pro-Israel NORPAC — say his record on Israel and Iran make him a poor choice for Defense. They point to the nominee’s proposals to engage with Iran and with such terrorist groups as Hamas and Hizbullah, his skepticism of sanctions and the efficacy of a military strike on Iran, and his criticism of Israel in how it deals with the Palestinians. In 2006, he referred to a “Jewish lobby” and asserted that as a lawmaker his loyalty was to the United States, not Israel.
“If Lautenberg runs again, I will hold it against him. Absolutely,” NORPAC president Ben Chouake told NJJN. “Frankly it is a tremendous disappointment. What is there about Hagel to endorse? He didn’t sign Iran and Libya sanctions. He didn’t sign Syrian sanctions. He’s against women in combat. He bashes gays. He is the bottom 2 percent of all senators in terms of supporting Israel.” (For an op-ed by Chouake on the Hagel nomination, go to www.njjewishnews.com.)
During a meeting at the White House on Jan. 18, Hagel assured Jewish leaders that he was determined to maintain Israel’s military edge in the Middle East and to ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapons capability. Attendees included leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
In endorsing Hagel, Lautenberg joined fellow Jewish senators Barbara Boxer (D-Ca.) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) in supporting his confirmation.
Among the nominee’s other Jewish backers are former Democratic House members Mel Levine, Gary Ackerman, and Robert Wexler; former AIPAC executive director Tom Dine; and philanthropist Charles Bronfman.
Questioned about such Jewish support, Chouake said, “What can I tell you? I think people are falling in line with president’s request, but this is the worst nominee for such an important post that I can remember in my lifetime. What is it about Hagel that people like? I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), a staunch supporter of Israel and advocate of tough sanctions against Iran, had not commented on Hagel’s nomination as of press time, but said on ABC News This Week on Jan. 27 that he would meet privately with Hagel this week.
“I look forward to asking him a series of questions about Israel, about Iran,” Menendez said on the program. “As the major sponsor of Iran sanctions in the Senate, I am concerned about some of the comments he has made about sanctions in the past. I think it is our best peaceful diplomacy tool to try to get the Iranians to ensure they have no nuclear weapons…,” adding that he supports Obama’s position on the issue.
“Menendez is in a tough place,” said Frank Oliveri, a reporter for the on-line newspaper Roll Call who has been covering the Hagel nomination. “He will be chairing the Foreign Relations Committee and is in a different position than he was a few weeks ago.
“As a member affiliated with the president’s party, there is enormous pressure on him not to step out against the president on his first big vote as chairman,” said Oliveri. “Defense secretaries have grown so involved on foreign policy in recent years. They have enormous resources at their disposal, and they play very strongly on foreign policy issues.”