Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Yaalon, left, takes Defense Secretary… (Israel Ministry of Defense…)
JERUSALEM -- Not long ago, Chuck Hagel’s past comments about Israel nearly torpedoed his nomination as Defense secretary. In his first visit here since winning confirmation, he’s sticking to one word in particular: “Friend."
“I look forward to renewing some old friendships,” Hagel told reporters on the flight from Washington. Aides noted he had visited Israel six times as a U.S. senator from Nebraska and as a private citizen.
After touring Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Hagel addressed a message in the guest book Sunday to “my friends of Israel.” He praised the museum and archive for its “beautiful and important tribute” and signed it, “your friend, Chuck Hagel.”
Hagel has appeared a veteran statesman in his first two days of meetingS here, touting not only the close relationship between the United States and Israel but also his own fidelity to the Jewish people.
In 2006, Hagel was quoted as saying that military force to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon wasn’t “a viable, feasible, responsible option.” But speaking Monday at the Israeli Defense Ministry, Hagel echoed the Obama administration’s position that military force remained an option.
“As President Obama stated, Israel has a right to defend itself, by itself, against any threat,” Hagel said.
The Obama administration favors a stepped-up campaign of economic sanctions and political pressure against Iran to find a diplomatic solution. It says that military force should be a last resort -- a view that senior Israeli officials, for now, seem to share.
Hagel’s three-day visit to Israel, his longest stop in a weeklong Mideast swing, comes less than two months after he emerged from a bitter confirmation process, including an unusual filibuster by his former Republican colleagues, that focused in part on his views about the Middle East.
For weeks, some senators and pro-Israeli lobbying groups pilloried Hagel as soft on Iran due to his past opposition to unilateral sanctions and military action to stop the Iranian nuclear threat. One ill-chosen phrase from 2006 -- “the Jewish lobby” -- particularly haunted Hagel, with critics describing it as borderline anti-Semitic.
Hagel, who apologized for that remark during a testy confirmation hearing on Jan. 31, says he’s moved on. “The confirmation hearing was years ago,” he said.
U.S. officials are trying to finalize a major arms sale to Israel that includes V-22 Osprey transport helicopters, KC-135 refueling aircraft, advanced radar and other equipment to bolster the Israeli military, already by far the strongest in the Middle East.
Hagel said the Obama administration is “committed to providing Israel with whatever support is necessary” and has approved $3.1 billion in direct assistance to the Israeli military this year, the highest ever for any country.
At a joint news conference Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said, “I want, Chuck, to express my personal appreciation for your friendship and for your solid and powerful support for our country.”
Still, Hagel hasn’t been able to escape his past comments. An Israeli reporter asked how his current rhetoric squared with his remarks in 2006. Hagel responded: “I’ve also said over the years one consistent thing: that all military options, and every option, must remain on the table in dealing with Iran. That’s been a consistent position of mine regardless of the positions I’ve held as a U.S. senator and as a civilian.”
Since taking office, Hagel has quietly worked to reassure his critics, particularly in the Senate, where he served for 12 years and built close friendships -- some of which were tested during the nomination process.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington last week, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who voted against Hagel’s confirmation after saying Iran had endorsed him for defense secretary, called Hagel a friend.
“We worked together for a long period of time, had some difference of opinion,” Inhofe said. “We'll always remain good friends.”
In Israel, where criticism of Hagel was more muted, conservative analysts say they expected little from his visit. Ruthie Blum, a right-wing columnist at the newspaper Israel Hayom, said Hagel was merely echoing views expressed in recent visits by President Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry -- and was trying not to make headlines.
“When Obama and Kerry came here, they led the news. For Hagel, you have to search for it,” Blum said. “He has spoken platitudes that were to be expected.
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