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Questions for Hagel

January 9, 2013
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Chuck Hagel

Should the Jewish community go to the mat to oppose President Barack Obama’s pick for secretary of defense? That is the thorny question roiling many of our advocacy institutions after former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) was officially tapped this week to head the Pentagon in Obama’s second term.

There’s good reason for alarm. Hagel’s history of comments on a host of issues — from the pro-Israel lobby to Israeli policies to the nature of Hezbollah and Hamas — raise justifiable red flags.

Hagel’s remarks on Iran are also generating scrutiny. A reluctance to plunge the United States into war with Iran is a good thing, given that we’re still extricating ourselves from a dec­ade in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time, reports that Iran’s regime is rejoicing at the prospect of a Hagel tenure is less than reassuring.

Even as it pursues international sanctions and likely pointless negotiations with Tehran, it is incumbent on the Obama administration — and his entire Cabinet — to reaffirm his commitment that “all options are on the table.” Without a viable military threat, Iran is left to pursue its march toward becoming a nuclear power.

When Hagel arrives for his confirmation hearings, the senators need to press him on these issues. We need to hear about his current views on Iran, on isolating Hamas and Hezbollah, and on his commitment to the strong military and strategic cooperation that characterized Obama’s first term.

What we don’t need is a public reassessment of U.S. foreign policy on Israel and what it means to be pro-Israel, which some commentators, such as Roger Cohen of The New York Times, have blithely suggested. With security threats emanating from Iran, the Arab Middle East and southeast Asia, a targeted focus on Israel would be folly.

In the end, it’s the president’s positions that matter most. He took some missteps early in his first term, creating a public furor over settlements that not only fueled tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu but also did nothing to advance the goal of a two-state solution.

Now is not the time to jeopardize the relations between Obama and Netanyahu that had begun to thaw or to risk a rift with the Jewish community. Many of the foreign policy and security concerns facing America today — especially Iran and a Middle East that continues to erupt two years after the so-called Arab spring — pose direct threats to Israel.

Hagel’s confirmation must be scrutinized but it does no one any good if the pro-Israel community is seen as trying to derail the nomination when he is likely to become the next secretary of defense anyway. Too much is at stake.

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