Hagel nomination cheers Iran, worries Israel

CBS/AP – Jan 8, 2013

Iran’s Foreign Ministry says it is hopeful the appointment of former Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon would improve relations between Tehran and the U.S.

Asked about Hagel’s nomination, ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said Tuesday that Tehran was hopeful that there would be “practical changes” to U.S. foreign policy, and that nations would change their attitude towards the U.S. if it respected their rights.

Hagel was nominated Monday and faces tough confirmation hearings. Critics have said he is hostile toward Israel and soft on Iran.

Washington and Tehran have no diplomatic relations since 1979 when Iranian militants stormed the U.S embassy and took American diplomats hostages.

Tensions have spiked over America’s belief that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapon, a charge Iran denies.

Hagel’s nomination is causing jitters in Israel, on the other hand, where some view the former Nebraska senator as unsympathetic or even hostile.

Hagel’s positions on Israel’s two most pressing foreign policy issues — Iran’s nuclear program and relations with the Palestinians — appear to be at odds with the Israeli government, and critics here fear the appointment could increase pressure on the Jewish state to make unwanted concessions. The appointment could also signal further strains in what is already a cool relationship between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to win re-election later this month.

“Because of his statements in the past, and his stance toward Israel, we are worried,” Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of the Israeli parliament and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, told The Associated Press. But, he added, the strategic partnership between the U.S. and Israel is strong and “one person doesn’t determine policy.”

Netanyahu’s office refused to comment on the appointment, as did officials in the Israeli foreign and defense ministries. But Rivlin’s comments reflected what has been a common sentiment among analysts and commentators here in recent days. In their evening news broadcasts, Israel’s three main TV stations on Monday all portrayed Hagel as cool toward Israel.

Known as a maverick in the Senate, Hagel has raised eyebrows in Israel with a series of comments and actions over the years that some here have deemed insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state.

Hagel once said “the Jewish lobby (in the United States) intimidates a lot of people here” and does some “dumb things” that aren’t “smart for Israel.” He also said that “I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator.”

“I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States, not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel,” he said.

Six years ago, he refused to sign a letter pressing the European Union to declare the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrilla group a terrorist organization.

Hagel’s call in a bipartisan letter in 2009 for a `pragmatic’ approach toward Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, has also drawn criticism. The letter called for engaging Hamas to moderate its behavior, though it said direct U.S. engagement “may not now be practical.” Critics, pointing to the letter, have accused Hagel of supporting dialogue with Hamas.

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