WASHINGTON — Sen. Chuck Schumer, an influential voice on U.S.-Israel relations, endorsed former Sen. Chuck Hagel for defense secretary Tuesday, giving the White House a key vote for its choice to lead the Pentagon.
The New York Democrat had initially expressed reservations about Hagel’s nomination. But after a 90-minute meeting at the White House on Tuesday, Schumer said in a statement that Hagel had distanced himself in their talks from controversial positions on Israel and Iran that were threatening to hold up his nomination.
Schumer’s extraordinary statement improves the likelihood that Hagel will win Senate confirmation, putting a key supporter of Israel in his camp and committing him to a series of specific positions on Israel and Iran that seem likely to win him the votes of other key senators.
According to Schumer, Hagel promised to make planning military options against Iran his “top priority,” if confirmed, disavowed a past call to open negotiations with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, and said further unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran may be necessary — positions that are seemingly at odds with stances Hagel has previously taken.
Hagel also told Schumer he regretted once using the term “Jewish lobby” to refer to Israel supporters in Washington and promised to work for “on-time delivery” of F-35 fighters and other military equipment to Israel, the statement said.
Schumer is unlikely to have issued such a detailed description of their conversation without the approval of the White Hosue and Hagel himself. It was an indication of just how nervous Hagel’s nomination had made many pro-Israel senators. Several Republicans, who have not forgiven Hagel for his harsh criticism of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, have already announced their opposition to the nomination.
Hagel himself issued no public comment on the meeting. In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., released Tuesday, he outlined many of the same positions and voiced support for last year’s repeal of the law that barred homosexuals from serving openly in the military.
Referring in the letter to his use of the term “Jewish lobby,” Hagel called it “a very poor choice of words,” adding, “I recognize this language can be construed as anti-Israel.”
“I know some will question whether Senator Hagel’s assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post. But I don’t think so. Senator Hagel realizes the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago. His views are genuine, and reflect this new reality,” Schumer said.
Hagel promised in the meeting to do “whatever it takes” to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, including taking military action, Schumer said, adding that Hagel had promised his “top priority” as defense secretary would be planning “military contingencies related to Iran.”
Hagel opponents have pointed to votes he made while in the Senate against some legislation imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran, and his support for negotiations with Tehran, as signs Hagel might be unwilling to use force to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
But Schumer’s lengthy press release on their meeting suggested that Hagel had retreated from a longstanding opposition to unilateral sanctions.
“Senator Hagel clarified that he ‘completely’ supports President Obama’s current sanctions against Iran. He added that further unilateral sanctions against Iran could be effective and necessary,” the statement said.
Schumer also referred to Hagel’s decision not to sign letter calling on European governments to list Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. “Senator Hagel stressed that — notwithstanding any letters he refused to sign in the past — he has always considered the group to be a terrorist organization,” Schumer said.
Referring to a 2009 letter in which Hagel urged Obama to open direct talks with Hezbollah, Schumer said Hagel “today believes there should be no negotiations with Hamas, Hezbollah or any other terrorist group until they renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.”