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Fact Sheets: Nomination of Chuck Hagel to U.S. Secretary of Defense

(Updated February 2013)

On January 7, 2013, U.S. President Barack Obama nominated Charles 'Chuck' Hagel as Secretary of Defense to replace Leon Panetta. The selection of Hagel - a decorated Vietnam War veteran and former two-term Nebraska Senator - elicited major partisan debate over his views on the US-Israel relationship, sanctions against Iran and American policy in the Middle East.

After weeks of contentious debate, the Senate confirmed Hagel for the post on February 26, 2013, in the closest vote ever for a nominated secretary, 58-41, with only four Republican senators voting in support.

The following is a backgrounder on Hagel to help understand his views on Israel and the Middle East.  Included is a sampling of comments and excerpted remarks from Hagel over the course of his political career as well as a selection of reactions to the Hagel nomination published by newspapers and independent political organizations

Hagel Quotes:

U.S.-Israel Relations:

"I intend to expand the depth and breadth of U.S.-Israel cooperation ... I know the pro-Israel lobby is comprised of both Jewish and non-Jewish Americans. In the Senate, I was a strong supporter of Defense appropriations, which provided enduring support for Israel's security. Most Americans, myself included, are overwhelmingly supportive of a strong U.S.-Israel strategic and security relationship."
     Letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer [D-NY] (2013)

"The United States will remain committed to defending Israel. Our relationship with Israel is a special and historic one. But it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships. That is an irresponsible and dangerous false choice."
     Statement on Senate Floor (2006)


"I agree that with Iran's continued rejection of diplomatic overtures, further effective actions, both multilateral and unilateral may be necessary, and I will support the President."
     Letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer [D-NY] (2013)

"The two options – attack Iran or live with a nuclear-armed Iran – may be eventually where we are. But I believe most people in both Israel and the United States think there's a ways to go before we get to those."
     Interview with Foreign Policy (2012)

U.S. Middle East Policy:

"President Obama has placed the Middle East conflict at the center of U.S. strategic policy ... We all recognize that the Middle East represents an explosive political issue for any President. The history of failure hangs heavy over this issue with high accompanying political consequences ... I have great admiration for Members of Congress who are willing to put aside political differences and invest their political futures in helping shape and produce a just and lasting peace for all people in the Middle East."
     JStreet Conference (2009)

Israeli-Palestinian Issues:

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central, not peripheral, to U.S. vital security interests in combating terrorism, preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, stability in the Middle East and U.S. and global energy security.” He spoke of his support for the 2009 Saudi Peace Initiative that in his words would require "Israeli withdrawal from all land occupied since 1967, a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem, and acceptance of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital."
     JStreet Conference (2009)


"I have always believed that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and often stated so in my 2008 book and in many public remarks."
     Letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer [D-NY] (2013)

The Obama Administration has been a vocal leader in the campaign to encourage the European Union to designate the Lebanese Shi'ite group a terrorist organization. However, Hagel was among the dozen U.S. Senators who did not sign a 2006 letter (click here for Philadelphia Jewish Voice 2006 article on letter) urging the EU to officially label Hezbollah a terrorist organization.


"We've got to understand great-power limitations. There are so many uncontrollable variables at play in Syria and the Middle East. You work through the multilateral institutions that are available, the U.N., the Arab League. The last thing you want is an American-led or Western-led invasion into Syria."
     Interview with Foreign Policy (2012)

"Another link to comprehensive Middle East peace is Syria. Syria is at the intersection of many challenges for the United States in this area: Israel-Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq – and their relationships with our important longtime NATO ally, Turkey. Dealing with Syria is not easy and it will require time, energy, and focus… like all complicated diplomatic issues and relationships. Do we believe we can fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seek to isolate Iran, support political stability in Lebanon, and improve Israel’s security – by isolating Syria? This is a bewildering notion if that’s what one believes. It certainly hasn’t worked so far."
     JStreet Conference (2009)

Reaction to Hagel Nomination:


"A record of extreme views makes Hagel an unwise pick, and the president's decision points to more rancorous fights to come."
     Roger Wicker [R-MS]

"[Hagel] told me that if there's one thing in his life that he'd like to take back, it's [criticizing the influence of the 'Jewish lobby']. And he was very devastated about it looking back ... I urge more of my colleagues to come out [and support Hagel]."
    Barbara Boxer [D-CA]

"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."
    Chuck Schumer [D-NY]

"My questions about [Hagel] ... are what is his views about America's role in the world? ... Why would he oppose calling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization? ... these are legitimate questions that need to be asked"
     John McCain [R-AZ]

"[Hagel will be] the most antagonistic secretary of Defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history ... I can’t wait for him to tell me why he thought the Iran Revolutionary Guard in Iran wasn’t a terrorist organization …What kind of signal does this send to Israel and Iran."
    Lindsey Graham [R-SC]


Wall Street Journal:

"Mr. Obama can do better than Mr. Hagel—for example, by choosing former Defense Under Secretary Michele Flournoy, or perhaps Colin Powell. If he does nominate Mr. Hagel, the Senate will have to prevent the Administration’s senior security ranks from being dominated by a flock of doves who think the world is better off with a militarily weaker America."

Washington Post:

"Mr. Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term — and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him."

Washington Times:

"There is nothing in Mr. Hagel’s record to commend him to an office that until now has been held by men of mature judgment and with the achievements to prove it ... Much of the examination of Mr. Hagel’s record will center on his view of the Middle East, and how American foreign policy should be shaped there ... Mr. Hagel has opposed the tightening of sanctions against Iran. He has said spiteful things about Israel, the loyalties of American Jews and the so-called 'Jewish lobby' in Congress."

Defense News:

"Hagel should and will survive to succeed Leon Panetta as defense secretary. He’s smart, well-versed in national security issues, knows the players at home and abroad, can be blunt or smooth and diplomatic, as necessary, and above all, is seen as a good and focused leader ... Hagel’s reluctance to use force isn’t weakness, but wisdom ... With so much work bearing down on the Pentagon, the sooner Hagel is confirmed and gets on the job, the better."

Jewish Organizations:

American Israel Public Affairs Committee:

This primiere PAC has largely sat out from announcing its opinion or position about the Hagel nomination, having not yet released any official statements.

American Jewish Committee:

Executive Director David Harris: “The first AJC encounter with Sen. Hagel I recall was when we sought his support, in 1999, for a Senate letter to then Russian President Boris Yeltsin urging action against rising anti-Semitism. We were unsuccessful. On June 20, 1999, we published the letter as a full-page ad in The New York Times with 99 Senate signatories. Only Sen. Hagel’s name was absent. Our concern then has only grown since, as we have witnessed his stance on a range of core U.S. national security priorities."

Anti-Defamation League:

President Abe Foxman said in December 2012 that "[Hagel's statements on Washington's pro-Israel community] border on anti-Semitism."

“Chuck Hagel would not be the first, second, or third choice for the American Jewish community’s friends of Israel. His record relating to Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship is, at best, disturbing, and at worst, very troubling. The sentiments he’s expressed about the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism in the genre of professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt and former president Jimmy Carter.”

The Israel Project:

Executive Director Josh Block: “The record speaks for itself, on issues like consistently voting against sanctions on Iran to stop their pursuit of nuclear weapons capability, against naming [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] a terrorist organization, refusing to call on the European Union to name Hezbollah — which has killed more Americans than any terrorist group in the world except Al-Qaeda — as a terrorist organization.”

National Jewish Democratic Council:

“President Barack Obama’s unprecedented pro-Israel credentials are unquestionable, and setting policy starts and stops with the President. While we have expressed concerns in the past, we trust that when confirmed, former Senator Chuck Hagel will follow the President’s lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel—on strategic cooperation, missile defense programs, and leading the world against Iran’s nuclear program.”

Republican Jewish Coalition:

"[Hagel's nomination is] a slap in the face for every American who is concerned about the safety of Israel."

Sources: American Jewish Committee (January 7, 2013); The Atlantic (December 19, 2012); Atlantic Council (October 27, 2009); Christian Science Monitor (January 13, 2013); Defense News (January 14, 2013); Emergency Committee for Israel; Huffington Post (January 9, 2013);  JStreet; Los Angeles Times (January 6, 2013); Mondoweiss (January 7, 2013); National Jewish Democratic Council (January 7, 2013);  Open Zion (December 18, 2012);  Reuters (February 27, 2013); USA Today (February 27, 2013); Washington Post (December 18, 2012; January 6, 2013); Washington Times (January 7, 2013); Wikipedia (Secretary of Defense; Chuck Hagel)