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More than a week after some pro-Israel organizations moved to torpedo the possible nomination of former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, Hagel supporters have pushed back.
Hagel is being slammed by groups including the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America and the Emergency Committee for Israel, which claim his record in support of Israel is weak.
An open letter in support of Hagel signed by eight former ambassadors was released Thursday, a day after a group of Hagel supporters began circulating a "Facts on Chuck Hagel" memo to rebut claims made by his detractors that he will not support Israel.
"We support, most strongly and without qualification, President Obama's reported intention to nominate Senator Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense," the group wrote. The ambassadors praised Hagel for having the courage to do what is politically risky in the best interests of the United States.
"Each of us has had the opportunity to work with Senator Hagel at one time or another on the issues of the Middle East," the ambassadors wrote. "He has invariably demonstrated strong support for Israel and for a two state solution and has been opposed to those who would undermine or threaten Israel's security."
Hagel is said to be favored by the White House for the top Pentagon job, not only for his knowledge of defense and foreign policy but because his Republican credentials would appeal to conservatives. If he is nominated and appointed, Hagel – a decorated Vietnam War veteran – would be just the third Secretary of Defense to have first-hand experience in combat.
But not only have members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, failed to rush to his defense in large numbers, some of those who have spoken say they are "concerned" with comments he made as a senator.
Neither the American Legion nor the Veterans of Foreign Wars would offer any comment when contacted by Military.com. Officials with Vietnam Veterans of America and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America spoke highly of Hagel for his work on military and veterans' issues, but declined to talk about the ongoing attacks against him made by some major Jewish organizations and groups.
"We like Hagel. We think he's a great guy, and having a combat veteran in there would be a good thing," Vietnam Veterans of America President John Rowan said. "The Israeli thing? That's not our thing. I'm not an expert on foreign policy. If there's an issue, they'll dredge it up at the confirmation hearing."
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and Executive Director of IAVA, called Hagel "a balanced, thoughtful, honest, non-partisan guy, and I think for our community, especially, it would be really important to have a combat veteran in this job … I'll let the experts on Israel comment on those [other] things."
One exception was Jon Soltz, founder of VoteVets.org, who on Thursday called the anti-Hagel arguments and attacks "cheap political antics."
Soltz, who is Jewish, told Military.com he has known and worked with Hagel. Hagel is neither an anti-Semite nor anti-Israel, Soltz said, but a moderate who has acted in the best interest of Israel.
"There is anti-Semitism in the world," said Soltz. "There are people who are against Israel. [Hagel's critics] need to reserve those comments for when it matter. What they're saying hurts all Jews, it hurts their ability to understand when [anti-Semitism] does exist."
Retired military analyst Chuck Spinney said there are legitimate reasons to question whether Hagel is right for the job. Spinney doubts Hagel will be tough enough to fight the entrenched interests at the Pentagon.
But Hagel is not anti-Israel or an anti-Semite, Spinney said.
"I am ambivalent about whether Chuck Hagel has the managerial and bureaucratic skills to make the kind of [Secretary] of Defense we need to clean out the Pentagon's Augean Stables," he told Military.com in an email Thursday. "[B]ut the outrageous neo-con assault on him because he does not kowtow to the [right-wing Israeli] party line is over the top."
No sooner had Hagel's name emerged as a possible successor to Leon Panetta in late November than critics of his views and past votes dealing with the Middle East began taking shots at him. Conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin accused him of wanting to negotiate with Hamas and not voting to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.
For the most part the anti-Hagel campaign has been waged in ink and online, with scant television coverage. That changed on Thursday with a television commercial sponsored by the Emergency Committee for Israel urging President Obama not to nominate Hagel.
Hagel's one-time Senate colleagues have largely remained quiet. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Diane Feinstein, both say they support Hagel.