WASHINGTON - Shortly after being nominated as the next US secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel said his record shows "unequivocal, total support for Israel," insisting that critics have misrepresented his views on the Jewish state.
In an interview with the Lincoln Journal Star, Hagel also dismissed claims that he was soft on Iran.
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The former Republican senator told the Nebraska newspaper that he had been “hanging out there in no-man’s land unable to respond to charges, falsehoods and distortions.”
After being named the next Pentagon chief, Hagel finally feels free to set the record straight.
There is "not one shred of evidence that I'm anti-Israeli, not one (Senate) vote that matters that hurt Israel," he said.
"I didn't sign on to certain resolutions and letters because they were counter-productive and didn't solve a problem," he added.
Hagel has come under fire for not joining the majority of his Senate colleagues in supporting various policies sought by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington.
"How does that further the peace process in the Middle East?" Hagel asked. "What's in Israel's interest is to help Israel and the Palestinians find some peaceful way to live together."
Addressing his positions on Iran, Hagel pointed to his support for strong international sanctions meant to stunt the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, including those now in place.
"I have not supported unilateral sanctions because when it is us alone they don't work and they just isolate the United States," he said.
"United Nations sanctions are working. When we just decree something, that doesn't work.
"The distortions about my record have been astounding," Hagel said.
'Israel is in difficult position'
Hagel recognized that his views on Israel and Iran have been the primary focus of his opponents, and added he looks forward to responding with a more accurate understanding of his views during the confirmation process.
"I have said many times that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism," he said. "I have also questioned some very cavalier attitudes taken about very complicated issues in the Middle East.
"Israel is in a very, very difficult position. No border that touches Israel is always secure. We need to work to help protect Israel so it doesn't get isolated.
"Furthering the peace process in the Middle East is in Israel's interest."
The nomination has caused jitters in the Jewish state, where some circles view Hagel as unsympathetic or even hostile.
"Because of his statements in the past, and his stance toward Israel, we are worried," Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) told The Associated Press. But, he added, the strategic partnership between the US 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 foreign and defense ministries. But Rivlin's comments reflected what has been a common sentiment among analysts and commentators in Israel in recent days.
'Leader our troops deserve'
President Barack Obama said he was sending the US military "one of its own" Monday as he selected Hagel, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, to lead the Pentagon as it scales back spending and winds down a decade of war.
Hagel would be the first enlisted military member to become secretary of defense, and Obama called him "the leader our troops deserve."
"In Chuck Hagel our troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength," Obama said as he introduced Hagel at a White House news conference. "They see one of their own," who will champion veterans and military families.
An Army infantry sergeant who risked his life to pull his younger brother to safety while both were serving in Vietnam, Hagel would bring to the job a gritty view of war and the independent temperament to express those views.
He is known as a contrarian Republican moderate who was a fierce critic of the Bush administration's war policies and he is likely to support a more rapid withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
Long the frontrunner for the Pentagon job, Hagel, 66, forged a strong personal relationship with Obama in the Senate, including overseas trips they took together. And he carved out a reputation as an independent thinker and blunt speaker.
'Hagel appointment - slap in face'
Hagel has suggested he will not be shy in disagreeing with the commander-in-chief and his outspoken nature has already given some senators, who will confirm his nomination, pause.
Hagel has criticized discussion of a military strike by either the US or Israel against Iran and spoken of the influence of the "Jewish lobby" on Congress. He also has backed efforts to bring Iran to the table for talks on future peace in Afghanistan.
"The appointment of Chuck Hagel would be a slap in the face for every American who is concerned about the safety of Israel," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
As defense secretary, Hagel would preside over the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan and the waning days of the war, and would direct some of the steepest cuts in Pentagon spending in years.
His task would be to restructure a pared down military that can step away from the grinding wars of the past 11 years and refocus on a swath of regional challenges from Syria, Iran and North Korea to terrorism in Africa.
AP contributed to the report
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