AIPAC Delegates, Mindful of 'Baggage' and Obama's Prerogative, Cautious About Hagel

WASHINGTON – The appointment of Chuck Hagel as Defense secretary drew a lukewarm response from delegates attending the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference on Monday but most expressed hope that the former Nebraska senator will display greater support in the future for one of the nation’s closest allies.

“Ultimately I think it will strengthen the ties between Israel and the U.S. – at least I hope so,” said Kim Bongar, of Calabasas, Calif. “There’s no direction but forward, I guess. I’ve definitely been concerned about it and I hope as he moves forward in his role he’ll become more aware of what’s happening in Israel and the region and act appropriately.”

The Hagel choice proved unpopular among conservatives despite his Republican affiliation. Most of the dissatisfaction with President Obama’s choice stemmed from what is perceived as his tepid view of Israel, maintaining that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” in one interview regarding Israel’s influence in the Capitol and further asserting that “I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator.”

Those remarks, and others, led to pointed opposition at his confirmation hearing. The appointment was delayed until sufficient Republicans agreed to permit a vote. Hagel insists he is a strong supporter of Israel and walked back most of his controversial remarks.

Concerns over Hagel were on display on the second day of the conference of AIPAC, which stayed out of the Hagel fight, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the district. Sen. John McCain(R-Ariz.), among those who led the fight against the Hagel nomination, proved one of the day’s most popular speakers when he lambasted the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

Citing the threat to Israel posed by a nuclear Iran, McCain insisted Tehran must be convinced that “there is no space between the United States and Israel."

And in what was perceived as a shot at Hagel, McCain offered, “We need members of the National Security team who are pro-Israel, not anti-Israel.”

Rep. Eric Cantor, of Virginia, the House Republican leader, another AIPAC speaker, said he has never questioned America’s resolve and support for Israel “until now.” Cantor insisted that Israel is “under attack” and also took a veiled jab at Hagel.

“It is only recently where I have begun to worry,’’ Cantor said. “I worry that some of our nation’s leaders are complacent. I worry that some in Washington think we must retreat to our domestic politics and reduce focus overseas. I worry that in the pursuit of comity with Israel’s foes, some will seek distance. I worry that they indeed overlook the gift that is Israel.”

But while most delegates expressed concern about the appointment they also adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

“He wouldn’t have been my pick but the president gets to choose,” said Joy Erickson of Park City, Utah. “He has some baggage and said some things that were questionable. But obviously I hope he’ll do a good job.”

Ezriel Cervik, of Michigan, offered a similar analysis.

“I don’t particularly think he’s the right man for the job, but we must now move forward and work together to maintain stability in the region,” Cervik said.

Rabbi Samuel Kieffer, of Penn Valley, Pa., listed himself with those who “share some of the doubts expressed about him based on his track record and some of his statements – his reputation or alleged statements that he’s not supportive of Israel.”

“But he was chosen by the president and I’m willing to give him a chance,” Kieffer said. “That said, I have concerns about the present administration.”

Michael Mayer, of Livingston, N.J., was more than concerned with the administration – he openly opposes the Hagel selection.

“It sends a terrible signal to Iran, having an Iran appeaser as secretary of Defense,” Mayer said. “The appointment speaks to Barak Obama more than Hagel. The appeasement game is the order of the day. It sends a message to Israel to be careful.”

But Lucy Friedman, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., took the opposite view, citing Hagel’s experience as an enlisted man during the Vietnam War – and the injuries that earned him a Purple Heart – as sufficient reason to support Hagel’s choice.

“I’m not at all bothered by it,” she said. “Someone who has served our country in war, has been decorated, saw action, took shrapnel, he has proven himself above and beyond. Who am I to question such a man? The others, who are they to question such a man?”