BARACK Obama has been accused by senior Republicans of insulting Israel by preparing to unveil a critic of Washington’s ‘‘Jewish lobby’’ as his next defence secretary.
The US President is today widely expected to nominate Chuck Hagel, a former senator and long-standing political ally, to head the Pentagon, following the imminent departure of Leon Panetta.
Republicans sharply criticised the choice, promising to question Mr Hagel on Israel and his other views in confirmation hearings by the Senate, which must approve his appointment.
Lindsey Graham, a senator for South Carolina, yesterday described the selection as an ‘‘in-your-face nomination’’, telling CNN that Mr Hagel ‘‘would be the most antagonistic secretary of defence towards the state of Israel in our nation’s history’’
Despite being a fellow Republican who sat in the Senate for the party from 1997 to 2009, Mr Hagel holds markedly less hawkish views on foreign and military policy than many former colleagues.
The Vietnam veteran endorsed Mr Obama, a Democrat, in 2008, having criticised the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and urging a less gung-ho approach to the US alliance with Israel.
In a 2006 interview, he said that the ‘‘political reality’’ of Washington was that ‘‘the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here’’.
‘‘I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator,’’ he said in 2008.
Mr Hagel, 66, also voted against sanctions on Iran and urged Israel to engage in direct talks with Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the upper chamber, predicted that Mr Hagel would face ‘‘a lot of tough questions’’ from disgruntled Republicans.
‘‘His views with regard to Israel, for example, and Iran, and all the other positions that he’s taken over the years will be very much a matter of discussion in the confirmation process,’’ Senator McConnell said.
In addition to tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, Mr Hagel is also likely to have to confront sharp cuts in spending on the military opposed by many Republicans.
Ted Cruz, a newly elected senator, said he too was ‘‘concerned’’. He accused Mr Obama of being ‘‘high on re-election’’.
The choice of Mr Hagel was defended by Heidi Heitkamp, a Democratic senator, who described him as ‘‘a tremendous patriot and statesman’’.
The controversy comes weeks after Republican opposition dashed the hopes of Susan Rice, reportedly Mr Obama’s first choice for secretary of state.