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Graham: Hagel Would Be ‘Most Antagonistic’ Defense Secretary Toward Israel In Nation’s History

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Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks during the 19th International AIDS Conference on July 23, 2012 in Washington, D.C. (credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks during the 19th International AIDS Conference on July 23, 2012 in Washington, D.C. (credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — Republican senators fear former Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense would further deteriorate relations with Israel.

Top GOP senators are wary of Hagel’s possible stance on Israel after comments he made in 2007 saying that the “Jewish lobby intimidated lawmakers.”

“Chuck Hagel, if confirmed to be the secretary of defense, would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Not only has he said you should directly negotiate with Iran, sanctions won’t work, that Israel should directly negotiate with the Hamas organization – a terrorist group that lobs thousands of rockets into Israel – he also was one of 12 senators who refused to sign a letter to the European Union that Hezbollah should be designated as a terrorist organization.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, released a statement Sunday saying that Hagel’s nomination is the “worst possible message” the United States can send to its Middle East allies.

“His opposition to Iranian sanctions and support for direct, unconditional talks with its leaders is both at odds with current U.S. policy and a threat to global security,” Cornyn said in the statement. “To make matters worse, he has called for direct negotiations with Hamas.”

Hagel has criticized discussion of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran. 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.

But the pro-Democrat, pro-Obama National Jewish Democratic Council issued a statement Monday saying it trusts that Hagel “will follow the president’s lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel,” including “leading the world against Iran’s nuclear program.”

Hagel, 66, has for weeks been the front-runner for the Pentagon’s top job, four years after leaving behind a Senate career in which he carved out a reputation as an independent thinker and blunt speaker. An announcement on his nomination was expected Monday.

“I do think Obama’s done a good job overall. There are a lot of things I don’t agree with him on; he knows it,” Hagel told the foreign policy website Al-Monitor last March.

Wounded during the Vietnam War, Hagel backed the Iraq war, but later became a fierce and credible critic of the Bush administration’s war policies, making routine trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. He opposed President George W. Bush’s plan to send an additional 30,000 troops into Iraq — a move that has been credited with stabilizing the chaotic country — as “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out.”

While Hagel supported the Afghanistan war resolution, over time he has become more critical of the decade-plus conflict, with its complex nation-building effort.

Often seeing the Afghan war through the lens of his service in Vietnam, Hagel has declared that militaries are “built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations.” In a radio interview this year, he spoke broadly of the need for greater diplomacy as the appropriate path in Afghanistan, noting that “the American people want out” of the war.

In an October interview with the online Vietnam Magazine, Hagel said he remembers telling himself in 1968 in Vietnam, “If I ever get out of this and I’m ever in a position to influence policy, I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Hagel would succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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