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Israel avoids public spat with Obama over Chuck Hagel defense nomination

Mark Wilson / Getty Images file

Defense nominee Chuck Hagel is a decorated Vietnam combat veteran.


TEL AVIV, Israel — Even before he was nominated to become the next U.S. secretary of defense, the bad-mouthing of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel had already begun.

Warnings flew like salvos across the U.S. media and beyond: Hagel is soft on Iran and no friend of Israel. Tea Party and Republican critics of the moderate and pragmatic Hagel smelled blood.

Ted Cruz, a freshman senator from Texas, said that Hagel "would make war with Iran more likely because he's too nice to Iran."

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Hagel would be "the most antagonistic secretary of defense towards the state of Israel in our nation's history."

So you would expect to see the vitriol flowing here in Israel, especially just days before a crucial parliamentary election — on Jan. 22 — in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is struggling to head off a late populist surge by an even more right-wing candidate.

But there have been no anti-Hagel protests outside the U.S. Embassy and no angry Israelis heard on radio talk shows. In fact, reaction to all the uproar back home has been muted.

'Dark cloud'
It's true that Israelis in general aren't happy with the nomination. "It represents a dark cloud over the relationship between the two countries, and it borders on hostility," said Simon Schiffer, a political analyst with the Yediot Ahronot daily newspaper.

Hagel's willingness to engage with Iran and its client, Hamas, upsets most Israelis, Schiffer noted. But he went on to say that “U.S. policy towards Israel is set in the White House, and there you can find today a president who has a very warm approach to Israel but at the same time a very angry and cold policy towards Netanyahu and his government.”

Related: Hagel — a man without a party

So far, Israeli government reaction has been minimal and mixed. Reuven Rivlin, the powerful speaker of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, told The Associated Press he is worried about Hagel "because of his statements in the past and his stance toward Israel."

But Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, wrapping up a trip to the U.S., told a group of major Jewish organizations that he personally knew and worked with Hagel and found him to be "a decent and fair interlocutor who believes in the natural partnership between Israel and the United States."

Until Sunday there had been not a peep from Netanyahu himself, whose "iron fist" approach to Iran, Hamas and the Palestinian territories seems diametrically opposed to Hagel's instinct for dialogue.

"I do not interfere in the political appointments of the U.S. president. It is his prerogative,'' Netanyahu told Israel's Army Radio. "Congress decides and confirms, and we will work with whoever is chosen.''

One Israeli official told NBC News that Netanyahu's silence doesn't mean he's not angry.

After making the mistake of “backing the wrong horse — [Gov. Mitt] Romney — during the last U.S. election, he's not willing to play that game again,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record about policy matters.

'Revenge' for Romney?
Sever Plocker, an influential Israeli commentator, went further by suggesting that Obama picked Hagel as “revenge” for Netanyahu's public support for Romney.

Hagel hasn't yet defended his positions before the U.S. Senate, but he has faced the court of public opinion, emphasizing in recent days his "unequivocal support for Israel." On Iran, he told Defense Department officials Wednesday that he also strongly "supports multilateral sanctions against Iran and that Tehran must be prevented from acquiring nuclear warheads."

Hagel may have gotten into some hot water with a comment — made years ago in Washington — that “the political reality is that …the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.” But on Monday one of the largest and most active of those "Jewish lobbies" -- the National Jewish Democratic Council -- released a statement saying it believes Hagel “will follow the president's lead in providing unrivaled support for Israel — on strategic cooperation, missile defense programs and leading the world against Iran's nuclear program.”

The consensus here is that Netanyahu may enjoy watching Hagel fight for his nomination in Washington, but staying out of the fight is probably a smart move.

Related stories:

Senators signal tough fight for Hagel

Full Israel coverage from NBC News