Hagel addresses Anti-Defamation League at invitation of group’s director

Less than a year after some pro-Israel groups tried to torpedo his nomination to lead the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave a keynote address Thursday evening in New York to the Anti-Defamation League, an influential Jewish civil rights group.

Pentagon officials said Hagel was invited to speak by Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the league. Foxman was among Hagel’s toughest critics during his acrimonious confirmation process, calling his record on Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship “at best disturbing and at worst, very troubling.”

The two men, however, have apparently worked to mend fences since the Senate narrowly approved Hagel’s nomination by a 58 to 41 vote in February. Shortly after taking office, Hagel hosted a meeting with a group of pro-Israel leaders, including Foxman. The two also met separately at the Pentagon in August, defense officials said.

“The secretary has long had strong relationships with groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, which he greatly respects and admires,” said George Little, the Pentagon press secretary.

In a phone interview Thursday, Foxman said he has been impressed with Hagel’s job performance as well as his understanding of and support for Israel on security matters.

“I guess I changed my mind about what I think of him,” Foxman said with a chuckle. “The issues that separated us are a part of history.”

Foxman expressed a contrary opinion of Hagel in December, saying he “would not be the first, second or third choice” for defense secretary among pro-Israel Jews in America. In particular, Foxman questioned Hagel’s commitment to imposing sanctions against Iran and suggested that he wasn’t tough enough against other enemies of Israel, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

At the time, Foxman also singled out comments that Hagel had made in a 2006 interview when, as a Republican senator on Capitol Hill, he said: “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.” Foxman said those comments “border on anti-Semitism” and were “hurtful to the Jewish community.”

During the nomination battle, Hagel said his views on Israel were being “completely distorted” and that his support for the Jewish state was “unequivocal.” In April, shortly after taking charge at the Pentagon, he made a three-day visit to Israel and has regularly met with Israeli officials in Washington since then.

The Anti-Defamation League advertised Hagel as a “special guest” at its centennial meeting in New York on Thursday evening, which also featured a tribute to his predecessor as defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta.

In his speech, Hagel announced that the Pentagon would speed up the delivery of six tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey aircraft to Israel’s special forces, pledging to make them available in two years. The agreement to provide the Ospreys to Israel was originally disclosed in April as part of a broader $10 billion arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“The Israeli and American defense relationship is stronger than ever, and it will continue to strengthen,” Hagel said, according to a copy of his prepared remarks.

Another senior Obama administration official, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, addressed the league during a luncheon Thursday.

Power took office in August after receiving support from many pro-Israel groups, although some drew attention to critical comments she had made in 2002 when she called on the United States to invest billions of dollars “not in servicing Israel’s military, but actually investing in the new state of Palestine.”

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.
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