By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN – While some Jewish organizations have come out against the possible nomination of Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel in Omaha is excited at the prospect.
Azriel has invited Hagel to speak at his temple in the past.
“I actually like him a lot,” said Azriel, who grew up in Israel. “I find him extremely open-minded, definitely understanding the Middle East extremely well.”
And while the Zionist Organization of America, the oldest Jewish organization in America, is lobbying against Hagel’s nomination due to his past positions on Israel and Iran, Azriel thinks Hagel is the right man for the job.
“He understands both sides of the conflict,” Azriel said. “The situation is pretty frozen there in the Middle East.”
He fears a third intifada is on the horizon if something doesn’t change – while the ZOA calls Hagel a “frightening and dangerous apologist for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hizballah.” The group also warns that if President Obama nominates Hagel, it will confirm fears that he’s no friend of Israel.
Azriel doesn’t see it that way. He had a three-hour conversation with Hagel about the Middle East after he visited the temple.
“People who know Chuck Hagel actually think that this is the right person,” he said. “I found him extremely intelligent, with new fresh ideas. I developed serious trust in him.”
The Republican Jewish Coalition has come out against Hagel’s appointment, and he’s been criticized by the National Jewish Democratic Council for urging Obama to directly negotiate with Hamas, blocking an Iran sanctions bill, refusing to formally call on the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization and refusing to sign a Senate letter of support of Israel.
“This does not scare me,” Azriel said. “I would be talking to the devil if I need to make peace in the Middle East. … There’s no way to create peace without talking to some groups that are not palatable.”
Richard Robinson, a Norfolk steel distributor who is Jewish and a member of Temple Israel, considers Hagel a very close friend he met when Hagel was preparing to run for the U.S. Senate.
“I think he’s a very smart man,” Robinson said. “He’s a tremendously independent person and he is a big picture person. I think that anyone who insinuates he’s anti-Israel or anti-Semitic is full of crap.”
The heat Hagel is getting is indicative of the state of U.S. politics, Robinson said. He said Hagel was right when he said in a 2006 interview: “I’m a United States senator, not an Israeli senator.” He said he supported Israel but, “my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States. Not to a president. Not a party. Not to Israel.”
He’s talked to Hagel about what’s going on now, and Hagel said, “It’s a little bit of politics.”
“He always believes in talking before fighting,” Robinson said. “This is a very open-minded fair man who looks at the world in the big picture.”
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