By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM | Tue Jan 8, 2013 12:12pm IST
(Reuters) - A senior Israeli diplomat has given a positive view of Chuck Hagel's nomination as U.S. defense secretary, though some commentators in the Jewish state expressed worries that the choice could open a new fissure in bedrock ties with Washington.
U.S. President Barack Obama named the former Republican senator for the Pentagon post on Monday, setting the stage for a confirmation battle with critics who question his commitment to Israel in its struggle with Iran and other regional adversaries.
But Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, a former envoy to the United States, told the biggest-selling newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth in comments published on Tuesday: "I have met him (Hagel) many times, and he certainly regards Israel as a true and natural U.S. ally."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a rightist favoured to win national legislative polls on January 22, has yet to comment publicly on the nomination. He has had a testy relationship with Obama, a Democrat reelected in November, though both insist their coordination on Middle East security is sound.
Israel, which receives around $3 billion a year in U.S. defence grants, has at times angered the Obama administration by threatening preemptive war against the Iranians while world powers seek a diplomatic deal to resolve the crisis over Tehran's nuclear programme.
Obama has also criticised the Netanyahu government's settlement of occupied West Bank land, which the Palestinians blame for the two-year impasse in their peacemaking with Israel.
The pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom on Tuesday quoted an unnamed government official as saying the choice of Hagel was "very bad news," adding: "Clearly it won't be easy with him."
The official, reflecting the belief of several Israeli analysts that Obama would continue to set the tone for bilateral relations, suggested that having Hagel in the Pentagon would allow the second-term president "to play 'good cop'" with Netanyahu.
Many Republicans contend that Hagel, who left the Senate in 2008, at times opposed Israel's interests. He voted several times against U.S. sanctions on Iran, in whose nuclear programme Israel sees a mortal threat, and made disparaging remarks about the influence of what he called a "Jewish lobby" in Washington.
Hagel sought to beat back the bias allegations on Monday, telling the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper his record showed "unequivocal, total support for Israel" and that he had "said many times that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism".
"Furthering the peace process in the Middle East is in Israel's interest," added Hagel.
Despite the criticisms of Hagel, the White House believes it can garner enough support for him on both sides of the political aisle to win confirmation in the Democrat-led Senate.
A decorated Vietnam war veteran, Hagel has criticised the size of the U.S. military, telling the Financial Times in 2011 that the Pentagon was "bloated" and needed "to be pared down."
Hagel has also been attacked by gay rights groups for remarks in 1998 questioning whether an "openly aggressively gay" nominee could be an effective U.S. ambassador. He apologised for the comments last month saying they were "insensitive".
Rumours of Hagel's appointment had circulated for weeks, drawing the ire of some pro-Israel figures in the United States. The outcry reached Israel's media, with one Yedioth commentator predicting a Hagel Pentagon would be Netanyahu's "nightmare".
Moshe Arens, a former Israeli defence minister, played down the impact of Hagel's nomination on Obama's strategies.
"In the United States, policy is made by the president, not by the members of the cabinet," he told Reuters, noting that Ronald Reagan, a former president considered warm to Israel, had a less sympathetic defence secretary, Caspar Weinberger.
Another to rally to Hagel was Alon Pinkas, former chief of staff for Israel's veteran centrist statesman Ehud Barak.
Pinkas wrote in Al-Monitor last month that he had attended meetings between Hagel and Barak when the latter was Israeli foreign minister and opposition leader.
"Barak was thoroughly impressed not only by Hagel's military background, but by his analysis, knowledge of the Middle East, and his understanding of Israel's security issues and predicaments," Pinkas said. "He is not anti-Israeli and he is not an anti-Semite."
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by David Brunnstrom)