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Criticism, concern about Hagel nomination spreads beyond Capitol Hill

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FILE: July 22, 2008: Then-Sen. Chuck Hagel with then-presidential candidate and Sen. Barack Obama at the Amman Citadel in Amman, Jordan.REUTERS

The furor over former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination for secretary of defense is rippling beyond Capitol Hill as pro-Israeli and gay-rights groups join in opposition.

The former Nebraska senator and decorated Vietnam War veteran is facing criticism for a years-old anti-gay comment and his political views -- including those that suggest some tension with Israel, considered the United States’ closest Middle East ally.

“It seems Mr. Hagel is out of sync with the majority of Americans,” Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B'nai B'rith International, told FoxNew.com on Wednesday. “We are going to press very strongly on issues of deep concern.”

Mariaschin said the major concerns for B’nai B’rith, the international Jewish community service organization, include whether Hagel thinks Hezbollah is indeed a terrorist group and if he would put “all options on the table” to stop Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, including military action.

“These are questions that need to be asked,” he said.

Hagel was officially nominated Monday by President Obama for the post and must testify before the Senate and receive the chamber’s confirmation to get the post.

"Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve. He is an American patriot," Obama said Monday. "I came to admire his courage and his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind -- even if it wasn't popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom. And that's exactly the spirit I want on my national security team."

The former senator, though, had come under criticism for a string of comments and votes, including those against unilateral sanctions on Iran. He also once said in an interview that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people," a comment that continues to bother pro-Israel groups. 

Hagel also apologized last month for a comment he made in 1998 that suggested being openly gay hindered an ambassadorial nominee's ability to do his job. Hagel had criticized the nominee as "openly, aggressively gay." But gay rights advocacy groups remain cautious about Hagel becoming the country’s top military leader.

"Senator Hagel's apology and his statement of support for (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) equality is appreciated and shows just how far as a country we have come when a conservative former senator from Nebraska can have a change of heart on LGBT issues,” said the Human Rights Campaign.

However, group spokesman Fred Sainz said Tuesday that gay rights advocates also are focused on the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and backing a defense secretary who will support the effort.

“We look forward to Senator Hagel's testimony on how he intends to ensure equal benefits for gay and lesbian service members and their families,” Sainz said.

The Log Cabin Republicans have taken a more circumspect position.

Interim Executive Director Greg T. Angelo suggested the group doesn’t support Hagel’s nomination and that nothing he could say in Senate testimony could change members’ minds.

“It’s unlikely at this point,” he said. “Any assurances that we would have would have to be taken in context of his record on gay rights, which is at best questionable and at worst horrible.”

The groups’ comments follow opposition among Senate Republicans and skepticism among some Democrats.

Newly elected Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told “Fox News Sunday” that “it is very difficult to imagine the circumstance in which I could support his confirmation.”

His remarks followed those of Texas Sen. John Cornyn who said in a release last week the nomination sends “the worst possible message” to Israel and other U.S. allies in the Middle East. He did not say whether he would try to block Hagel’s nomination during hearings.

However, other leading lawmakers have expressed support or at least a wait-and-see approach.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said Tuesday from Jerusalem after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that he supports Hagel.

“Chuck Hagel is a personal friend, a solid former U.S. senator, and a dedicated public servant and patriot,” said Nelson, also a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which holds the confirmation hearing.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has said he is reserving judgment.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.