NEW YORK (JTA) — Israel’s deputy foreign minister said he was optimistic that Chuck Hagel would have a positive relationship with the Jewish state.
Danny Ayalon, speaking to a group of Jewish leaders and businessmen in New York on Thursday, said he held many meetings with Hagel, who President Obama nominated this week as secretary of defense, and that the former senator from Nebraska was a "true patriotic American."
"I cannot say we agreed on everything," Ayalon said. "We didn’t see eye to eye on everything. But at least he was a decent and fair interlocutor and you could reason with him."
Ayalon said he believed Hagel would realize the importance of Washington’s ties with Jerusalem once in office.
"I’m optimistic," he added.
Hagel, a Republican who represented Nebraska in the U.S. Senate from 1999 to 2008, has come under fire from some pro-Israel groups since it was rumored last month that he would be Obama’s pick for defense secretary. Obama announced the pick on Monday.
Critics have focused on Hagel’s past skepticism of the efficacy of unilateral sanctions on Iran and of a military strike to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Also controversial was Hagel’s reference in a 2006 interview to the "Jewish lobby," which he called "intimidating," and his claim that he pushed back against such lobbying because he was an American senator — not an Israeli one.
A number of liberal Jewish groups and Jewish Democrats have come to Hagel’s defense, noting his solid record in the Senate voting for assistance to Israel, and his repeated commitments over the years to Israel’s security.
Ayalon’s visit to New York was part of a farewell tour from Israeli politics. Last month, Yisrael Beiteinu leader and then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman dropped Ayalon from the party’s No. 2 slot ahead of Jan. 22 Knesset elections. Two weeks later, Israel’s state prosecutor announced that Ayalon was its key witness in its indictment against Liberman for breach of trust and fraud.
Asked at the event, organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, to characterize his relationship with Liberman, Ayalon, a career diplomat, had only two words.
"Very cordial," he said.