Chuck Hagel
Chuck HagelReuters

President Barack Obama's controversial nominee for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, has sought to temper the concerns of pro-Israel lawmakers by backtracking on comments he made in 2006 about a "Jewish lobby" in Washington, and clarifying his position on Iran and Hizbullah.

Hagel sent a letter to California Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Jewish Democrat, in which he maintained that he fully supports unilateral sanctions against Iran and condemned Hizbollah as a terrorist threat to the Jewish state, Politico reported.

He called it “a very poor choice of words” when he maintained that the “Jewish lobby” tends to “intimidate” lawmakers, saying he understands how such words “can be construed as anti-Israel.”

“Most Americans, myself included, are overwhelmingly supportive of a strong U.S.-Israel strategic and security relationship,” Hagel said in the letter, adding he would work to “expand the depth and breadth” of the countries’ ties if he’s confirmed as defense secretary. “This broad support comes from both Jews and non-Jews alike.”

According to Politico, Hagel’s comments give a window into how the White House is “quickly moving behind the scenes to eliminate dissenters in the Senate,” particularly among Democrats who pose the greatest threat to his nomination.

Boxer, who had withheld her support, said Monday night she now backs the nominee after her extensive phone conversations and his detailed letter.

“I asked him about a number of issues — including America’s special relationship with Israel, the threats posed by Iran to the world and the treatment of women and gay and lesbian members of our military — and his answers were reassuring and show a sensitivity and understanding of these issues,” Boxer said.

Most notably, critics have lambasted comments Hagel made questioning Israel’s dealings with Hizbullah in Lebanon during the 2006 conflict. That same year, he had declined to sign onto a letter calling on the European Union to list Hizbullah as a terrorist organization. Hagel also voted against a resolution calling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, and signed onto a 2009 letter urging President Barack Obama to begin peace talks with Hamas.

However, Hagel reportedly maintained in his letter that he “always” considered Hizbullah a terrorist group, pointing to comments he made over the years, including one in which he referred to Iran as a “state sponsor” of terrorism.

He said the 2006 conflict was not the fault of the Lebanese government, but blamed it on Hizbullah, which he called a “threat” to Israel and Lebanon, according to Politico.

He further maintained that he has supported defense appropriations bills that included foreign aid to Israel and claimed that there have been instances in which he has referred to Hamas as a terrorist group.

“America’s relationship with Israel is one that is fundamentally built on our nation’s shared values, common interests and shared ideals,” Hagel said.