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UPDATE 1-Israel muted over Obama's Pentagon pick

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* Hagel's record on Iran worries some supporters of Israel

* Obama seen setting tone for relations with Netanyahu
government

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM, Jan 8 (Reuters) - The Israeli government kept
clear on Tuesday of a brewing battle in Washington over U.S.
President Barack Obama's choice for defense secretary, Chuck
Hagel, whose record on Iran and Israel is under scrutiny.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud
Barak offered no immediate comment on the pick, announced on
Monday after being rumoured for weeks in which some pro-Israel
figures pilloried the former Republican senator.

Parting with the rightist government's reticence were two
relatively junior officials, Civil Defence Minister Avi Dichter
and Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, neither of whom is
expected to stay on after Israel's national election on Jan. 22.

"There have already been nominations in the past which
looked very troubling to us, and ultimately reality turned out
totally differently, both for better and for worse," Dichter
told Israel Radio in an interview.

"Therefore I think we should be careful. We do not nominate
people in agencies in other countries in general, and especially
in the United States. So, as it is customary to say to those
being nominated there: welcome."

Netanyahu, who is favoured for reelection, has had a testy
relationship with Obama, a Democrat who won a second term in
November - though both insist their nations' alliance is sound.

Israel, which receives around $3 billion a year in U.S.
defence grants, has at times challenged the Obama administration
by threatening preemptive war against the disputed Iranian
nuclear programme while world powers pursue talks with Tehran.

Obama has also criticised the Netanyahu government's
settlement of occupied West Bank land, which the Palestinians
blame for the two-year-old impasse in negotiations with Israel.

Iran's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday it hoped Hagel's
appointment would change U.S. policy and make Washington "more
respectful of the rights of nations".

GOOD COP

The pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom quoted an unnamed
government official on Tuesday as saying the choice of Hagel was
"very bad news", adding: "Clearly it won't be easy with him."

The official suggested having Hagel in the Pentagon would
allow the president "to play 'good cop'" with Netanyahu.

Many Republicans say Hagel, who left the Senate in 2008, at
times opposed Israel's interests. He voted repeatedly against
U.S. sanctions on Iran 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.

His statements appeared to be supported by Ayalon, a former
envoy to the United States, who told Israel's biggest-selling
newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth: "I have met him many times, and he
certainly regards Israel as a true and natural U.S. ally."

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".

The American debate over Hagel has reached Israeli media,
with one Yedioth columnist predicting the Pentagon pick would be
Netanyahu's "nightmare". The prime minister delivered two
speeches on Monday and Tuesday but made no reference to Hagel.

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.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/thomson-reuters/130108/update-1-israel-muted-over-obamas-pentagon-pick