Washington (CNN) – Senior members of the White House staff called key American Jewish interest groups on Sunday to tell them about the impending nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Defense Secretary and to try to answer their concerns about his record, several sources familiar with the calls told CNN.
One of the call recipients, who generally supports the nomination, who requested anonymity to freely discuss his call, told CNN the outreach shows "not only there is some concern, but the White House takes the concern seriously and wants to have the very conversation at the highest levels of the White House."
Officials are hoping the outreach will help lesson the intensity of any opposition.
Among the officials who made the calls was White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, several sources familiar with the outreach told CNN, signifying the importance of the Jewish community to the White House as it proceeds with the Hagel pick. Lew is one of the more prominent Jews in the Obama administration.
Several conservative Jewish organizations have been strongly opposed. Their concerns are multifold. Hagel has previously referred to the "Jewish lobby" (perceived to be a derisive reference) and he has opposed unilateral sanctions against Iran regarding its nuclear program. Iran is one of Israel's most important national security concerns. Hagel is criticized for a past op-ed in which he stated that Israel needs to show a commitment to peace. Also, he has indicated he might support negotiations with Hamas although he supported a bill that said contact should be avoided until it recognized Israel's sovereignty.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), would not say whether he got a call Sunday but did tell CNN "we have been in touch with the administration, and the administration has been in touch with us."
"We have a set of concerns" that need to be addressed in his Senate confirmation "in a serious substantive way," Harris said calling them "major" and said there is "a wide gap of the positions of the Obama administration and the past positions of Hagel."Follow @KevinBohnCNN
The AJC, which is not opposing the nomination, has been sending letters to its members talking about the concerns. "While the AJC recognizes Senator Hagel's record of service to our country and the people of Nebraska, his opinions on a range of core U.S. national security priorities run counter to what ADJ advocates and what President Obama has articulated – notably, on the efficacy of Iran sanctions, on a credible military option against Iran, on branding Hezbollah as terrorist organization, and on the special nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship," one of its letters said.
The AJC has been in touch with various Senate offices raising its issues and Harris said the staffs of senators of both parties have been in touch with the group.
In talking points sent to supporters, the White House said Hagel has "time and again" shown support for the "historic bond with Israel," including quoting from a book he wrote. The White House pointed to past comments from Hagel saying the identity of Israel has to be protected. "As secretary he will continue to carry out President Obama's unprecedented security cooperation with Israel."
The organization J Street has been supporting the Hagel nomination for several weeks and has been in touch with White House officials and those close to Hagel recently. Jeremy Ben-Ali, president of J Street, calls the opposition by others in the Jewish community "way overblown."
Ben-Ali said the other groups "should be looking at the entirety of Chuck Hagel's record and should not be cherry picking one or two instances." He said there is no doubt Hagel will be supportive of Israel.