WASHINGTON

Republicans question extentof Hagel’s support for Israel

President Obama’s possible pick of Republican Chuck Hagel to run the Pentagon raises concerns among some of his former Senate colleagues, who question his pronouncements on Iraq, Israel and the Middle East.

The reservations publicly expressed by a few Republicans and even a Democrat hardly rival the unyielding GOP objections to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who withdrew from consideration last week for secretary of state in the face of relentless attacks, mostly over her public statements about the Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

But opposition was growing among Senate Republicans who held their weekly, closed-door meeting on Wednesday. Lawmakers harbor doubts about whether Hagel is sufficiently supportive of Israel, the U.S.’s closest Mideast ally, based on his remarks.

Hagel, 66, served 12 years in the Senate, where he nurtured a reputation for moderation and independence, initially backing the Iraq War and then challenging President George W. Bush’s policies. The decorated Vietnam War veteran broke with Bush and fellow Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., over sending an additional 30,000 troops into Iraq.

ASSIUT, Egypt

Christians report harassmentby Islamists before vote

A campaign of intimidation by Islamists left most Christians in this southern Egyptian province too afraid to participate in last week’s referendum on an Islamist-drafted constitution they deeply oppose, residents say. The disenfranchisement is raising Christians’ worries over their future under empowered Muslim conservatives.

About a week before the vote, some 50,000 Islamists marched through the provincial capital, Assiut, chanting that Egypt will be “Islamic, Islamic, despite the Christians.”

The day of the voting itself on Saturday, Christian voting was minimal – as low as seven percent in some areas, according to church officials. Some of those who did try to head to polling stations in some villages were pelted by stones, forcing them to turn back without casting ballots, Christian activists and residents told The Associated Press this week.

The activists now see what happened in Assuit as a barometer for what Christians’ status will be under a constitution that enshrines a greater role for Shariah, or Islamic law, in government and daily life.

JERUSALEM

Building plans in contested areas win approval in Israel

Israel on Wednesday pressed forward with the construction of thousands of new homes in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, part of a series of new settlement plans that have drawn worldwide rebuke, including from its closest ally, the United States.

Separate planning committees gave approval Wednesday to a new settlement in east Jerusalem, the first to be built in the contested area since 1997, and construction of 1,000 new homes in existing settlements across the West Bank.

The announcements drew harsh Palestinian condemnations and were likely to heighten the already rising tensions between Israel and its allies in the West. The Palestinians claim the West Bank and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1967, as parts of a future state. The international community opposes all Israeli settlement in the two areas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at a gathering of foreign diplomats, refused to back down.

“All Israeli governments have built in Jerusalem. We’re not going to change that,” he said.

SEOUL, South Korea

First woman presidentmay start talks with North

Park Geun-hye’s election as South Korea’s first female president could mean a new drive to start talks with bitter rival North Korea, though it’s unclear how much further she will go than the hard-line incumbent, a member of her own conservative party.

After five years of high tension under unpopular President Lee Myung-bak, Park has vowed to pursue engagement with Pyongyang despite its nuclear program and its widely condemned long-range rocket launch last week. The daughter of late South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, she placed more conditions on resuming negotiations than the liberal opposition candidate she defeated Wednesday, Moon Jae-in.

On Thursday, Park mentioned the North Korean rocket launch during a nationally televised speech.

“The North’s long-range missile launch symbolically showed how grave our security reality is,” Park said following a visit to Seoul’s National Cemetery, where she paid silent tributes to late presidents, including her father.

Many voters believe Lee’s policies drove North Korea to renew nuclear and missile tests and to launch two attacks in 2010 that killed 50 Koreans.

– From news service reports