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Washington • In an exchange with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, President Barack Obama's pick to lead the Defense Department said he regrets saying there's no justification for Israel to "keep Palestinians caged up like animals."

Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel made the statement in 2009 and during his lengthy confirmation hearing Thursday he acknowledged it was a poorly articulated point.

"If I had the opportunity to edit that, like many things I've said, I would like to go back and change the words and meaning," Hagel told Lee. "I regret using those choice of words."

Lee, a new member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is leaning against supporting Hagel's nomination and wasn't impressed with the nominee's performance at the hearing.

"Senator Hagel did little to help himself today," said Lee, who spent all of his allotted time pressing Hagel on his views on Israel. In particular, he pointed to speeches in 2002 and 2009 where Hagel expressed sympathy for the Palestinians.

Republican senators repeatedly questioned Hagel's commitment to Israel, a key U.S. ally. Hagel sought to convince the senators that he opposed any Palestinian attacks on Israel and recognized the nation's right to defend itself.

"I would encourage peace and a secure, safe Israel," Hagel said. "That is what I think most of us would want to see."

The Senate is expected to hold a confirmation vote on Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, in the coming days.

Twitter: @mattcanham