US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel was meeting Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday at the end of a three-day trip that saw him touting strong backing for Israel despite differences over Iran’s nuclear project.
With US-Israeli relations strained over questions about the imminence of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear programme and Hagel dogged by his past criticisms of Israel, the Pentagon chief has stressed his full-throated support for the Jewish state in his first visit as defence secretary.
Speaking on Monday, Hagel said he came away with a fresh perspective on Israel’s situation after a 90 minute helicopter tour of the occupied Golan Heights in the north, accompanied by his Israeli counterpart Moshe Yaalon.
“I had been in those areas in my many visits here. But I’d never seen it the way that the minister had it laid out for me, the north along the border,” Hagel told reporters.
“And when you have that experience, as you know so well, it really does shape the kind of challenges and the kind of world that Israel’s living with, and in a clear way.”
Later in the day, Hagel met Peres who welcomed him on what he said was a “timely and meaningful” visit.
“It means that the message coming from you is that you are determined, as really a leader of the free world, not to permit Iran to make this terrible mistake and become nuclear.
“If it can be achieved by diplomatic means, the better,” he said, warning that if diplomacy failed “then all options are on the table” referring to possible military action.
Israel, believed to be the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear power, has refused to rule out a pre-emptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and Hagel said on Monday that “every sovereign nation has a right to defend itself”.
Although the two allies viewed the Iranian nuclear threat “exactly the same” Hagel admitted they did not see eye-to-eye over the timeline.
“When you break down into the specifics of the timing of when and if Iran decides to pursue a nuclear weapon, there may well be some differences,” he said.
During the trip, Hagel finalised details of a multi-billion dollar arms deal that will sell advanced US missiles, radar and aircraft to Israel, while at the same time supplying missiles to Saudi Arabia and F-16 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates.
Before arriving in Israel on Sunday at the start of a six-day regional tour, Hagel had said the arms deal sent a “very clear signal” to Tehran that military action remains an option to stop it from obtaining nuclear weapons.
After meeting Netanyahu, Hagel heads for a brief stopover in Jordan where more than 200 US military officers and specialists have been deployed to prepare for worst-case scenarios involving the Syrian civil war, including possibly having to secure the Damascus regime’s chemical weapons.
After Jordan, Hagel is due to visit Riyadh, Cairo and Abu Dhabi.