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Pentagon chief meets Netanyahu at end of Israel visit

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel met Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday at the end of a three-day trip which 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 a nuclear Iran 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.

Ahead of their talks, Netanyahu said the values and interests shared by Israel and the United States were facing a major threat from Iran which was supplying advanced weaponry to radical militants.

"Nowhere are these values and interests challenged more than by the arming of the terrorist groups by Iran with sophisticated weapons, and equally Iran's attempt to arm itself with nuclear weapons," he told reporters.

"This is a challenge that Israel cannot accept, and as you and President Obama have repeatedly said, Israel must be able to defend itself by itself against any threat."

His remarks came a day after Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon implicitly confirmed Israel was behind a January strike on a weapons convoy in Syria, saying the Jewish state had "acted" to stop advanced weaponry reaching militants.

Israeli officials believed the advanced Syria weaponry was en route to Lebanon's Hezbollah, a US official told AFP.

The Shiite militia group and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad are both close allies of Iran and avowed enemies of Israel.

Netanyahu said the US-Israeli defence relationship had been "greatly advanced" over the last four years and expressed confidence it would continue with Hagel running the Pentagon.

"This is important because we face many challenges. And I look forward to discussing how we overcome these challenges in our continued cooperation," he said.

Hagel was quick to agree.

"This is a difficult and dangerous time, this is a time when friends and allies must remain close, closer than ever," he told the Israeli leader.

On Monday, Hagel and Yaalon took a 90-minute helicopter of the Israeli occupied Golan Heights which borders Syria, saying it had given him a fresh perspective on the situation.

"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 several hours later.

"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."

He also met with Peres who welcomed his "timely and meaningful" visit which sent a message that Washington was "determined .. not to permit Iran to make this terrible mistake and become nuclear."

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.

Hagel described the deal as sending a "very clear signal" to Tehran that military action remains an option to stop it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Israel, believed to be the Middle East's sole if undeclared nuclear power, has refused to rule out a pre-emptive 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.

After his talks with 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 will visit Riyadh, Cairo and Abu Dhabi.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130423/pentagon-chief-meets-netanyahu-at-end-israel-visit-0