JERUSALEM — US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel kicked off his week-long Middle East trip in Israel on Sunday, his first such visit as Pentagon chief.
Hagel took a hard line on Iran and its nascent nuclear program, while reassuring Israel that the US fully supported its right to self-defense in a "dangerous, combustible" part of the world.
The defense secretary's trip is part of the larger US plan, early in President Barack Obama's second administration, to reassert a strong American presence in the region. Hagel will be visiting five countries, and to each, he brings a specific message.
The secretary bears a US message to Israel that is multi-pronged. He is following Obama and Kerry's footsteps in strongly asserting Israel's right to defend itself from Iranian threats and emphasizing that there is no substantial difference between the two countries' view of Iran.
But as he reiterated the US commitment to deterring Iran, in conjunction with a new suite of weapons deals for Israel, Hagel also made clear that the US is concerned about a possible pre-emptive Israeli strike.
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"There's no daylight at all" between Israel and the US on the topic of a nuclear-powered Iran, Hagel said, according to the Associated Press. But he issued a caveat: "When you back 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.
Hagel plans to finalize a major new arms deal with Israel during his trip. But no less important, in Israeli eyes, is that later in his visit he'll be confirming a huge arms sale to Saudi Arabia, and a significant deal involving the sale of air force jets and training for United Arab Emirates' pilots.
These moves are intended to signal warnings to Iran, but also to make sure Israel understands that Obama views ties with the Gulf states as crucial to US interests in the Middle East.
A local Hebrew-language report, translated by GlobalPost, read:
"By order of President Obama, Hagel will offer Israel an impressive “basket,” aimed at preserving its military edge. The basket includes, among other things, KC-135 jets, an as yet undetermined number of V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, new missiles, radar systems, and various other types of weapons. Hagel is expected to summarize the scope of the program, the sources of its funding and the payment installments, in a meeting with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon."
It seems clear that the Obama administration wants to put far behind it talk not too long ago that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the US president were at odds over Iran.
The recently confirmed US defense secretary has felt the heat over Israel before. Members of the Republican party — his own — grilled him prior to his confirmation as defense secretary over his use of the phrase "Jewish lobby" earlier in the year.