WASHINGTON — US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak Tuesday that while the US continues to believe there is still time to address the threat of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons through diplomacy, that window is closing.
In his first meeting with a foreign defense chief, the newly appointed Hagel expressed his strong commitment to Israel’s security, including maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge and continued US support for missile and rocket defense systems in spite of fiscal constraints, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said.
In their two-hour meeting, the leaders discussed the range of security interests shared by the US and Israel, including the need for the Syrian regime to maintain control over its chemical and biological weapons. The two leaders also pledged to continue US-Israel contingency planning to counter that potential threat.
The high-level meeting included Hagel’s deputy Ash Carter and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.
On Iran, Hagel reiterated that President Barack Obama is committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, with all options on the table.
Both leaders agreed that the United States-Israeli defense relationship has never been stronger than during the Obama administration and that both nations will continue this unprecedentedly close cooperation.
Hagel noted that he and Barak have had an outstanding working relationship dating back to Barak’s days as prime minister. He expressed his desire to visit Israel soon and Barak stated that Israel looks forward to hosting him in the near future.
Hagel faced a grueling nomination process. As a conservative Republican — nominated by a Democratic president — who has expressed critical views of Israel and Washington’s Israel supporters, opposition to Hagel’s nomination came from many quarters. Now installed as the Pentagon’s top civilian, Hagel seems to be going out of his way to mend fences, say observers.
Barak and Hagel met at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Pentagon, two days after Barak spoke at the AIPAC Policy Conference taking place in the city.
Speaking at the AIPAC policy conference Monday, Barak offered a prediction that was interpreted by many at AIPAC as an endorsement of Hagel. “As secretary of defense, he will no doubt serve his country with the same pride and honor with which he served on the battlefield and in Congress,” Barak said.
“The secretary is honored that Minister Barak will be the first foreign counterpart that he will host at the Pentagon,” a Pentagon official told Reuters earlier in the week, adding the two have known each other for more than a decade.
Haviv Rettig Gur contributed to this report