In one of his first acts at the Pentagon, new US Secretary of Defense James Mattis called his Israeli counterpart Avigdor Liberman to “underscore his unwavering commitment to Israel’s security,” the Pentagon said.
“The secretary called his counterpart during his first week to emphasize his intent to advance the US-Israeli defense relationship and to protect Israel’s qualitative military edge,” the Pentagon said in a readout of the call Thursday.
He also spoke with the defense ministers of France and Germany, assuring them of the US commitment to the NATO alliance.
The statement said that Mattis and Liberman discussed “regional security challenges in the Middle East and the need to create common approaches to challenges facing the region.”
“Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to the US-Israeli defense relationship, and look forward to meeting in person in the future,” the statement said.
The US is Israel’s main ally and supplier of military assistance and weapons. In September they signed a 10-year, $38 billion dollar memorandum of understanding, outlining the terms and amount of US defense aid to Israel over the next decade.
While new US President Donald Trump has frequently vowed to support Israel, Mattis has in the past been critical of Israel and US backing for Israel.
Mattis has been a critic of the Israeli settlement enterprise, asserting that its continued expansion imperiled Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state.
“If I’m in Jerusalem and I put 500 Jewish settlers out here to the east and there’s 10,000 Arab settlers in here, if we draw the border to include them, either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote — apartheid,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in July 2013.
During that same conversation, he also said the United States pays a security price with the rest of the Arab world for its support of Israel.
During his confirmation hearings, he indicated that he believed that the US should treat Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital, not Jerusalem, because that was current US policy.
He also expressed support for a two-state outcome to the Israel-Palestinian conflict “if it brings peace to the Middle East,” he said, while also indicating he is willing to hear alternatives despite his skepticism that another resolution to the conflict exists.
“If there’s another solution, I’d be happy to hear what it is,” he said, before later stressing America had a “vital interest” in the two sides reaching a peaceful accommodation to their decades-long dispute.
Mattis headed the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) under President Obama from August 2010 to March 2013, a post that has command authority for all US forces in the Middle East with the exception of Israel.