Despite being appointed to oversee large cuts to the American defense budget, newly appointed U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel promised Israel Tuesday that he will work with Congress to ensure continued funding for the Iron Dome and Arrow missile defense systems, a senior defense official said after the new Pentagon chief met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
The two-hour session in the Pentagon was Hagel's first meeting with a foreign counterpart, less than a week after he took the job amid fierce Republican criticism and accusations from some Republican-leaning outside groups that he was "anti-Israel."
The defense official said that Hagel committed to support funding for the missile defense systems despite the ongoing fiscal uncertainty due to automatic budget cuts that took effect last Friday. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversation between Hagel and Barak was private, said the two men met for about one hour and spent another hour in a larger session with staff.
According to Pentagon press secretary, George Little, "during the meeting, Hagel expressed his strong commitment to Israel’s security, including maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge and continued U.S. support for missile and rocket defense systems in spite of fiscal constraints."
Hagel added that Washington was committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
"He stated that the United States continues to believe there is still time to address this issue through diplomacy, but that window is closing," Little said.
"The two also discussed the range of shared security interests, including the need for the Syrian regime to maintain control over chemical and biological weapons in their country," Little said, noting the leaders pledged to continue U.S.-Israel contingency planning to counter that potential threat.
The meeting was intended, among other things, to lay the groundwork ahead of President Barack Obama's visit to Israel in two week's time.
Meanwhile, according to Little, Hagel noted that he and Barak have had an outstanding working relationship, dating back to Barak’s days as Israel’s prime minister. Hagel also expressed his desire to visit Israel soon. Little said that Barak responded by saying that Israel looks forward to hosting him in the near future.
Hagel has also been in contact by phone with several of his other foreign counterparts this week, including Afghanistan's Defense Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi.
In addition to his conversation with Mohammadi, Hagel spoke by phone this week with the defense ministers of Australia, Canada, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Britain. Little said Hagel expressed his commitment to ensuring strong military-to-military relationships despite the difficult budget constraints.