U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel plans to visit Israel in April to bolster the U.S. and Israel's cooperation in the Middle East, the Israeli Defense Ministry said on Wednesday.
The ministry said that Hagel and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon spoke on the phone on Tuesday. Hagel congratulated Ya'alon on his appointment and the two discussed the visit.
"I appreciate the strategic relationship between our two nations and look forward to strengthening cooperation between the two defense establishments," the ministry quoted Hagel as saying.
"We have many shared challenges, given the instability in the Middle East," Ya'alon said in a statement. "I appreciate the Israel-U.S. defense relations, which I know from my days as Military Intelligence chief in the 1990s, and I look forward to strengthening both our professional and personal relationships."
U.S. President Barack Obama's choice of the former Republican senator as the Pentagon chief was panned, as Hagel has been harshly criticized for what some have called his hostile approach toward Israel.
Hagel was one of four senators who refused to sign a Senate letter supporting Israel during the 2001 Al-Aqsa Intifada and has rebuffed efforts to persuade the European Union to blacklist Hezbollah as a terror group.
In 2009, Hagel famously urged Obama to engage in direct negotiations with Hamas. In 2010 he vexed Jerusalem following an appearance at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he described Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as "radical" and warned that Israel was "on its way to becoming an apartheid state."
Hagel's subsequent confirmation hearing was laborious and punishing, and he was repeatedly grilled regarding his views on Israel, Iran and the Middle East peace process.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Moscow in a letter congratulating him on forming a new government, an Israeli official said Wednesday.
Netanyahu "received a congratulatory letter from ... Putin. The letter congratulates [the] prime minister on forming the new government in Israel and invites him to visit Moscow," the Israeli premier's spokesman, Mark Regev, told the French news agency AFP.
He said the date of the visit had yet to be decided.