Hagel touts arms deal on Israel trip

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Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel and his Israeli counterpart on Monday hailed a major arms deal as a sign of “ironclad” U.S. support for the Jewish state after talks on Iran’s nuclear drive and Syria’s war.

The U.S. defense secretary, who has been accused of being too critical of Israel, sought to convey a message of solidarity on his first visit to the region since he took office two months ago.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon in Tel Aviv, Hagel confirmed the two had agreed on a multi-billion dollar weapons deal that will see Israel receiving an impressive array of advanced U.S. missiles and aircraft.

“Today we took another significant step in the U.S.-Israel defense relationship,” Hagel said, reiterating Washington’s “ironclad pledge” to ensure Israel’s military edge in a region rocked by turmoil.

“Minister Yaalon and I agreed that the United States will make available to Israel a set of advanced new military capabilities,” including anti-radiation missiles, radars for fighter jets, KC-135 refueling aircraft, and the V-22 Osprey, which the United States has not released to other countries, he said.

Yaalon admitted Israel had already “acted” to stop advanced weapons from falling into militant hands, in what was seen as implicit confirmation of Israeli involvement in a strike on an arms convoy inside Syria in January.

He said Israel had laid down three “very clear red lines” for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the first of which was “not to allow sophisticated weapons to be delivered or be taken by rogue elements like Hezbollah or other rogue elements.”

“When they crossed this red line, we acted,” he said, in what was widely understood to be the January 30 strike which hit what a U.S. official said were surface-to-air missiles near Damascus that Israel suspected were en route to Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.

The second red line was maintaining security along the Israeli-Syrian ceasefire line on the occupied Golan Heights, and the third was the transfer of chemical weapons into the hands of militants, which “has not been tested yet,” Yaalon said.

European diplomats have alleged the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against rebels, and Hagel said Washington was investigating the accounts.

“Currently our intelligence agencies are assessing what happened and what did not happen,” he said.

The White House has warned that use of chemical agents in the Syrian civil war would constitute a “game changer” but Hagel refused to be drawn on any possible U.S. response.

“I’m not going to discuss contingency options,” he said.

The U.S. defense secretary said he had had “clear, direct conversations” with Yaalon that covered the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, which Washington and much of the West believes is a drive for a weapons capability, but which the Islamic republic denies.

U.S.-Israeli relations have been strained over how to address the Iranian threat but Hagel insisted there was no major disagreement on the issue.

Before arriving in Israel on Sunday at the start of a six-day regional tour, Hagel had said the arms deal sent a “very clear signal” to Tehran that military action remains an option to stop it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Israel, believed to be the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear power, has refused to rule out a pre-emptive military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and Hagel on Monday said that “every sovereign nation has a right to defend itself”.

During the afternoon, the U.S. defense chief took a helicopter tour over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights after which he returned to Jerusalem for talks with President Shimon Peres.

On Tuesday morning, he will meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before leaving for a brief stopover in Jordan, then on to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, where he will wrap up details of the $10 billion arms deal that will also provide missiles to Saudi and U.S. F-16 fighter jets to the UAE.

He will also visit Cairo.