WASHINGTON - US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said reinforcing Israel's edge and bolstering security relationships with neighbors like Egypt were both US priorities.
Hagel, speaking Thursday to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's annual Soref Symposium, described his recent visit to Israel and the region, his first since assuming the defense secretary post in February.
"Beyond rocket and missile defense cooperation, DoD has been working for more than a year to increase Israel’s ability to confront and respond to a range of other threats," Hagel said, using the abbreviation for the Department of Defense.
"These efforts culminated in our announcement last month
that the United States has agreed to release a package of advanced new capabilities, including anti-radiation missiles and more effective radars for its fleet of fighter jets, KC-135 refueling aircraft and the V-22 Osprey," he said. "Along with Israel’s status as the only Middle Eastern nation participating in the Joint Strike Fighter program, this new capabilities package will significantly upgrade their qualitative military edge."
Hagel also outlined US defense sales to Israel's neighbors, and said that these too served the Israeli-US alliance.
"Israel’s security is further enhanced by America’s defense cooperation with other regional allies," he said. "In my consultations with Israeli leadership, I emphasized that strong US security relationships with Arab nations – including Egypt and Jordan, and our partners in the Gulf – are not only in our strategic interests, they are also in Israel’s security interests."
He called the relationship with Egypt "among the most important of these relationships."
Israel has overcome some of its wariness of the new Muslim brotherhood leadership in Egypt, especially in the wake of Egypt's role last year in ending the war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but a number of lawmakers in Congress remain skeptical of maintaining assistance to Egypt.
Hagel also maintained the Obama administration's caution regarding intervention in Syria to help bring about an end to its civil war.
He made clear that the United States is raising its profile in terms of maintaining pressure on Iran to make more transparent its suspected nuclear weapons program.
"A robust US military presence in the Persian Gulf has been a priority for the Department," he said. "Even as the number of US troops in the region has decreased since the end of the Iraq war, we have made a determined effort to position high-end air, missile defense, and naval assets to deter Iranian aggression and respond to other contingencies – such as F-22 fighters, ballistic missile defense ships and sophisticated radars, mine countermeasure assets, and advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft."
In extemporized remarks, Hagel emphasized how well he got along with his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, saying that they "clicked" and that personal relationships mattered. Hagel during his confirmation process had come under much scrutiny for past statements critical of Israel and skeptical of increasing tensions with Iran.