JERUSALEM - US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will pay a first visit to Israel since taking office later this month to bolster the allies' cooperation in the Middle East, an Israeli official told Reuters on Tuesday.
Hagel and his Israeli counterpart, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon who is also newly appointed, discussed the visit by phone last month, the Israeli Defense Ministry said. The official said Hagel would visit between April 21-23.
Hagel's visit will follow a trip by US Secretary of State John Kerry who is currently visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories to try to restart long-stalled peace talks and after a visit last month by President Barack Obama.
Last month, Ya'alon held his first telephone conversation with Hagel after being sworn in to his new position.
Hagel congratulated Ya'alon, who took over the Defense Ministry from Ehud Barak, on his new position.
Ya'alon returned congratulations to Hagel, who took over from Leon Panetta as US secretary of defense in February. He also praised Hagel for his plans to visit Israel for the first time as secretary of defense in April.
"I hold in very high regard the security and strategic relations between our countries and expect increased cooperation between the two defense establishments, Hagel stated. "The United States and Israel share common interests in the face of developments in the Middle East," he added.
Iran's perceived nuclear threat, an issue that is regularly on the agenda between the two allies, is certain to feature highly in discussions.
The United States heavily funds Israeli missile defense systems that protect against short-range rockets and missiles that militants in the Gaza Strip launch at Israel, as well as the threat of long-range missiles.