Hagel, Israeli Officials Vow to Strengthen Bond
By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT, Apr. 23, 2013 Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ended his first official visit to Israel by meeting with government officials, taking a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter tour of Israel’s borderlands, and spending time with soldiers from the Israel Defense Forces.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak to reporters before a meeting in Jerusalem, April 23, 2013. Hagel is on a six-day trip to the Middle East, where he is visiting his counterparts in Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The secretary met yesterday with Israeli President Shimon Peres and this morning with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both Israeli officials expressed appreciation for President Barack Obama’s visit last month to Israel, and for the staunch U.S. military and security support of Israel.
“This is a difficult and dangerous time. This is a time when friends and allies must remain close -- closer than ever,” Hagel said in remarks before his meeting with Netanyahu at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem.
“I’m committed to continue to strengthen this relationship, secure this relationship, and as you know, one of the main reasons I’m here is to do that,” he added.
Hagel said he’d had good conversations with Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and with Peres, and an extensive helicopter tour with Yaalon of the country’s northern border, which it shares with Lebanon.
In an Israeli Army UH-60 Black Hawk manufactured in the United States, Hagel and Yaalon left from the Sde Dov Airport in Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast and traveled north into the Golan Heights to Mount Hermon in the northeast part of the Golan plateau.
They also observed the eastern border area, where the eastern edge of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and which forms the border between Israel and Syria.
“Once again it reminds me of the dangers and difficulties and challenges” for Israel and other nations in the region,” Hagel said of the border tour. “But I believe together, working with our allies and our friends, we will be able to do what is right for your country and my country, and make this region a better region and a more secure region and make Israel more secure.”
In remarks before Hagel’s meeting with Peres at the presidential residence in Jerusalem, the president spoke about the threat from Iran and expressed his appreciation for the positions of President Barack Obama and Hagel about Israel’s right to defend itself and its people.
Peres also said he believes there is a real chance for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
“I am here to congratulate you on becoming secretary of defense of the United States of America,” Peres told Hagel. “It’s a role I don’t envy, [because] I know the present world is not a simple proposition.”
Without going into politics or religion, Peres added, “we can prevent Iran from making themselves a catastrophe for their own sake and for the world. So I want to express my appreciation for your coming [to Israel] and for the message that you carry.”
Hagel thanked Peres for a long friendship that began years ago when Peres spent an evening having dinner with Hagel, who at the time was “a very junior United States senator,” the secretary said.
“I also bring you greetings from President Obama, who asked me to extend his warmest, best wishes to you and to tell you how much he appreciated his [March] visit here with you,” he added.
Hagel said he has always appreciated Israel, its people, its leadership and the courage represented by the nation.
“It is a model for the world and the relationship between our two countries,” Hagel said.
The relationship is as strong as it’s ever been, he added, “not only measured by the military-to-military [cooperation], [but also by] all the other metrics that apply to relationships. And as you also noted, prime minister, it is based on common values and respect for others, and that is the foundation of any relationship.”
A senior defense officials told reporters traveling with Hagel that the Defense Department is elevating the level of its military representation at the U.S. Embassy in Israel from the colonel level to the brigadier general level "as a further reflection of our desire to strengthen even further our defense ties with Israel."
After his meeting with Netanyahu, Hagel visited an area near Camp Mitkan Adam, an army base that houses the Israel Defense Forces Special Training Installation, to watch a demonstration of a K-9 unit that trains handlers and dogs for operations to locate and find explosives.
The unit works closely with U.S. forces and has trained U.S. Marine Corps dog teams, some of which are now deployed to Afghanistan. After the demonstration, Hagel met with and thanked the Israeli soldiers for their service.
Hagel’s trip to the Middle East, which began April 20 and will end April 26, also will take the secretary to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to discuss common threats and interests in the region, and to finalize agreements that will boost certain military capabilities for Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.