Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel shakes hands with dignitaries as he arrives… (Getty Images )
JERUSALEM -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Israel on Sunday to begin a weeklong tour of the Middle East as the region grapples with the worsening civil war in Syria and the stubborn nuclear threat from Iran.
Making his first visit to the region as Pentagon chief, Hagel is seeking to demonstrate solidarity between the U.S. and Israel -- allies whose relations have been strained over how to deter Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon. Israel is said to be mulling unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, a move that Obama administration officials consider extremely risky.
Hagel comes bearing gifts, including the hope of cementing a major arms sale to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that U.S. officials say would bolster each ally's military capabilities against the "shared threats" of Iran, the Syrian war and terrorism. The $10-billion deal, which requires approval from Congress, would send V-22 Osprey transport aircraft to Israel, 25 F-16 fighter jets to the UAE and F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, among other equipment.
"That's another very clear signal to Iran" that the United States hasn't ruled out trying to resolve the crisis with military force, Hagel told reporters en route to Israel, where he was due to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials.
"Israel and the United States see the threat of Iran exactly the same -- as do many other countries, not just in the Middle East -- so I don't think there's any daylight there," he said.
Later in the week, Hagel is scheduled to stop in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE.
His two-day stay in Israel also carries political significance after he was stung during his Senate confirmation process in January by charges from the pro-Israeli lobby in the United States that he wasn't sufficiently supportive of the Jewish state.
Although he often called Israel "a close friend and ally," critics pointed to statements the former U.S. senator made that questioned the wisdom of military action to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon. They also referred to his remarks in a 2006 interview in which he said the "Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people" on Capitol Hill.
As defense secretary, Hagel has echoed the Obama administration’s line that "all options are on the table" with regard to Iran, and he has supported Israel's right to defend itself. He said he hoped this trip would put to rest criticisms of his Israel record.
"I'm going to Israel first because it is a nation that has had a very special relationship with the United States. And it is a nation today in a very dangerous, combustible region of the world, that in many ways finds itself isolated," Hagel said. "And it's very important for the people of Israel to know that the United States is committed to their security and that special relationship."
The Mideast tour comes just days after Hagel announced that the Pentagon would send 200 U.S. troops to Jordan to assist in providing humanitarian relief to the tens of thousands of refugees escaping the fighting in Syria. The Army troops will set up a small headquarters near the Syrian border and would help the Pentagon "prepare for a number of scenarios," Hagel said.
Although the Obama administration has shown little appetite for military action inside Syria, the Pentagon has for months been making contingency plans to expand the force to 20,000 or more if necessary to secure Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles or send in ground troops.
In Istanbul, Turkey, on Sunday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry announced that the U.S. would provide an additional $123 million in aid to the Syrian opposition, a package that's expected to include non-lethal items such as body armor and night-vision equipment. The Obama administration has refused to provide the rebels with weapons for fear that they would end up in the hands of groups sympathetic to Al Qaeda.
But Syrian President Bashar Assad shows no sign of relinquishing power, and his stockpile of hundreds of tons of mustard gas and other chemical agents are a source of deep concern for the United States.
Last week, Britain and France informed the United Nations that there was credible evidence that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons multiple times since December -- a move that President Obama has previously described as a "game-changer" that could trigger U.S. military intervention.
Hagel said that U.S. officials don’t share the British and French assessment.
"Our intelligence community is still assessing the facts," he said.
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