Chuck Hagel, the newly appointed US defense secretary, did not get off to a good start with Israel. Indeed, his appointment earlier this year was nearly derailed altogether by pro-Israel groups who claimed he was insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state. Criticisms centred on his use of the term “pro-Jewish lobby” in an interview some years before (for which he later apologised, saying that he should have said “pro-Israel lobby”). There was also outrage about a speech in which he said that it would be “irresponsible and dangerous for false choice” for the US relationship with Israel to be at the expense of relations with the Arab and Muslim world.
It was against this backdrop that Hagel made his first official visit to Israel this week, and it was clear that he was keen to smooth over past differences. Throughout his three-day visit, Hagel focused on reassuring Israelis that he was committed to their security. Much of the trip involved bonding with his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Yaalon, who is also newly appointed. A former army chief, Yaalon has previously said “there is no way to stabilise the Middle East today without defeating the Iranian regime”. The two men lack the long-standing personal relationship and camaraderie of their predecessors, Ehud Barak and Leon Panetta.
It was clear from the trip, which involved a helicopter ride over Israel, that both sides are attempting to build personal bridges. But what, if anything, does the visit tell us about the most pressing issues facing Israel at the moment – Iran and Syria?
Before arriving in Israel, Hagel conceded to journalists that the US and Israel differed on how close Iran was to making a nuclear bomb. America believes that there is still time for diplomacy to work, while Israel is calling for prompt military action. However, he stressed Israel’s right to “protect itself and defend itself”. Israel’s repeated threats of unilateral action against Iran have never drawn direct criticism from the US (while North Korea’s recent outburst resulted in Barack Obama calling for the state to end its “belligerent” approach).
During his trip, Hagel picked his words even more carefully. Over the course of his legislative career, he has argued that pre-emptive military action against Iran would be a bad idea. Asked by an Israeli journalist whether that was still his position, Hagel replied: “I’ve also said over the years one consistent thing: that all military options, and every option, must remain on the table in dealing with Iran. That’s been a consistent position of mine regardless of the positions I held as a United States senator.”
During his Senate nomination hearings in February, Hagel was accused of being anti-Israel and too soft on Iran. It is clear that he is attempting to counter that image. Quite apart from his careful choice of words was another clear signal – the trip concluded a major sale of high-tech military hardware to Israel. The timing of this deal sends a message to Iran that an attack on its nuclear plants is a real possibility. “I don’t think there’s any question that that’s another very clear signal to Iran,” said Hagel.
Despite Hagel’s well-documented personal position on the dangers of military action in Iran, it is worth noting that he actually placed less emphasis than usual on the US desire to allow time for diplomacy and sanctions to work. Some analysts have suggested that this is because the pressure is off somewhat; Israel, which has been beating the drums for war with Iran for months, is currently more concerned with the situation in Syria. Israel is anxious about the conflict over spilling onto its north-eastern border, as well as the possibility that Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons could fall into the hands of extremists. Echoing its earlier language on Iran, it has said that each of these would be “red lines” that would force it to take action. America has sent further troops to Jordan, to help shore up its borders, and Hagel’s visit also took in the Kingdom.
Following Hagel’s visit, Israel said that it had evidence that Syria was using chemical weapons, an attempt to ramp up pressure on western allies to take action. Yet, despite its avowed support to Jordan and Israel, the US remains reluctant to get embroiled in another Middle Eastern war with no clear end point. Hagel said that this information had not been shared with him on his visit: “That’s not at all questioning other nations’ intelligence, but the United States relies on its own intelligence.”
All in all, Hagel’s visit did not result in any big changes to the US position on Israel’s two prospective wars, with Iran and Syria. Above all else, the trip demonstrated – as it was intended to – that those who opposed his appointment on the basis of his views on Israel have nothing to worry about.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.