U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived in Israel late Sunday morning, kicking off a week-long 5-country regional visit expected to focus on Iran, the Syrian civil war and weapons sales to America's allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Hagel is using his first visit to Israel as Pentagon chief to underscore his view that Israel must decide for itself whether and when to use military force against Iran. He told reporters on his flight from Washington that Israel has every right to defend itself, and that Israel and the U.S. share the objective of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
"Israel will make the decision that Israel must make to protect itself, to defend itself," Hagel told reporters. He said there is "no daylight at all" between Israel and the U.S. on the central goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, but added that there "may well be some differences" between the two allies on the question of when Iran's leaders might decide to go for a bomb.
But he added, "When you back down into the specifics of the timing of when and if Iran decides to pursue a nuclear weapon, there may well be some differences."
Route 1, the main highway leading to Jerusalem, was closed from 11 A.M. to 1 P.M. as Hagel made his way to the capital.
He will start his Israel tour with a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem at 3 P.M., and Sunday night he will be Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon's dinner guest at the David Citadel Hotel. The U.S. defense secretary is also scheduled to meet with President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit.
On Monday, Hagel and Ya'alon are expected to discuss the anticipated sale to Israel of U.S. military equipment including an undisclosed number of Bell Boeing V-22 transport helicopters and Boeing KC-135 inflight refueling planes, as well as advanced radar systems for fighter planes and antiradiation missiles.
Israeli officials say the arms deal aims in part to preserve Israel's military superiority in light of weapons contracts with other countries in the region.
Hagel called the proposed sale a "very clear signal" to Iran.
"The bottom line is, Iran is a threat a real threat," he said, not only for its nuclear ambitions and its stated goal of destroying Israel but also for its alleged sponsoring of terrorism.
Hagel said U.S. and international economic sanctions are "hurting Iran significantly," but he said they do not guarantee that Iranian leaders will be persuaded to stop what the West sees as their ambition to become a nuclear power. Iran asserts that its nuclear program is designed entirely for non-military purposes.
Ayalon and Hagel are expected to hold a press conference after their meeting Monday. In the afternoon, Hagel is scheduled to meet with Peres to discuss military issues and ways to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The U.S. Defense Department has called Hagel's visit a continuation of contacts following President Barack Obama's trip here last month. The Iranian nuclear issue will be front and center in Hagel's defense-related meetings, along with the changing situation in Syria. On Monday, an honor guard will be on hand at Tel Aviv's Kirya army base to honor Hagel.
From Israel, the defense secretary will travel to Amman to discuss the implications of Syria's civil war on Jordan, before proceeding on to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. In the UAE Hagel is expected to move to finalize the sale of 25 F-16 fighter planes. The deal is set to include training in the United States of UAE combat pilots.