U.S. Defense Chief Mattis to Visit Israel for First Time, Meet Netanyahu

In Mideast tour that will also include Jordan and Saudi Arabia, James Mattis will meet President Rivlin and his Israeli counterpart Lieberman to discuss Syria, Iran and the fight against ISIS

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, April 13, 2017.
ERIC THAYER/REUTERS

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis will arrive in Israel next week in his first visit since entering office. Mattis will spend two days in Israel, as part of a week-long work visit to the Middle East, that will include earlier stops in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, a statement released on Friday by the Pentagon said.

During his time in Israel, Mattis is expected to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who he already met in Washington in March. Mattis will also lay a wreath at Yad Vashem, an event that is sure to generate headlines following this week's controversial remarks by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer about the Holocaust.

The main issues Mattis is expected to discuss with the senior Israeli officials are Iran, Syria and the fight against ISIS. Whether the meetings will also include any discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which is currently being handled by U.S. President Donald Trump's close adviser Jason Greenblatt, remains unclear. In the past, Mattis has expressed vocal opposition to Israeli settlements, and during his confirmation hearing to become Secretary of Defense in January, he said that reaching Israeli-Palestinian peace is a "vital interest" of the United States. 

When Mattis met Lieberman in Washington, the Israeli defense chief told his American counterpart that Israel wants to see an "active" United States in the region. The meeting between the two was described in an Israeli press release as "warm and friendly." At the beginning of April, Mattis declared that Iran – a country which he has been highly critical of for years – continues to be "the primary state sponsor of terrorism" in the world today. 

After his visit to Israel, Mattis will conclude his Middle East tour by heading to Qatar and Djibouti, before returning to Washington. The Pentagon announced that during the visit, Mattis will "re-affirm key U.S. military alliances, engage with strategic partners in the Middle East and Africa, and discuss cooperative effort to counter destabilizing activities and defeat extremist terror organizations."