JERUSALEM— U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the United States and Israel need to maintain close ties in order to face increasingly complicated challenges in the Middle East. Hagel made the remark Tuesday as he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the last day of a three-day visit to Israel.
“This is a difficult and dangerous time," Hagel said. "This is a time when friends and allies must remain close, closer than ever.”
The defense secretary said that working together the two countries could make the Middle East better and more secure.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded that he appreciated the two countries' deep alliance and their defense of common interests and values.
“Nowhere are these values and interests challenged more than by the arming of the terrorist groups by Iran with sophisticated weapons and, equally, Iran's attempt to arm itself with nuclear weapons. This is a challenge that Israel cannot accept,” Netanyahu noted.
Iran says its nuclear program has peaceful ambitions. But Netanyahu said Israel must be able to defend itself by itself against any threat. Hagel earlier said the U.S. government supports Israel but disagrees on the timing of a possible Israeli military strike against Iran.
Israel was the first stop on Hagel's five-nation tour of the Middle East. It came as the U.S. government announced it would permit the sale of $10 billion worth of advanced U.S. weapons to Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Hagel is visiting the three countries as well as Jordan and Egypt. Topics high on the agenda include not only concern over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program but also Syria's civil war and regional turmoil caused by the upheaval known as the Arab Spring.
Syria, chemical weapons
As the two leaders were meeting in Jerusalem, a senior Israeli officer told a security conference in Tel Aviv that Israel has evidence that the Syrian government is using chemical weapons against Syrian rebels.
The head of the Israeli army's military intelligence division, Brigadier-General Itai Brun, said photos of victims taken in Syria showed signs that they had died of poisoning from a nerve gas that he said most likely was Sarin.
Brun said Israelis must be very concerned should these weapons reach the hands of irresponsible sectors. He added that the concern exists and Israeli officials have to see how the reality evolves in the near future.
Israel and the United States are worried that stockpiles of Syrian chemical weapons could fall into the hands of extremists as rebels advance in their battle to overthrow the Syrian government.
Both governments have said using such weapons could bring international intervention.
Hagel was asked about such reports Monday but said the U.S. did not yet have conclusive evidence of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government.