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US Defense Secretary Pledges Military Support to Israel

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during a joint news conference with his Israeli counterpart Moshe Yaalon (not pictured) at the Kirya base in Tel Aviv, April 22, 2013.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has assured Israel that the U.S. government is committed to preserving Israel's military strength in the Middle East. The remark follows a meeting with the Israeli defense minister Monday on the second day of a week-long trip to the region.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel underscored the Obama administration's support for Israel's security at a news conference Monday in Tel Aviv following his meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.

“We are committed to providing Israel whatever support is necessary for Israel to maintain military superiority over any state or coalition of states and non-state actors, given the range of complex security challenges facing the United States and Israel in this region,” said Hagel

Israel is Hagel's first stop of a six-day trip to the Middle East that is expected to be dominated by concerns over Iran's controversial nuclear program, Syria's civil war and political fallout in the region from the "Arab Spring."

Hagel said the U.S. government would allow Israel to buy advanced U.S. missiles designed to take out air defenses, radar for fighter jets, aerial refueling planes and tilt-rotor transport aircraft that can take-off and land vertically.

This is part of a $10 billion weapons sales program announced Saturday that will also include advanced missiles for Saudi Arabia and F-16 fighter jets for the United Arab Emirates. Hagel is to visit those two countries as well as Jordan and Egypt.

Hagel told reporters on his plane Sunday that the weapons' sale to Israel was a clear signal to Iran that both the United States and Israel were prepared for military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Iran says its nuclear program has peaceful aims but the West suspects otherwise.

Hagel said the U.S. would let Israel decide whether it needed to attack Iran. “Israel is a sovereign nation," he said. "Every sovereign nation has a right to defend itself. That calculation has to be made by the sovereign nation.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom Hagel is to meet Tuesday, says Iran is close to achieving nuclear weapon capability. U.S. officials say they believe there is still time for diplomacy and economic sanctions to work.

Hagel is viewing Israeli defenses in the occupied Golan Heights. Syrian rebels now control parts of territory on the Syria-held side. Israeli forces have fired on them several times after missiles landed in Israeli-controlled areas.

Officials said security along Israel's border with Egypt's Sinai Desert is also on the agenda, one week after two rockets landed harmlessly in the Israeli Red Sea port of Eilat.

Netanyahu Sunday blamed the attack on Palestinian militants from Gaza who had infiltrated the region and he pledged to respond.