WASHINGTON — In an apparent effort to highlight their country's vulnerability in a dangerous part of the world, Israeli officials on Monday chose a point of geographic comparison that would be especially familiar to visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
They distributed informational packets noting, “the State of Nebraska is nine times (the size of) the state of Israel,” while providing Hagel with a helicopter tour over northern Israel.
Hagel, who served two terms as a Republican senator from Nebraska, got a view of the Golan Heights along the border with Syria, which is in the midst of a civil war.
For his part, Hagel is using his first trip to Israel as defense secretary to offer assurances that he is committed to improving the Jewish state's military edge in the Middle East. Hagel also declared that it's Israel's right to decide for itself whether to attack Iran to stop it from building a nuclear bomb.
Those two messages appeared to form the foundation of Hagel's effort to improve U.S.-Israeli relations, strained in recent years by obstacles to reviving peace talks with the Palestinians and by the threat of an Iranian bomb.
Hagel's dedication to the security of Israel was a hot topic during his contentious confirmation process.
Political opponents tried to sink his nomination by using past quotes and positions — such as opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran — to paint him as insufficiently devoted to Israel's security. One ill-chosen phrase from 2006 — “the Jewish lobby” — particularly haunted Hagel, with critics describing it as borderline anti-Semitic.
Hagel apologized for that remark, while he and his allies pushed back hard against the critics, highlighting past pro-Israel statements and declaring his fervent commitment to Israel.
Some of Hagel's past comments already have come up on the trip. An Israeli reporter asked how his current rhetoric squared with remarks in 2006.
Hagel responded: “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've held as a U.S. senator and as a civilian.”
The intensity of his confirmation process and the focus on his attitude toward Israel means his trip to the region this week will be closely watched as he plays statesman and seeks to bolster his ties to Israeli leaders.
He even promised to send some presents along from back home when he appeared in a joint press conference Monday with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Hagel noted that Peres has a birthday coming up.
“And so I'll send you some Omaha steaks,” Hagel said, according to a Pentagon transcript. “Or maybe a bushel of corn from Nebraska, for something that would be particularly appropriate for our state.”
This report includes material from World-Herald press services.
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