Deep budget cuts won't impact Israel aid: Hagel

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US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (R) greets Israel's Minister of Defense Ehud Barak in his first meeting with a foreign counterpart in Washington, DC, on March 5, 2013.

Published Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Pentagon's new chief held talks with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday and pledged to ensure that massive US budget cuts enacted last week would have no effect on funding for military assistance to the Jewish state, officials said.

"Secretary Hagel expressed his strong commitment to Israel's security, including maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge and continued US support for missile and rocket defense systems in spite of fiscal constraints," Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement.

The meeting comes less than a week after President Barack Obama reluctantly ordered $85 billion in budget cuts, and amid speculation that the move would shave off funds to Israel. In 2007, the US and Israel signed a deal to send $30 billion in military aid to Israel for a decade.

Last week, the DC-based US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation launched an advertising campaign against the aid package, drawing attention to its effects on local spending and on bolstering illegal occupation. The campaign with a coincided with a conference by pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“At a time when the sequester is cutting billions of dollars from programs to help those in need, it is grotesque that AIPAC is lobbying Congress this week for ever-increasing amounts of military aid to Israel, especially as these US weapons are used by Israel—in violation of U.S. laws—to abuse Palestinian human rights,” said the group's National Advocacy Director Josh Ruebner.

In his first meeting with a foreign counterpart as the newly minted US defense secretary, Hagel chose to host Barak after facing allegations from some senators that he was too tough on Israel and naive in his views on Iran.

Hagel met Barak for two hours, including an hour of one-on-one discussions, officials said. For the first half of the meeting, Hagel and Barak were joined by the US military's top officer, General Martin Dempsey and the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.

With automatic US budget cuts going into effect over the weekend, Hagel sought to reassure Barak that he would work to prevent disruption to Washington's funding for rocket and missile defense programs for Israel.

Hagel "is committed to working with members of Congress to ensure that there is no interruption of funding for Iron Dome, Arrow, and David's Sling rocket and missile defense systems, despite the fiscal uncertainty due to congressional inaction" on the automatic budget cuts and a proposed defense budget, said a defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Hagel greeted Barak on the steps of the Pentagon entrance before an honor guard shortly after 10 am local time, giving the Israeli minister an informal salute.

The two embraced and then walked into the building for discussions that focused on Iran's nuclear program, Syria's raging civil war and the threat posed by the regime's chemical weapons arsenal, officials said.

Hagel and Barak discussed "the need for the Syrian regime to maintain control over chemical and biological weapons in their country" and "pledged to continue US-Israel contingency planning to counter that potential threat," Little said.

The Pentagon chief, who was sworn in last week, repeated President Barack Obama's commitment on "preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon with all options on the table," Little said.

Hagel "stated that the United States continues to believe there is still time to address this issue through diplomacy, but that window is closing."

The meeting comes after both Barak and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a session this week of the influential pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Barak, speaking to the AIPAC conference on Sunday, said Israel would never allow Iranian leaders to develop a nuclear weapon and that when his country warns military action remains an option, "we mean it."

Obama and Netanyahu have had an uneasy relationship, marked by disagreement about how to counter Iran's sensitive uranium enrichment work.

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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