The Pentagon's new chief held talks with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday and pledged to ensure US budget cuts have no effect on funding for military assistance to the Jewish state, officials said.
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.
"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.
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 (1500 GMT), 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.
The White House has argued that more time is needed to allow tough economic sanctions to take effect while Israeli officials have warned that it will soon be too late for military action.
Tuesday's talks at the Pentagon will help lay the ground for Obama's scheduled visit to Israel in two weeks' time, his first as president.
Hagel, an ex-senator from Nebraska and Vietnam veteran, came under fierce criticism from his Republican former colleagues during his nomination process, with lawmakers painting him as hostile to Israel and unwilling to impose some sanctions on Iran.
During his Senate confirmation hearing, Hagel rejected the criticism as inaccurate, but failed to persuade the Republican minority in the Senate. His nomination was approved in a narrow vote, 58-41, that saw most Republicans opposing Hagel for the job.