Hagel gets warm welcome in Israel

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was the first senior U.S. official to visit Israel since of the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks. National security adviser Susan E. Rice traveled to Israel days before. This version has been corrected.


Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, presents a challenge coin to a member of the Israeli security forces before departing from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. (Mandel Ngan/Pool/Reuters)

In U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s first visit here since the collapse of American-brokered peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, there was an unspoken, albeit unmistakable, return to the status quo.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, widely seen as being among the top spoilers of the Obama administration’s dogged effort to get a peace deal, welcomed Hagel this week with ebullient warmth, calling him a “dear friend.”

There were only cursory mentions of the moribund peace talks, which fizzled late last month; the dominant theme was the United States’ enduring and growing commitment to shield Israel from an ever-expanding array of threats.

“You have already made clear that the security of Israel is a top priority for you,” Yaalon told Hagel on Thursday afternoon inside the Israeli Defense Ministry building in Tel Aviv. “I’m particularly glad that this policy continues the tradition of close relations between our governments and ministries.”

Referring to Yaalon by his nickname, Bogey, Hagel made a cursory mention about the “need for continued commitment to direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations” for a two-state solution to the conflict. But it came across as little more than an obligatory talking point and was overshadowed by the enthusiasm both defense chiefs share for the fruits of the multibillion-dollar U.S. investment to build up Israel’s defenses against enemies near and far.

“Nothing speaks more clearly than America’s concrete support for Israel’s defense,” Hagel said, noting that Washington has shared with Israel its most advanced platforms, including the V-22 Osprey aircraft, the F-35 fighter plane and sophisticated radar systems. “That includes $3.1 billion per year in foreign military financing, which is not only more than we provide to any other nation, but the most we have provided to any nation in American history.”

It was hard not to see an air of vindication in Yaalon’s tone and body language.

The Palestinians were to blame for the failure of peace talks, he argued, for failing to “recognize Israel’s right to exist as a nation-state of the Jewish people.” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abaas, he charged, had not been committed to a compromise.

“So that is why we failed again, not for the first time,” he said.

Abbas has recognized Israel’s right to exist, but he balked at a recent effort to enshrine in legislation its identity as a Jewish state.

The peace talks, begun last summer under heavy U.S. pressure, had highlighted areas of disagreement between Israel and its closest ally. U.S. complaints about Israeli settlement-building suddenly had new resonance, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on the spot to release long-held Palestinian prisoners. Yaalon was the most openly hostile member of the Israeli cabinet, but he was not the only member of Netanyahu’s coalition government to resent the U.S. pressure to make concessions.

Yaalon on Thursday brushed off reminders that he had been quoted as characterizing Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s efforts in the talks as “misplaced obsession and messianic fervor.”

“I am responsible for what I say,” Yaalon said. “I am not responsible for misquotations or misinterpretation.”

After their brief news conference, Hagel and Yaalon regrouped at Hatzor air force base, an hour’s drive south of Tel Aviv, where Israeli and American troops who will soon kick off a joint training exercise displayed four missile-defense platforms. They ranged from Iron Dome — a midrange rocket interceptor that emerged as a game-changer in 2012 when Israel last launched a concerted offensive against militants in the Gaza Strip — to platforms designed to knock out ballistic missiles.

“We are here to witness what we are talking about when we claim about the unshakable bond between the U.S., as the greatest democracy all over the world, and the state of Israel, the only democracy in our tough neighborhood,” Yaalon told American and Israeli soldiers standing at attention. Referring to the threat of missiles and rockets from Iran, Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, Yaalon added: “We’ve got a challenge, but we can cope with it.”

Outside the tightly choreographed events, politics and clashes in Israel and the occupied West Bank further dimmed the prospect of regaining traction on peace talks. On the outskirts of Ramallah, Israeli soldiers on Thursday fatally shot two Palestinian protesters who were among those demonstrating on Nakba Day, when they mourn the flight and expulsion of about 700,000 Palestinians during the war and hostilities that accompanied the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The two men, aged 17 and 20, were shot after a crowd began lobbing stones at Israeli soldiers, according to local news reports.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post reported that Israel’s economy minister will soon present Netanyahu with a proposal to annex a major area of the West Bank that is home to several settlements.

In London, where he was meeting with allies on Syria and Ukraine policy, Kerry signaled Thursday that he had not yet given up on reviving peace talks. After Kerry met with Abbas and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, the State Department issued a statement saying that the secretary told both that “while the door remains open to peace, the parties must determine whether they are willing to take the necessary steps to resume negotiations.”

A senior administration official, who was not authorized to speak on the record and spoke only on the condition of anonymity, said Kerry’s hasn’t lost hope that the dueling parties will come to recognize that the security architecture envisioned by the U.S. officials who drafted a framework for negotiations is worth the compromises each side has been asked to make.

“The hope is that both sides will reconsider their positions and return to negotiations sooner rather than later,” the official said.

Before flying to Washington on Friday afternoon, Hagel met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem. The Israeli premier lamented that the secretary was visiting during “turbulent times,” which he blamed on closer contacts between Palestinian leaders in the West Bank and those from the militant group Hamas, which runs Gaza.

“I think the Palestinians have to make a simple choice: a pact with Hamas, or peace with Israel,” Netanyahu said. “But they cannot have both.”

Hagel sidestepped the issue of peace talks in his public remarks alongside Netanyahu. Neither leader took questions from reporters.

“As you said in the United States earlier this year,” Hagel told Netanyahu, quoting him, “American support for Israel is at an all-time high.”

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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