TEL AVIV — If Chuck Hagel didn’t know his Middle East geography before, he does now — thanks to a birds-eye tutorial from the Israeli military.
In his first visit to Israel as secretary of defense, Hagel took a one-hour, 40-minute tour of the northern half of the country Monday in an Israeli Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, flying from Tel Aviv to the Golan Heights before circling over Jerusalem’s Old City.
Just in case he didn’t immediately absorb the main lesson of the flight — that Israel is a really small country with difficult-to-defend borders — a tailored 35-page briefing book spelled it out in very familiar terms for a former U.S. senator from the Midwest. “The State of Nebraska is nine times the size of the State of Israel,” read the heading over a big map, in a reference to Israel’s pre-1967 borders.
The helicopter ride was the culmination of two busy days of bonding between Hagel and Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s defense minister. Both men are new to their jobs and lack the extensive personal relationships shared by many of their predecessors, so Yaalon tried to make up for lost time.
On Sunday, after the Pentagon chief landed in Tel Aviv from Washington, Yaalon escorted him on a tour of Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust. Afterward, he hosted an official dinner for Hagel in Jerusalem — featuring a performer who belted out tunes from “Phantom of the Opera.”
The pair met at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv for 90 minutes Monday and held a joint news conference. Then Hagel gamely agreed to join Yaalon for the helicopter tour, overriding Pentagon rules that generally prohibit the defense secretary from flying on foreign military aircraft.
Like Hagel, 66, an infantryman who was twice wounded in Vietnam, Yaalon, 62, is a former soldier. He served in an elite paratrooper squad and later as chief of staff for the Israel Defense Forces.
Although Hagel addressed Yaalon by his nickname, “Bogie,” the two appeared stiff and all business in public, with none of the backslapping and banter typical of their predecessors, Leon E. Panetta and Ehud Barak.
Hagel’s bid to become defense secretary was nearly derailed by pro-Israel groups that questioned whether he was sufficiently supportive of the Jewish state or would take military action, if necessary, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Perhaps mindful of that, Hagel was intent throughout his visit on reassuring Israelis that he was committed to their security.
Asked by an Israeli journalist if he still thought that taking preemptive military action against Iran would be a bad idea — a sentiment he had expressed during his legislative career — Hagel gave a careful reply.
“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,” he said. “That’s been a consistent position of mine regardless of the positions I held as a United States senator.”