TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel assured Israel on Monday that the Obama administration is committed to preserving and improving the Jewish state's military edge in the Middle East.
Hagel, on his first visit to Israel as Pentagon chief, also declared that it is 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. relations with Israel, which have been strained in recent years by obstacles to reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and by the threat of an Iranian bomb.
Later, Hagel was flown in an Israeli Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter over northern Israel to view the Golan Heights, an area along the Syrian border that Israel captured during the 1967 Six-Day War.
The flight appeared to be aimed in part at impressing upon Hagel the narrow reaches of Israel and its vulnerability to troubled areas like Syria, which is in the midst of civil war.
An Israeli Defense Forces information packet provided to those who took the flight with Hagel noted that "the State of Nebraska is nine times the State of Israel." Hagel is a former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska.
At a joint news conference with Hagel prior to their flight, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, said security in the Golan Heights is one of Israel's chief worries about Syria's turmoil. He also appeared to refer to an Israeli military operation in response to a violation of what he termed an Israeli "red line" with regard to the Syrian conflict.
Yaalon said Israel has declared it will not "allow sophisticated weapons to be delivered or to be taken by rogue elements like Hezbollah and other rogue elements that are operating now in Syria. And we proved it; when they crossed these red lines we operated, we acted." He did not elaborate on what action Israel took.
Israel's so-called qualitative military edge in the Mideast, Hagel said the U.S. will permit Israel to buy various new weapons, including U.S. missiles and advanced radars for its strike aircraft.
"We are committed to providing Israel with whatever support is necessary for Israel to maintain military superiority over any state or coalition of states and non-state actors," Hagel said.