Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak walk together into the Pentagon on March 5. (Carolyn Kaster / The Associated Press)
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WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel promised Israel Tuesday that he will work with Congress to ensure continued funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system, a senior defense official said after the Pentagon chief met with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
The two-hour session in the Pentagon was Hagel's first meeting with a foreign counterpart. And it comes less than a week after he took the job amid fierce Republican criticism and accusations from some GOP-leaning outside groups that he was "anti-Israel."
The bruising Senate confirmation hearings questioned whether he has been hard enough on Iran, but he repeatedly said he backs U.S. and international sanctions against Tehran. In addition, outside groups slammed his use of the term "Jewish lobby" to refer to pro-Israel groups. He has apologized and says he should have used another term.
While it is notable, considering the controversy, that Barak was the first allied counterpart to meet with Hagel, it is not surprising. Barak has been one of the most frequent defense chiefs to visit the Pentagon, meeting often with previous secretaries, including Leon Panetta and Robert Gates.
The defense official said that Hagel committed to backing funding for the missile defense system — which is largely aimed at protecting against Iran — despite the ongoing fiscal uncertainty due to the $46 billion in automatic budget cuts that took effect last Friday. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversation between Hagel and Barak was private, said the two men met in private for about one hour and spent another hour in a larger session with staff.
According to Pentagon press secretary George Little, Hagel and Barak also discussed the need for continue cooperation surrounding the ongoing violence in Syria and the need to insure that chemical and biological weapons there remain secure.
Hagel also has been in contact by phone with several of his other foreign counterparts this week, including Afghanistan's defense minister, Bismullah Khan Mohammadi. The Pentagon said Tuesday that the Afghan and others congratulated Hagel on taking office as secretary of defense.
In addition to his conversation with Mohammadi, Hagel spoke by phone this week with the defense ministers of Australia, Canada, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Britain. Little said Hagel expressed his commitment to ensuring strong military-to-military relationships despite the difficult budget constraints.
AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.