Friend of Israel: Hagel’s first foreign visitor to be Ehud Barak

Israeli Defense Minster Ehud Barak will be the first foreign defense chief to visit Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon, during his visit to Washington next week for talks on Iran.

Barak will be in the building on Tuesday, a senior defense official tells the E-Ring.

“The secretary wanted to make sure that Minister Barak was one of the very first meetings he had after he took office,” said the official. “He’s delighted that Minister Barak was able to make time to visit the Pentagon.”

It is an unusually quick return visit for Barak, who visited the capital in December, and continues a flurry of U.S.-Israeli meetings in recent months. President Obama is scheduled to visit Israel in March, the White House has announced. According to the Jerusalem Post, next week Barak also has meetings planned with Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

The visit also coincides with the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Barak will appear at the conference this weekend, taking the place of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who plans address the group via satellite. Biden also is scheduled to speak at AIPAC.

Hagel’s nomination faced early and frequent criticism from conservative Republicans, Democrats, and Jewish groups angry over Hagel’s prior complaints about the influence of "the Jewish lobby.”  Many senators took that reference to be a criticism of groups like AIPAC, arguing Hagel was too "cozy" with Iran and less than a full friend to Israel, which made his appointment to the Pentagon risky.  Hagel walked back his comments during his confirmation hearing in the Senate.

“I've always said I am a supporter of Israel,” Hagel said, in his hearing. “In some cases, I have said I'm a strong supporter of Israel. In some cases I've even written -- and I think it's in my book -- that we have a special relationship with Israel. We always have had. So I've never voted in -- against Israel ever in the 12 years I was in the Senate, whether it was military authorizations, additional supplemental appropriations. The record is very clear on that.”

Pentagon officials say the meeting continues to demonstrate that despite any political feelings between Washington and Jerusalem, the military-to-military relationship between U.S. and Israel remains one of the strongest in the world. Hagel is expected to visit Israel early in his tenure, but not before Obama's trip.

Barak announced last year he will retire from politics, though there is speculation that the former prime minister will not stay away long. His December visit to the Pentagon was believed to be his last in office. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta awarded Barak, at the time, the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service.

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