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Column: Hagel Bestows Kind Words, Military Toys

T he chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Benny Gantz, recently pushed back against the idea — which had gained much currency among Iran-watchers — that it was too late for his country to act alone against Iran’s nuclear facilities, should sanctions, subterfuge and diplomacy fail.

“The (Israel Defense Forces) has the capability of attacking the nuclear installations by itself,” Gantz said.

The general isn’t given to bluster, so this was a noteworthy statement. He felt comfortable making it because he knew that in a few days he would be welcoming to Israel a friend bearing some useful gifts.

The friend is the new American secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel. And the gifts? Well, they are gifts the Iranian regime would prefer Israel didn’t possess: advanced radar packages that extend Israel’s ability to see east (and west, north and south, but east is what matters most at the moment), KC-135 refueling tankers, and V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft. The tankers will extend the range of Israel’s bombers, and the Ospreys are particularly useful for inserting commandos into enemy territory. The sale of Ospreys (these gifts come with a price tag, but the generous U.S. aid package means they’re subsidized) is particularly notable, because Israel will be the first American ally allowed to buy them.

What is also notable is Hagel’s role in the sale. You remember Hagel, yes? The former senator from Nebraska accused of being an anti-Semite by a columnist in the Wall Street Journal? The foreign policy “realist” who was said to coddle Israel’s terrorist enemies? The appeaser whose appointment, according to Alan Dershowitz, would encourage Iran “to proceed with their development of nuclear weapons without fear of an attack from the United States?”

Hagel exhibited his anti-Zionist animus in an unusual way, by spending two days in Israel as the guest of its new hardline defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon (and the reports I’ve received from Israel suggest the two are getting along well). Hagel chose to make Israel his first overseas stop to counter the stream of accusations leveled against him by his opponents. Or, more to the point, by the opponents of his new boss, President Barack Obama, who has also been the target of partisan attacks accusing him of loathing Israel. Obama managed to mostly shut down that line of invective by visiting Israel himself last month, to the general acclaim of Israel’s citizens and leaders.

By all accounts — including Israeli accounts — Hagel, like Obama, is deeply interested in enhancing Israel’s military edge in the region, affirming the ironclad alliance between the two nations and bluntly asserting the U.S. position on Iran’s nuclear program. According to Bloomberg News’ Gopal Ratnam, Hagel was asked whether the U.S. was using this weapons sale to signal to Iran that a military strike was on the table. Hagel’s response: “I don’t think there’s any question that it’s another very clear signal to Iran.”

In the past, Hagel has made statements on Iran that were substantially more equivocal. So the question is this: Is Hagel just toeing the line of the administration that now employs him? Or is there something else at work?

One senior Defense Department official, who requested anonymity to speak freely, suggested to me that Hagel’s now-daily exposure to intelligence concerning Iran’s nefarious activities around the globe has awakened him to the depth of the threat. This seems plausible. When he was outside the administration, Hagel was known for bluntly challenging conventional wisdom (including Israel’s conventional wisdom). Now that he’s inside, he understands — as Obama long ago came to understand — that it isn’t so easy to simply will the Iranian regime to cooperate.

The Obama administration is touting the new weapons package as proof of its anti-Iran bona fides. (The Arab allies of the United States, who fear Iran as much as the Israelis do, also received visits from Hagel, and they, too, will be the recipients of expensive weapons-systems upgrades.) But Hagel’s visit to Israel has another purpose, one that serves the interest of peace.

Israeli leaders who think the U.S. is hostile to their concerns are more likely to take dangerous action against Iran. Hagel, by visiting, by spending time with military leaders, by expressing an understanding of Israel’s history and its anxieties, will, with any luck, convince his counterparts that he understands why they are so worried, even if he doesn’t agree with them on every aspect of the Iranian threat.

It’s one of the oddities of the American-Israeli relationship: A few kind words can have a greater impact than a host of expensive weapons systems.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.