- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 5, 2013

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.