JERUSALEM - The vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James Winnefeld, met Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday, the ministry said. A statement from the ministry said that Winnefeld met Barak in his Tel Aviv office, without providing details on the meeting. “The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is in Israel as part of a previously scheduled counterpart visit with Israeli Deputy Chief of the General Staff Maj Gen Yair Naveh,” Winnefeld’s office said in a statement out of Washington. “While there, Admiral Winnefeld will participate in a series of discussions on mil-to-mil (military-to-military) cooperation and mutual defense issues impacting both Israel and the United States,” it said.

Earlier on Thursday, army radio reported that the “secret” meeting was to take place, with the Israeli military refusing to confirm.

According to the report, Winnefeld was in the country at the invitation of his counterpart, Naveh.

It was not immediately clear when Winnefeld arrived, but he was expected to leave later on Thursday.

Army radio said the visit had been kept under wraps because of political sensitivities between Israel and Washington over how to handle Tehran’s nuclear programme, which both governments suspect is designed to build atomic weapons.

Tehran insists its programme is completely peaceful, but Israel has warned that a nuclear Iran would pose an existential threat and said it would take all necessary steps to prevent that from happening, including a pre-emptive military strike.

Next week, another senior US military official is due in Israel, the Ynet news website reported.

Lieutenant General Craig Franklin, currently the commander of the US Third Air Force, is to visit ahead of a joint military drill between the two armies which is due to take place next month, Ynet said.

The United States has significantly scaled down its role in the planned joint exercise, reducing by more than two-thirds the number of US troops taking part.

Pentagon officials have denied reports the move was linked to disagreements over how to respond to Iran’s disputed nuclear programme.

Tensions between the two allies have grown in recent weeks amid speculation Israel was mulling an attack on Iran without Washington’s approval and pushing the White House to issue a more forceful declaration threatening Iran with potential military action.

Analysts say President Barack Obama’s administration is arguing that there is still time to allow sanctions to have an effect on Iran and for further cyber sabotage to disrupt Tehran’s nuclear work.