Obama promises undying support to Israel
By Matt Spetalnick and Crispian Balmer, JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Making his first official visit to Israel, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged on Wednesday enduring support for the Jewish State, where concern over a nuclear-armed Iran has clouded U.S.-Israeli relations.
He also stressed the need for Middle East peace at the start of a three-day trip, which is aimed at resetting strained relations with both the Israelis and Palestinians, but is not expected to provide new initiatives or substantial policy moves.
Descending from Air Force One in bright Spring sunshine, Obama briefly embraced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he has a notoriously testy relationship, before offering smiles and handshakes to waiting ministers.
“I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between our nations, to restate America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors,” Obama said at a red-carpet welcoming ceremony at Tel Aviv airport.
“I am confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, is forever,” he said, adding the Hebrew word for forever — “Lanetzach” — to emphasis the upbeat message.
Obama faces strong doubts among Israelis over his promise to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, as well as anxiety that the civil war in neighboring Syria might spill over the border, with Western powers reluctant to get involved.
The U.S. president said last week he believed Iran was still more than a year away from developing an atomic weapon and is counseling nervous Israelis to show patience.
Shortly after leaving Air Force One, Obama was told by an official to “follow the red line” marked on the tarmac as he set off to see an Israeli-made Iron Dome anti-missile battery.
Standing alongside Netanyahu, Obama joked: “He’s always talking to me about red lines” — a reference to Israel’s demand that Washington establish a red line for Iran’s nuclear program. “So this is all a psychological ploy,” he added.
PUSHING FOR PEACE
In his own welcoming remarks, Netanyahu cited an Israeli right to self-defense, which he said Obama supported. The Israeli leader had some fence-mending of his own to do with Obama after the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign during which Netanyahu appeared to favor Obama’s opponent, Republican Mitt Romney.
“Thank you for unequivocally affirming Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself by itself against any threat,” the right-wing Israeli leader said.
Speaking on the tarmac, Obama voiced his hopes for peace – without directly mentioning Palestinians, whom he will meet with on Thursday in the occupied West Bank.
“We stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land,” Obama said. “Even as we are clear eyed about the difficulties, we will never lose sight of the vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors.”
U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled since 2010 in a dispute over Israeli settlement-building in the occupied West Bank.
The White House has deliberately minimized hopes of any major breakthroughs, a reversal from Obama’s first four years in office when aides said he would visit the Jewish state only if he had something concrete to accomplish.
With both Obama and Netanyahu just starting new terms and mindful that they will have to work together on volatile issues for years to come, they will be looking to avoid the kind of public confrontation that has marked past encounters.
The pair started a round of talks with their respective security advisers at around 5.30 p.m. (11.30 a.m. EDT) and are due to hold a news conference at 8.10 p.m., before heading back for further discussion over dinner.
Shortly after landing in Tel Aviv, Obama’s entourage flew by helicopter to nearby Jerusalem and then drove to his city center hotel. Hundreds of banners boasting of “an unbreakable alliance” hung from lampposts, but only sparse crowds turned out to watch the president’s motorcade drive through shut-off streets.
Aware that many Israelis have reservations about him, Obama took steps to try to soften his image, smiling and joking with his guests, heaping praise on Israeli President Shimon Peres and appearing delighted as a group of schoolchildren sang for him.
Obama will make a speech to a group of carefully screened Israeli students on Thursday afternoon, where he is expected once more to play up historic ties between the two nations. Annual U.S. military aid to Israel is put at $3 billion.
Earlier in the day, he will fly by helicopter the short distance between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, avoiding having to cross the Israeli separation barrier that divides the cities.
Abbas’s allies have expressed bitter disappointment over the lack of fresh U.S. moves, saying the United States should be doing much more to force Israel to halt settlement building in the West Bank on land Palestinians want for their state.
“We say to Obama, visiting occupied Palestine is a terrible idea. If you want peace for two states, seek justice for us,” said Jamal Jafar, an activist who took part in a protest on Wednesday, setting up a camp next to a proposed new settlement.
Netanyahu told Obama at the airport that he was committed to securing peace with the Palestinians, but Western diplomats in Jerusalem remain largely skeptical.
The Israeli leader has just forged a coalition containing strong supporters of settlements on land seized in the 1967 war.
Along the reception line, Obama stopped only briefly to shake hands with pro-settler leader Naftali Bennett, but had a long exchange with new Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who heads a centrist movement and has said peace-making is a priority.