Making his first official visit to Israel, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged on Wednesday unwavering commitment to the security of 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 notoriously testy ties, before offering smiles and handshakes to waiting ranks of 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 neighbours,” 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 pledge to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and concerns that the civil war in neighbouring 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 counselling nervous Israelis to show patience, vowing to use all options to stop a nuclear-armed Tehran.
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 programme. “So this is all a psychological ploy,” he added.
PUSHING FOR PEACE
In his own welcoming remarks, Netanyahu cited an Israeli right to self-defence, which he said Obama supported. The Israeli leader had some fence-mending of his own with Obama after the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign during which Netanyahu appeared to favour 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 neighbours.”