Barack Obama has made his first visit to Israel as US president, saying the alliance between the two countries is ‘eternal’ amid Iranian nuclear threat.
The long-awaited visit, the first foreign tour of Obama’s second term, comes just days after the installation of a new rightwing Israeli government which faces key challenges of how to handle Iran’s nuclear programme and peace with the Palestinians.
“The United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend,” Obama said at a lavish welcoming ceremony at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport.
“It’s good to be back in The Land (Israel),” Obama said in Hebrew after being greeted on the red carpet by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.
The president’s opening message was clearly one of reassurance, aimed at offsetting persistent Israeli scepticism over his strategy for confronting Iran.
“The United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend,” he said.
The US president hopes to reset his often fraught relations with both the Israelis and Palestinians in a carefully choreographed three-day stay that is high on symbolism but low on expectations.
“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.
‘Right to self-defence’
In his welcoming remarks to the US president, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu cited an Israeli right to self-defence, which he said Obama supported.
“Thank you for standing by Israel at this time of historic change in the Middle East,” said Netanyahu, whose relationship with Obama has often been testy.
“Thank you for unequivocally affirming Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself by itself against any threat,” the right-wing Israeli leader said before viewing with Obama the partially US-funded Iron Dome.
At the ceremony, Obama spoke of his hopes for peace – without directly mentioning Palestinians. US officials said he was not bringing any peace initiative with him.
“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,” Obama said.
Hopes for a new policy are low, with the White House having deliberately minimised expectations of any major breakthroughs, a reversal from Obama’s first four years when aides said he would only visit Israel if he had something concrete to accomplish.
“If you talk to the administration people behind the scenes, they expect and they are hoping that in this trip, the president doesn’t make any news,” said Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from Jerusalem.
Obama’s visit could be seen as the American leader’s endorsement of Israel’s “extremist” government, Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian journalist and founder of Electronic Intifada, told Al Jazeera, in an interview from Chicago.
Obama travels to the West Bank on Thursday for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and will fly on to Jordan on Friday.
Meanwhile, Palestinian activists set up a protest camp on Wednesday close to where Israel wants to build a new settlement in the occupied West Bank.
Over a hundred demonstrators erected four large, steel-framed tents and a massive Palestinian flag on the rugged, rocky tract near Jerusalem, just as Obama arrived in nearby Tel Aviv for three days of talks and meetings.
“We are here to send a message to President Obama, our struggle, our non-violent peaceful resistance will continue until we are free,” said senior Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouthi, standing on the windy outcrop.