U.S. President Barack Obama said at the start of his first official visit to Israel on Wednesday that U.S. commitment to the security of the Jewish state was rock solid.
“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 welcoming ceremony at Tel Aviv airport.
“I am confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, is forever …”Standing by Israel is in America’s national security interests,” he added.
“Peace must come to the Holy Land. We will never lose sight of an Israel at peace with its neighbors,” Obama said. “Our alliance is eternal. It is for ever.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Obama for standing up for Israel’s right to defend its existence, at the welcome ceremony.
“Thank you for defending Israel’s right to unequivocably defend its right to exist,” he said at Ben Gurion airport, shortly after Obama arrived for his first trip to Israel since becoming president more than four years ago.
Obama touched down aboard Air Force One at Tel Aviv airport, and was met by Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, U.S. officials said.
Peres also thanked Barack Obama for his "unshakeable" support.
"A world without your friendship would invite aggression against Israel... In times of peace, in times of war, your support for Israel is unshakeable," he said.
Obama's goal is to “listen” to Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian leaders during his visit, the president has said.
Ultimately, Obama hopes to ease past tensions with his hosts and is under pressure to narrow differences over handling Iran’s nuclear threat.
“My goal on this trip is to listen. I intend to meet with Bibi (Netanyahu) ... I intend to meet with Fayyad and Abu Mazen (Abbas) and to hear from them what is their strategy, what is their vision, where do they think this should go?” Obama told Israeli television ahead of the trip.
Obama’s long-awaited visit, the debut overseas trip of his second term, comes as Israel’s new government settles in and will also expose Obama’s diminished ambitions of forging peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
The president’s airplane, Air Force One, took off at 8:15 pm (0015 GMT Wednesday) from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.
Obama upon arrival will immediately come face-to-face with Israel’s security challenge, viewing a mobile battery of Israel’s U.S.-funded Iron Dome anti-missile system.
Then he will head to Jerusalem, to visit President Shimon Peres before going into talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
On his trip, Obama will pointedly court symbolism as he will be inspecting the Dead Sea Scrolls and visiting the tomb of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism.
The choreography is intended to show Israelis, Arabs and political foes back home that Obama is deeply committed to Israel’s security and future, despite some skepticism about his motives.
Obama normally gets a hero’s welcome on foreign trips but after his call for a “new beginning” with the Muslim world in his first term, he will confront questionable personal popularity among Israelis.
A Jerusalem Post poll Tuesday found 36 percent of Israelis found Obama more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel compared to 26 percent who saw him as favoring Israel more than the Palestinians.
So, mounting a charm offensive, Obama will deliver a speech to hundreds of young Israelis on Thursday.
To secure the successful trip both sides want, Obama and Netanyahu will have to navigate an often difficult personal chemistry, following spats over settlement building and Iran.
But the visit is unlikely to narrow differences over how soon Iran will have nuclear weapons capability.
Obama, accompanied by his new secretary of state, John Kerry, will hold lengthy talks with Netanyahu, with Iran expected to top the agenda.
Israel and the United States agree that Iran should never get a nuclear bomb, dismissing Tehran's assertion that its atomic program is peaceful. However, the two allies are at odds over how fast the clock is ticking down on the need for preventative military action should diplomacy fail.
U.S. officials say Obama will urge further patience, with Washington worried that a threatened Israeli unilateral strike might drag the United States into another Middle East war.