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US proud to stand with Israel as its strongest ally: Obama

Last updated on: March 20, 2013 20:49 IST

US proud to stand with Israel as its strongest ally: Obama

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Barack Obama on Wednesday landed in Israel on his first visit to the Jewish state as United States President in what is expected to be a show of America's unwavering support to its closest ally in the region which is grappling with the Syrian crisis and Iran's nuclear programme.

On arrival to a red carpet welcome, Obama told the Israeli people that the "United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend."

The trip, his first to the country as president, is part of his sweep across the Middle East, which will include visits to the West Bank and Jordan.

"We stand together because we share a common story, patriots determined to be free people in our lives," Obama told the gathering, which included Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, assembled to welcome him at the Ben-Gurion airport.

Obama stated that it was no accident that the first trip of his second term was to Israel, as the two countries have a lot in common.

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Image: US President Barack Obama walks in the garden of Israel's President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem
Photographs: Jason Reed/Reuters

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'We stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land'

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The US president will meet Israeli leaders, make a short visit to the West Bank to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and then move on to Jordan to discuss regional developments with King Abdullah II during his three-day visit to the region.

The US president spoke of the Jewish people's 3,000 year-old connection to the land, stating that the founding of the State of Israel was a tale of redemption "unlike any other in history."

"We stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land," he stated, saying that while the US was "clear-eyed about the difficulties of making peace," America still strives for peace between Israel and its neighbours.

The words sounded more like wishful thinking than something backed by strong action to many critics with some describing the visit as strong on symbolism and short of any substance.

Obama's visit comes at a time when Israelis as well as Palestinians do not see any hopes of a breakthrough in revival of the stalled peace talks between the two sides, an issue that has been pushed to the backburner with Iran's nuclear programme and developments in Syria.

Obama had clearly indicated in an interview given to an Israeli television channel before leaving for Israel that he was not going with any concrete plan to revive deadlocked peace talks with the Palestinians but to "listen" to both sides.

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Image: An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past posters calling for US President Barack Obama to free Jonathan Pollard from a US prison, in Jerusalem. Pollard, a former US Navy intelligence analyst, has been serving a life sentence in the United States since he was caught spying for Israel in the 1980s.
Photographs: Baz Ratner/Reuters
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'A world without America would be a darker world'

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Israel's President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has shared a very frosty relationship with Obama, thanked the US president for his unequivocal support for Israel.

"Thank you Mr President, thank you America, thank you for what you are, thank you for what you do," Peres said welcoming the US leader "with open arms".

"Israeli spirit is inspired by American exceptionalism," Peres said, adding, "a world without America would be a darker world. A world without your friendship would invite aggression against Israel".

Netanyahu, with whom Obama described his relation recently as "terrific and businesslike" also expressed his gratitude for continued American support to protect Israel's security interests.

Thank you for, "for standing by Israel at this time of historic change" in the Mideast, the Israeli Premier said.

"Thank you for unequivocally affirming Israel's sovereign right to defend itself and enhancing Israel's ability to exercise that right," he added.

Obama visited a mobile battery of US funded Iron Dome anti-missile system on his way to Jerusalem, something that has generated interest all over the world for its high rate of interception of short range missile emanating from Gaza.

He was to hold talks with Peres and Netanyahu later during the day.

The American leader's itinerary that includes seeing Dead Sea Scrolls and a visit of the tomb of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism has been seen by many as symbolic gestures aimed at "winning Israeli hearts" rather than achieving any real diplomatic goals.

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Image: US President Barack Obama shakes hands with children before he signs a guest book at the residence of Israel's President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem
Photographs: Larry Downing/Reuters
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Visit strong on symbolism and short of any substance: Critics

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A survey by the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute showed that while 51 per cent of the Jewish Israeli respondents considered Obama to be neutral in his attitude toward Israel, 53.5 per cent did not trust him to safeguard what they perceived to be Israel's vital interests.

In efforts to make a place in "Israeli hearts and minds", the US president is also scheduled to deliver a speech to hundreds of young Israelis on Thursday.

Obama and Netanyahu are likely to have a particularly difficult discussion surrounding Iran's nuclear programme that the Jewish state sees as an "existential threat" and is determined to foil the Islamic Republic's ambitions using "all options on the table".

The American leader told Israel's Channel II before his visit that Iran would not be able to build a nuclear weapon for "over a year or so," a timeline Israel questions saying Tehran could be within months from acquiring nuclear capability.

Washington has been consistently emphasising that Jerusalem show restraint on the Iranian issue and push for diplomatic solutions instead of exercising any military option.

Obama in his interview stressed that America would take all necessary steps to prevent Iran from succeeding in its nuclear ambitions and is prepared to use its immense capability, if required, to do so.

On the Palestinian front, as if aware of diminishing interest, Abbas hasn't pinned much hopes from Obama's visit and aims to win certain gestures like release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and release of much needed US blocked aid.

Obama is expected to tell the Palestinians that initiatives like seeking statehood recognition at the UN are counterproductive, while warning Israel that settlement building undercuts the chances of resuming peace talks.

"We are in an emergency situation," independent Palestinian legislator Mustafa Barghouti told reporters in Ramallah.

"We don't have time....either the settlements are stopped immediately... or you can kiss the two-state solution goodbye," Barghouti said presenting the gloomy mood.


Image: US President Barack Obama participates in the planting of a magnolia tree from the White House, at the residence of Israel's President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem.
Photographs: Jason Reed/Reuters
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