Obama in Israel amid low hope

Calls alliance eternal as Palestinians vent ire over delayed peace

Making his first official visit to Israel, President Barack Obama pledged on Wednesday unwavering commitment to the security of the Jewish State where concern over a nuclear-armed Iran has clouded bilateral relations.

He also stressed the need for Middle East peace at the start of a three-day trip aimed at resetting fraught relations with both the Israelis and Palestinians. But US officials have said Obama had come to listen and had no new initiatives to offer.

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 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 pledge to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran and concerns that the civil war in neighboring Syria might spill over the border.

In his own welcoming remarks, Netanyahu cited an Israeli right to self-defense, which he said Obama supported. "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 an Iron Dome anti-missile battery that was brought to the airport for the president to see. The system is partially US-funded.

Annual US military aid to Israel is put at $3 billion. Speaking on the tarmac, Obama voiced of his hopes for peace - without directly mentioning Palestinians. “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.”

US-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.

Obama travels briefly to the occupied West Bank on Thursday for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and will fly on to Jordan on Friday. Shortly after reaching Tel Aviv, the US president and his delegation flew the short distance to Jerusalem in a fleet of helicopters. He was due to hold several hours of talks with Netanyahu later in the day and a joint news conference was scheduled for 8:10 pm (2.10 am EDT).

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. Hundreds of US and Israel flags have been hung on lamp posts across Jerusalem.

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