Obama on first Israel trip as president vows ‘eternal’ alliance

Barack Obama has arrived in Israel for his first trip there as president, saying the US was proud to stand by Israel as its strongest ally. After landing in Tel Aviv, Mr Obama also referred to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, saying “peace must come to the Holy Land”.

US officials have tried to lower expectations of any significant headway on restarting the peace process.

Syria, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions are expected to loom large in talks.

Correspondents say Israelis are more preoccupied with instability in the wider Middle East region than with breathing new life into the peace process, which broke down in 2010 amid a dispute over continued Israeli settlement construction.

Settlement supporters are a big force in Israel’s new coalition government.

‘Fundamental security interests’

Mr Obama was welcomed at Ben Gurion airport by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.

He was introduced to Israeli ministers and leaders of religious communities and later shown a missile battery that forms part of Israel’s Iron Dome defence system against rocket attacks.

“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,” he said in brief comments.

He added: “The United States stands with Israel because it is in our fundamental security interests to stand with Israel. Our alliance is eternal. It is forever.”

Mr Netanyahu said: “Thank you for unequivocally affirming Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself by itself against any threat.”

Mr Obama is due to hold talks with Mr Netanyahu later on Wednesday, and visit the West Bank on Thursday to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

At home Mr Obama has been criticised for not having visited Israel in his first term as president, with some saying it shows he is not close enough to the country.

The state of the economy and social issues dominated Israel’s last election, and the president has said he is not going to the region bearing any grand peace plan.

But with warnings that time is running out for a two-state solution, some still think he will try to lay the ground for some greater effort to restart talks, BBC North America editor Mark Mardell reports from Jerusalem.

The president’s relationship with Mr Netanyahu has been notoriously frosty and one recent opinion poll suggested a mere 10% of the Israeli public had a favourable opinion of the US president.

‘Slap in the face’

The main event of this trip is a speech to the Israeli people – his main task is to build bridges and improve his image, which could give him more leverage over the new Israeli government, our correspondent adds.

Thousands of Israeli and Palestinian security officers have been assembled in Jerusalem and the Palestinians’ de facto capital in the West Bank city of Ramallah, ahead of his trip.

On Tuesday Palestinian protesters gathered in Ramallah and Bethlehem, some throwing shoes at images of the president and others driving over his portrait.

Demonstrator Huwaida Arraf told Reuters news agency that Mr Obama’s visit was “a slap in the face”.

“People are angry and disappointed that this far into his presidency Obama has done nothing, and aid to Israel’s occupation continues to flow,” he said.

Meanwhile, Israeli demonstrators gathered in Jerusalem to demand Mr Obama free Jonathan Pollard, imprisoned in the US in 1987 for spying for Israel.

“Let my people go,” said one banner.

Source: BBC