On historic Mideast trip, Obama says US-Israel bond is 'unbreakable'

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Associated Press

Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both spoke of the “unbreakable” bond between their two countries, after the U.S. president arrived in Israel on Wednesday.

During his first state trip to the country, Obama is expected to discuss Iran's disputed nuclear program and the crisis in Syria with Israeli leaders. He will also meet Palestinian officials in the West Bank on Thursday, but little progress on the peace process is expected.

Obama was met at Tel Aviv's airport Wednesday morning by Netanyahu and Israel’s President Shimon Peres, a military band and a host of other officials and dignitaries.

"Good to see you … it’s good to get away from Congress,” Obama told Netanyahu, who laughed. Obama told Peres “good to see you, brother" and after they reviewed an honor guard of troops, the two presidents hugged each other and smiled.

All three men gave speeches that emphasized the friendship between the U.S. and Israel – Netanyahu spoke of the “unbreakable alliance,” Obama the “unbreakable bond.”

'Eternal' alliance
Obama, who began his speech with “shalom,” said he was “confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal.”

“The United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend,” he said.

He said it was not an accident that he had made the first overseas trip of his second term in office to Israel.

“Across this region, the winds of change bring both promise and peril,” Obama said, likely a reference to the Arab Spring uprisings that saw an Islamist president voted into power in Egypt and a civil war erupt in Syria.

In his speech, Netanyahu thanked Obama for “standing by Israel at this time of historic change in the Middle East.”

“We deeply appreciate your friendship and we share your hope that the Middle East will enjoy a future of freedom, prosperity and peace,” he added.

Picking up on comments Obama made before the trip –- expressing the desire to put on a disguise and go to a Tel Aviv bar -- Netanyahu joked that he had lined up a few locations and “even picked out a fake mustache for you.”

Obama also viewed an “Iron Dome” air defense missile launcher, a U.S.-funded system, that was brought to the airport for him to see. The system has helped protect Israelis from Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza.

Obama was scheduled to hold formal meetings with Netanyahu later on Wednesday before the pair -- who have not always seen eye to eye -- have a private dinner at Netanyahu’s home in the evening.

Netanyahu is expected to attempt to get Obama to agree to define a “red line” for Iran -- the point in its nuclear development at which military action would be taken to stop it from getting an atom bomb. Last week, Peres described Iran as “the greatest threat to peace in the world.”

Israel also worries that Islamist factions among the rebels fighting Syria’s Bashar Assad could seize control of the buffer zone between the two countries from the United Nations and threaten Israel with chemical weapons and long-range rockets captured from the regime.

On Thursday, the president will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, where he can expect a mixed reception.

"It's not a positive visit," Wasel Abu Yousef, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is led by Abbas, told Reuters.

In Ramallah on Tuesday, Palestinian police scuffled with scores of demonstrators protesting Obama's visit.

Obama is likely to offer reassurance that the U.S. still supports the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

However, little progress on the peace process is expected during the trip.

'Horrible conclusion'
In an editorial Wednesday, the Haaretz newspaper said it would “take a good bit of imagination to expect a breakthrough over the next two days.”

“Here lies the central danger of the visit. The Israeli government and public could conclude, based on the polite tone of the president and the lack of a threat or demonstrative pressure, that Israel is now exempt from having to initiate steps toward resuming the peace process,” it wrote.

“This would be a horrible conclusion. Obama and the United States are not a party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president of the United States is not the one who must live in a society that is being transformed as a result of the occupation and pushed to the margins of the international community,” it added.

The Jerusalem Post said that there would “admittedly” be “little if any headway” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, its editorial said the visit would be more than just a “charm offensive,” given the war in Syria and the prospect of Iran getting a nuclear weapon. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful means only.

“As the leader of the Jewish people, who have been threatened with destruction by Iran’s leaders, Netanyahu wants assurances that the U.S. will launch a military strike if necessary to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran,” the Post wrote.

“Ideally, he would also like to define a mutually agreed upon ‘red line’ or the point at which it has been determined that diplomacy and sanctions are useless and military action must be taken,” it added.

Obama will be in the Middle East until Saturday. He will also lay a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance for victims of the Holocaust, and visit the Church of the Nativity with Abbas.

On Friday, he will go to Amman, Jordan, for talks and a dinner with King Abdullah. On Saturday, Obama will take a walking tour of the ancient city of Petra before flying home.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Earlier story (from the Associated Press):

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) - President Barack Obama is opening his first trip to Israel since taking office.
   
Air Force One touched down in Tel Aviv early Wednesday afternoon after an overnight flight from Washington. After an arrival ceremony at the airport, Obama will head to Jerusalem for meetings with Israeli leaders.
   
The president will also make stops in the West Bank and Jordan while in the Middle East. Obama's agenda will focus on the prospects for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, Iran's disputed nuclear program, and the ongoing violence in Syria.
   
However, White House officials have downplayed the prospects for major breakthroughs on any of those issues.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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