Making his first official visit to Israel, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged on Wednesday enduring support for the Jewish State, where concern over a nuclear-armed Iran has clouded U.S.-Israeli relations.
He also stressed the need for Middle East peace at the start of a three-day trip, which is aimed at resetting strained relations with both the Israelis and Palestinians, but is not expected to provide new initiatives or substantial policy moves.
Descending from Air Force One in bright Spring sunshine, Obama briefly embraced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he has a notoriously testy relationship, before offering smiles and handshakes to waiting 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 neighbours," 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 promise to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, as well as anxiety that the civil war in neighbouring Syria might spill over the border, with Western powers reluctant to get involved.
The U.S. president said last week he believed Iran was still more than a year away from developing an atomic weapon and is counselling nervous Israelis to show patience.
PUSHING FOR PEACE
In his own welcoming remarks, Netanyahu cited an Israeli right to self-defence, which he said Obama supported. The Israeli leader had some fence-mending of his own to do with Obama after the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign during which Netanyahu appeared to favour Obama's opponent, Republican Mitt Romney.
Speaking on the tarmac, Obama voiced his hopes for peace - without directly mentioning Palestinians, with whom he will meet on Thursday in the occupied West Bank.
U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled since 2010 in a dispute over Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank.
Obama will make a speech to a group of carefully screened Israeli students on Thursday afternoon, where he is expected once more to play up historic ties between the two nations. Annual U.S. military aid to Israel is put at $3 billion.
Earlier in the day, he will fly by helicopter the short distance between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, avoiding having to cross the Israeli separation barrier that divides the cities.
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