In Israel, Obama Seeks to Offer Reassurance

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JERUSALEM – It took four years and a second term, but President Obama traveled to Israel on Wednesday for a richly symbolic state visit, bearing a message of solidarity to a wary Israeli public, and a promise to defend Israel from threats near and far.

"Shalom," Mr. Obama said after embracing President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who waited for him on a red carpet under the shadow of Air Force One at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport.

"I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our nations," the president declared in a stately arrival ceremony after Mr. Peres and Mr. Netanyahu offered thanks to the United States for standing by its ally.

Mr. Obama did not mention the Palestinians by name in his brief remarks, speaking instead of Israel's "neighbor." Nor did he allude to Iran or Syria, the other top items on his agenda. But he invoked the Jewish people's 3,000-year history in this land, referring to modern Israelis as "the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah."

"I walk with you on the historic homeland of the Jewish people," he said as Israeli and American flags rippled and sunlight glinted off the horns of an Israeli military brass band.

The president's words seemed to presage a visit that will be heavy on symbolism and short on any proposals to advance peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr. Obama was almost immediately driven across the tarmac to inspect a battery of the Iron Dome air-defense system, a squat, mobile, desert-colored weapon pointed skyward. The system, built by Israeli companies but largely financed by the United States, is credited with intercepting more than 400 rockets fired from Gaza at Israeli cities and towns.

His inspection was the first in a series of carefully choreographed stops designed to convey a single message: the president cares about the Israeli people and will do whatever is necessary to protect them from Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and other enemies.

Mr. Obama, officials said, has not come bearing a bold, or even modest, proposal to revive long-stalled talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. His reference on Wednesday to the divide was cursory.

"We stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land," Mr. Obama said. "Even as we are cleareyed about the difficulty, we will never lose sight of the vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors."

Rather, he is seeking to make a connection with the Israeli people, many of whom view him with a jaundiced eye after four years in which he did not come here and sparred with Mr. Netanyahu over issues like Iran and Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

In more than four hours of planned meetings with Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Obama is expected to discuss Iran's nuclear program and the status of Western diplomatic efforts to curb it; the civil war in Syria, where the government and rebel forces accused each other on Tuesday of using chemical weapons; and the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In his remarks, Mr. Netanyahu said: "Thank you. Thank you for standing with Israel."

Later at a televised appearance at Mr. Peres's home, Mr. Obama and Mr. Peres expressed warm words for each other. Mr. Peres thanked Mr. Obama for his long days and "many long sleepless nights" spent "caring for our country and for our future." Mr. Obama said he had succumbed to Mr. Peres's charms and called Jerusalem an "eternal city." Mr. Obama also spoke of the need for peace "between Israel and the Palestinians" -- not referring to them as "neighbors" as he had earlier.

The White House has energetically played down expectations for the visit, eschewing talk of "deliverables," the diplomatic jargon for policy achievements, and suggestions that it represents a "reset" of the relationship between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu.

The timing all but guarantees that no serious diplomacy can be done: Mr. Netanyahu has just cobbled together a new coalition government with an untested collection of parties, and Mr. Obama, barely into his second term, is introducing a new secretary of state, John Kerry.

Promoting the military and intelligence ties between the two countries was a safe initial subject. The United States has committed nearly $1 billion to the Iron Dome system, which was put into service in April 2011, shooting down short- and medium-range rockets fired from Gaza.

"They are constantly improving, so we have to improve our systems," said Yair Ramati, the director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, in an interview. "Without the support of the United States, we will not be able to cope with this rate of change."

Israeli defense officials claim that the Iron Dome system has been a spectacular success, intercepting 86 percent of the 521 incoming rockets it engaged in the Gaza conflict. Some American missile-defense experts have questioned that figure, putting the hit rate at closer to 10 percent.

The centerpiece of the visit will be a speech by Mr. Obama at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, where he will address an audience of young Israelis, assembled by several universities.

The president "just thought it was important to be able to speak to the Israeli people as well, given that he has not traveled here yet as president, and having that kind of conversation with the public will ultimately be helpful in deepening the relationship," said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, who is drafting Mr. Obama's remarks.

Mr. Obama also is expected to redress what some Israelis regarded as two affronts in his landmark speech to the Muslim world in 2009. In that speech, also written by Mr. Rhodes, he dwelt on the suffering of the people of Palestine and declared that the aspirations for a Jewish homeland were rooted principally in the tragedy of the Holocaust.

During his less than 48 hours on Israeli soil, Mr. Obama will lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the writer who is viewed as the father of modern Zionism, and view the Dead Sea scrolls, Hebrew texts that symbolize the ancient link of the Jewish people to this land.

These stops were added, with the encouragement of Israeli officials, to the more traditional stops at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the grave of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who was assassinated in 1995, to counter the impression that Mr. Obama left in his speech in Cairo in 2009.

In his remarks on Wednesday, Mr. Obama spoke in Hebrew, saying, "It's good to be back in the land of Israel."

"We stand together because we share a common history," he said of the United States and Israel, noting that both countries were made up of pioneers, patriots and immigrants.

On Mr. Obama's drive to the King David Hotel, sparse crowds lined the streets. Several protesters held up signs calling for him to pardon Jonathan Jay Pollard, an American who is serving a life sentence after being convicted of spying for Israel in 1987.

Mr. Obama has said Mr. Pollard must serve his prison time, but in Israel, where leaders have long championed his cause, his advocates appear to be well organized.

Mr. Obama will visit the West Bank twice, to meet with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, and to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Some analysts have questioned why the president will visit the Church of the Nativity, an enduring symbol to Christians, while not stopping at either the Western Wall, which is sacred to Jews, or Al Aksa Mosque, which has similar status among Muslims.

White House officials said stopping at the Western Wall, in the Old City of Jerusalem, would have required an extreme security cordon. The Israeli authorities, they said, also did not encourage it.

On Friday, Mr. Obama will travel to Amman, Jordan, to meet King Abdullah of Jordan. His talks there are expected to be dominated by the strife in Syria, which has driven hundreds of thousands of refugees across the border into Jordan.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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