TEL AVIV (JTA) — President Obama began his first presidential visit to Israel with an airport speech calling the United States the “strongest ally and greatest friend” of Israel.
“Why does the U.S. stand with Israel?” Obama asked the crowd at the welcoming ceremony Wednesday afternoon at Ben-Gurion Airport. “We stand together because we share a common story. We stand together because we’re democracies. We stand together because together we’re more prosperous. We share a commitment to helping our fellow human beings around the world.”
Obama said an alliance with Israel is in the “fundamental national security interest” of the United States.
Obama is in Israel for a visit spanning Wednesday to Friday, during which he will also visit the Palestinian Authority. After arriving in Israel and providing opening remarks, he viewed an Iron Dome missile defense system and met with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Among fluttering Israeli and American flags, the U.S. leader was escorted to the airport tarmac by Netanyahu and Peres. An honor guard and military band greeted the trio as they shook hands with Israeli religious, political and cultural dignitaries.
“Thank you for standing by Israel in this time of historic change for the Middle East,” Netanyahu said in his welcome to Obama. “Thank you for strengthening the alliance between our two countries.”
Neither Obama nor Netanyahu, nor Peres, who also spoke, mentioned the Iranian nuclear program, an issue of grave concern for the U.S. and Israel. Reportedly it is one of the primary topics that Netanyahu and Obama will discuss when they meet.
In what may indicate another purpose of the visit, though, all three leaders spoke about peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu said that Israelis “seek peace with our Palestinian neighbors.” Obama declared that “peace must come to the Holy Land.”
Obama added that one of his goals is to speak directly with the Israeli people, and at the beginning of his speech he tried out some Hebrew, saying, “Shalom, it’s good to be in Israel again.” He has been to the country three times, the last in 2008 when he was a U.S. senator and presidential candidate.
After the opening speeches, Obama viewed an Iron Dome anti-missile battery brought to the airport for his inspection. He also spoke with soldiers who operate the Iron Dome.
Later Wednesday, Obama met with Peres at the president’s residence in Jerusalem. The leaders planted a tree that Obama brought with him on Air Force One. Israeli children singing and waving Israeli and American flags greeted Obama at the residence.
Following the meeting, Peres again thanked Obama for his commitment to Israel and Israeli-Palestinian peace. Peres also spoke of the need to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, and said that Israel and the U.S. must prevent Syrian chemical weapons from falling into the hands of Hezbollah, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In contrast to last year’s tension between Netanyahu and Obama on the Iran issue, Peres said that Israelis “trust your policy to try by non-military means, with a clear statement that both options remain on the table. You’ve made it clear that your intention is not to contain but to prevent” a nuclear Iran.
Peres added that Obama “came to us with a clear message that no one should let skepticism win the day, that peace is not a wish but a possibility.” And in another nod to Jewish tradition, Obama quoted a Talmudic story extolling patience and thanked Peres for “all the seeds you’ve planted — seeds of progress, seeds of security, seeds of peace.”
Obama during his visit will tour Israeli cultural and historical landmarks, and address an Israeli audience. He also will go to Ramallah in the West Bank, where he will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.