Obama Seeks to Allay Doubts in Israel About U.S. Commitment

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama, center, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and President Shimon Peres listen to the national anthem at Ben Gurion airport. Photographer: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama arrived in Jerusalem today on a trip packed with cultural stops and hours of meetings to punctuate his message that the U.S. commitment to Israel is unwavering.

After landing in Tel Aviv this afternoon, Obama was greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, who are hosting the U.S. president over the next three days. The three men, dressed in dark suits, wore blue ties with their white dress shirts, mirroring the colors of the Israeli flag.

“The United States of America stands with the state of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interests to stand with Israel; it makes us both stronger, it makes us both more prosperous and it makes the world a better place,” Obama said at the welcome ceremony for his first trip to Israel as president.

Obama, Netanyahu and Peres only had to move a short distance to their first stop to see what officials have said is a symbol of the U.S.-Israel security partnership: a U.S.-funded Iron Dome missile-defense battery that was brought to Ben Gurion Airport for the occasion.

Obama, who last visited Israel as a presidential candidate in 2008, is seeking to renew a connection to the Israeli people and allay skepticism among them about his commitment to their security following tension with Netanyahu over Israeli settlements, the peace process and dealing with Iran.

Netanyahu Welcome

“In an unstable and uncertain Middle East, the need for our alliance is greater than ever,” Netanyahu said today at the airport. “I look forward to working with you over the next four years to make the alliance between our two countries even stronger.”

Obama’s four-day agenda doesn’t include specific goals for reviving peace talks with the Palestinians or settling disagreements over how to confront Iran over its nuclear program. Along with a meeting and news conference with Netanyahu today, Obama is scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas tomorrow and Jordan’s King Abdullah II on March 22.

Symbolic Gestures

To reinforce Obama’s commitment to Israel, symbolic gestures planned during his visit may be as important as the discussions he’s having. He will view the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum; visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial; and lay wreaths at the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, and former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Peres welcomed Obama to his residence and after a meeting he called the U.S. president “a true friend” of Israel. He said Obama’s vision “can transform the Middle East” and that he trusts the U.S. approach to dealing with Iran.

He also warned that neighboring Syria, which is engulfed in a civil war, has “thousands” of chemical weapons that pose a danger to the world.

“We can’t allow those weapons to fall into terrorist hands,” Peres said. “It could lead to epic tragedy.”

Obama, in his remarks, said he reaffirmed to Peres that “the state of Israel will have no greater friend than the United States.”

Peres Meeting

An hour earlier, Obama planted a magnolia tree in the Israeli president’s garden to signify the strong roots of the relationship between the U.S and Israel, administration officials said. As Obama arrived, he and Peres waded into a crowd of children waving Israeli and American flags and singing the Hebrew song, “We have brought peace to you.”

With Obama at the start of his second term and Netanyahu having just formed a new government, the U.S. president has an opportunity to reintroduce himself and ease lingering doubts -- that extend also to some American Jews -- about his commitment to Israel.

“For the Israelis, it’s not about what have you done for me lately, it’s about how do you love me,” said Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Obama, 51, frustrated Israelis and American Jews early in his presidency when he visited Cairo in 2009, gave a speech to the Muslim world and didn’t visit Israel, according to Indyk.

“That was the start of a message that Israelis received over four years, which was that the president doesn’t like it because he doesn’t visit them, he visits everywhere else in the Middle East,” Indyk said. By contrast, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama’s immediate predecessors in the White House, had been “showering affection on Israel for 16 straight years.”

Doubts Remained

The doubts remained even as Obama repeated his unconditional commitment to Israel’s security, opposed a Palestinian statehood bid through the United Nations, and declared that all options -- including military action -- will be considered to stop Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon.

The skepticism has dogged Obama at home, as well as in Israel. While Obama won 69 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, that was down from 78 percent in 2008, according to exit polls. In Israel, a majority of the public had a negative view of Obama, according to a March 15 poll from the Maagar Mochot polling institute. Ten percent had a favorable attitude toward the U.S. president and just 33 percent think Obama has a favorable attitude toward Israel.

Reintroducing Obama

Underscoring the idea that this trip was mostly geared to reintroducing Obama to the Israeli public, Israeli Television’s Channel Two had full coverage of the U.S. president’s visit with roundtables of analysts and live pictures of the street along the King David Hotel where Obama is staying.

Netanyahu is tuned to the political implication of Obama’s standing with Israelis and American Jews, as well as his own, according to Indyk.

Netanyahu “eats polls for breakfast, he knows very well what the standing of the president is and what his own standing is,” Indyk said. “What the president can get out of this is a more pliant Netanyahu” on Israeli settlements in disputed territories, restarting the peace process and dealing with Iran.

In Israel’s Jan. 22 election, Netanyahu emerged with a weaker mandate, with his Likud-Beitenu list winning 31 seats in the 120-member Knesset, down from 42.

Israel’s economic growth eased to 3.1 percent in 2012 from 4.6 percent the previous year, the statistics bureau said on March 10. Excluding first-time natural-gas revenue, growth is expected to shrink further in 2013, according to the central bank. The cost of protecting Israeli government debt against non-payment through five-year credit-default swaps has reached a two-year low of about 120.7, according to data provider CMA.

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