Obama strives to reassure wary Israelis

President Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres greeted children on their arrival at Peres’s residence Wednesday.
Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
President Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres greeted children on their arrival at Peres’s residence Wednesday.

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,’’ Obama said after embracing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres under the shadow of Air Force One at Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv. ‘‘I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our nations,’’ he said.

In a news conference later, Obama and Netanyahu labored to project a unified front on issues that have often divided them, from how best to confront Iran’s nuclear program to how doggedly to pursue an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.


‘‘We will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining the world’s worst weapons,’’ Obama said, calling a nuclear-armed Iran a threat to Israel and the world.

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Netanyahu even agreed with Obama’s recent assessment that it would take Iran about a year to produce a nuclear weapon — a timetable longer than the Israeli leader’s warnings last fall that Iran would cross a nuclear red line by this summer.

For his part, Obama stiffened his warning that the United States would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government — a prospect that chills Netanyahu because he fears those weapons could also be used against Israelis.

The tone was set at the airport, when Obama 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.’’

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.


Obama was driven across the tarmac to inspect a battery of the Iron Dome air-defense system. The system, built by Israeli companies but financed by the United States, is credited with intercepting more than 400 rockets fired from Gaza at Israeli towns.

His inspection was the first in a series of carefully choreographed stops intended 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.

Obama said he did not come bearing a new proposal to revive talks between the Israelis and Palestinians because he wanted to see what was feasible, given current conditions.

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 sparred with Netanyahu over several issues, including Iran and Jewish settlement-building in the West Bank.

The White House has energetically played down expectations for the visit, eschewing talk of ‘‘deliverables’’ — the diplomatic jargon for policy achievements.


The timing all but guarantees that no serious diplomacy can be done: Netanyahu has just cobbled together a new government with an untested collection of parties, and 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 subject: Obama announced that they would explore a new, 10-year military aid agreement.

The centerpiece of the visit will be a speech Thursday by Obama at the convention center in Jerusalem, where he will address an audience of young Israelis. There, the president said he would speak in more detail about the need for a renewed peace effort.

Obama will also raise these issues, including the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, earlier on Thursday, when he visits the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.

White House officials said they were encouraged that Netanyahu, whose stomach for peace talks has been questioned, said at the conference, ‘‘Israel remains fully committed to peace and the solution of two states for two peoples.’’

Obama also is expected to redress what some Israelis regarded as a major affront in his speech to the Muslim world in 2009, when he declared that the aspirations for a Jewish homeland were principally rooted in the tragedy of the Holocaust. During his less than 48 hours on Israeli soil, Obama will lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the writer who is viewed as the father of modern Zionism, who died decades before World War II.

Obama will also view the Dead Sea scrolls, Hebrew texts that help symbolize the ancient link of the Jews to this land.

On 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.