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March 20, 2013


US President Barack Obama said at the start of his visit to Israel that the US' commitment to Israel's security was rock solid and that peace must come to the Holy Land. Making his first official visit to Israel as president on Wednesday, Obama hopes to reset his often fraught relations with both the Israelis and Palestinians in a carefully choreographed three-day stay that is high on symbolism but low on expectations. "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 welcoming ceremony at Tel Aviv airport. "I am confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, is forever," he added. Obama faces strong doubts among Israelis over his pledge to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, something Tehran is saying it is not pursuing. 'Rright to self-defence' In his welcoming remarks to the US president, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu cited an Israeli right to self-defence, which he said Obama supported. "Thank you for standing by Israel at this time of historic change in the Middle East," said Netanyahu, whose relationship with Obama has often been testy. "Thank you for unequivocally affirming Israel's sovereign right to defend itself by itself against any threat," the right-wing Israeli leader said before viewing with Obama an Iron Dome anti-missile battery that was brought to the airport for the president to see. The system is partially US-funded. At the ceremony, Obama spoke of his hopes for peace - without directly mentioning Palestinians. US officials said he was not bringing any peace initiative with him. "We stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land," Obama said. "Even as we are clear eyed about the difficulties, we will never lose sight of the vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbours." Low expectations Hopes for a new policy are low, with the White House having deliberately minimised expectations of any major breakthroughs, a reversal from Obama's first four years in office when aides said he would only visit Israel if he had something concrete to accomplish. "Analysts say they don't expect any new action on Iran, or even Syria, in a trip that even the White House has indicated is meant to create a lot of publicity but not new policy," said Al Jazeera's Patty Culhane, reporting from Washington. Workers have hung hundreds of US and Israel flags on lampposts across Jerusalem, as well as banners that boast of "an unbreakable alliance," but the apparent lack of any substantial policy push has bemused many diplomats and analysts. However with both Netanyahu and Obama starting new terms, the visit could be seen as the American leader's endorsement of Israel's government, said Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian journalist and founder of Electronic Intifada. Speaking to Al Jazeera from Chicago, he said: "This visit coming just days after Israel swore in perhaps its most openly extreme government in its history...must be seen as the strongest staunchest endorsement of this extremist Israeli government's policies. That's the only message Palestinians and the broader world can take away from this visit." Obama travels to the West Bank on Thursday for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and will fly on to Jordan on Friday.

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