US President Barack Obama arrived in Israel yesterday, without any new peace initiative to offer disillusioned Palestinians and facing deep Israeli doubts over his pledge to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
Making his first official visit as president, Obama hopes to use the trip to reset his often fraught relations with both the Israelis and Palestinians in a choreographed three-day stay that is high on symbolism, but low on expectations.
He was met at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres after Air Force One stopped next to a huge red carpet laid out down the tarmac.
Obama was to hold lengthy talks with Netanyahu later in the day, with the two set to hold a news conference at 8:10pm. He is to travel to the occupied West Bank today to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
US officials say Obama will try to coax the Palestinians and Israelis back to peace talks. He will also seek to reassure Netanyahu he is committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear bomb and discuss ways of containing Syria’s ongoing civil war.
However, the White House has deliberately minimized hopes of any major breakthroughs, a reversal from Obama’s first four years in office, when aides said he would visit the Jewish state only if he had something concrete to accomplish.
Workers have hung hundreds of US and Israel flags on lamp posts across Jerusalem, as well as banners that boast of “an unbreakable alliance.” However, the apparent lack of any substantial policy push has bemused many diplomats and analysts.
“This seems to me to be an ill-scheduled and ill-conceived visit,” said Gidi Grinstein, president of Tel Aviv-based think tank the Reut Institute. “On the Iranian situation, Israel and the USA don’t seem to have anything new to say to each other. On Syria, the Americans don’t have a clear outlook and on the Palestinian issue, they are taking a step back and their hands off.”
With both Obama and Netanyahu just starting new terms and mindful that they will have to work together on volatile issues for years to come, they will be looking to avoid the kind of public confrontation that has marked past encounters.
“To tell the truth, they can’t stand one another,” a commentator for Israel’s Channel 10 TV said in a live broadcast from the airport as Air Force One came to a halt.
Signaling the emphasis being placed on symbolic gestures, the US president is to inspect an Iron Dome anti-missile battery at the Tel Aviv airport before flying to Jerusalem by helicopter for the start of his official meetings.
Seeking to connect directly with an often skeptical Israeli public, Obama is to make a speech to a group of carefully screened students today, where he is expected to touch on major topics of concern, including Iran.
Obama, who has said he is coming to listen, will fly by helicopter the short distance between Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah to meet Abbas, avoiding having to cross the Israeli separation barrier that divides the two entities.