By JULIE PACE and MATTHEW LEE, Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — Calling the U.S. Israel's "greatest friend," President Barack Obama assured the Middle East ally of his administration's commitment to Israel's security while cautioning that the region's "winds of change bring both promise and peril."
Obama declared common cause with Israel, noting that it was the first stop of the first trip of his second term. "We share a vision of Israel at peace with its neighbors," Obama said upon arriving in Tel Aviv.
Israeli President Shimon Peres welcomed Obama, asserting that "A world without America's leadership, without her moral voice, would be a darker world. A world without your friendship, would invite aggression against Israel."
Obama's trip is his first visit to the country — and only his second to the Middle East, outside of a quick jaunt to Iraq — since taking office. He will also be making his first trips as president to the Palestinian Authority and Jordan this week. But on an itinerary laden more with symbolism than substance, an Israel that is increasingly wary of developments in Syria and Iran is Obama's main focus.
Adding yet another dimension to the trip, Obama landed amid new questions about the Syrian regime's possible use of chemical weapons.
Even before leaving Tel Aviv's airport, Obama offered a vivid display of America's commitment to Israeli security by visiting a missile battery that is part of Israel's Iron Dome defense from militant rocket attacks. The United States has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing the system with Israel.
Obama and Netanyahu toured the battery on the airport tarmac, meeting and chatting with soldiers who operate the system. The battery is not normally stationed at the airport and was placed there only for the visit. Israel credits Iron Dome with intercepting hundreds of rockets during a round of fighting against Gaza militants last November.
"Thank you for standing by Israel at this time of historic change in the Middle East," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Obama. "Thank you for unequivocally affirming Israel's sovereign right to defend itself by itself against any threat."
As he arrived, Obama joked to Netanyahu that he was "getting away from Congress."
Following the arrival ceremony at the airport, Obama headed to Jerusalem for meetings with Israeli leaders.
Obama faces an Israeli leadership and public anxious to hear the president affirm America's commitment to the security of the Jewish state while standing on their soil.
Obama sparred frequently with Netanyahu over the Palestinian peace process during his first term. And despite public assurances from both sides that relations otherwise remained solid, the president endured four years of criticism from pro-Israel advocates and conservatives in the U.S. and numerous commentators in Israel for not doing enough to back the Mideast's only stable democracy in the face of growing threats to its existence.
So even though U.S. officials have set expectations low and previewed no significant policy announcements, there is a clear metric to measure the success of Obama's three-day stay in Israel and the West Bank: how much he is able to reverse the perception that his administration is not fully committed to Israel's security.
The centerpiece of the first leg of the trip will be a speech to Israeli university students on Thursday, during which Obama is expected to renew U.S. assurances to stand by Israel as it seeks to counter threats from Iran and protect its people in the midst of civil war in neighboring Syria, where new questions were raised Tuesday about the Assad regime's possible use of chemical weapons.
Ahead of Obama's visit, an Israeli Cabinet minister, Yuval Steinitz, said it is "apparently clear" that chemical weapons were recently used in Syria, and that the alleged attack will be a main topic of conversation with the president. The Obama administration said Tuesday it had no evidence to support the regime's claims that rebels were responsible for a chemical attack.