Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

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March 20, 2013

Obama in Israel for first trip as president

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — President Barack Obama plunged into the turbulent Middle East Wednesday, assuring Israel of the U.S. commitment to its 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 and calling the U.S. Israel's "strongest ally and your greatest friend."

Israeli President Shimon Peres welcomed Obama, declaring 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 were 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 Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu toured the battery on the tarmac of the airport, meeting and chatting with soldiers who operate the system. Israel credits Iron Dome with intercepting hundreds of rockets during a round of fighting against Gaza militants last November.

As he arrived, Obama joked to Netanyahu on the tarmac that he was "getting away from Congress."

Following the arrival ceremony at the airport, Obama was 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.

 

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