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Obama vows 'eternal' defence of Israel

Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion International Airport on March 20, 2013
US President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) during a welcome ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport on March 20, 2013 near Tel Aviv.

Barack Obama on Wednesday began his first presidential visit to Israel, pledging an "eternal" alliance with the Jewish state as it faces the Iranian nuclear threat and perilous change in the Middle East.

"The United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend," Obama said at a lavish welcoming ceremony at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport after Air Force One rolled to a halt to a peal of military trumpets.

The long-awaited visit, the first foreign tour of Obama's second term, comes just days after the installation of a new rightwing Israeli government which must face key challenges over Iran's nuclear drive and the growing threat from Syria.

Greeted on the tarmac by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, Obama sought to send a reassuring message about his personal commitment to Israel in a bid to offset scepticism over his strategy for confronting Tehran.

Graphic showing the schedule for US President Barack Obama's visit to the Middle East
Graphic showing the schedule for US President Barack Obama's visit to the Middle East.

"Our alliance is eternal, it is for ever," he declared, saying America's national security interests mandated a strong defence of Israel, which "makes us both stronger."

After the welcome on an unusually hot spring day, the US leader came face-to-face with Israel's preoccupation with security, visiting a mobile battery of the US-funded Iron Dome missile defence system.

He then boarded his Marine One helicopter and flew to meet with Peres at his Jerusalem residence, where he was entertained by a troupe of flag-waving children who sang to him in Hebrew, English and Arabic.

The two men held talks which Obama later said had focused on Iran, the peace process and the regional upheaval.

Peres warned Syria's chemical weapons stockpile must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.

"Fortunately the Syrian nuclear capacity was destroyed but unfortunately the arsenal of chemical weapons remain. We cannot allow those weapons to fall into terrorists' hands -- it could lead to an epic tragedy," he told reporters.

Barack Obama is shown an Iron Dome missile battery on March 20, 2013, at Ben Gurion International Airport
US President Barack Obama is shown an Iron Dome missile battery on March 20, 2013, at Ben Gurion International Airport on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

The Israeli president also raised the threat of a nuclear Iran, while expressing confidence in Obama's pledge to prevent it from gaining atomic weapons.

"We trust your policy which calls first to try by non-military means (to stop Iran) with a clear statement that there are other options on the table," he said.

The US leader then headed into a working meeting with Netanyahu, at which the Iranian question was expected to play a central role, although it looked unlikely the two would narrow their differences over the point of no return.

Obama has said Iran will not be able to build a nuclear weapon for "over a year or so."

But Netanyahu says Iran could have the capacity to produce a bomb within months, and questions whether sanctions will change Tehran's calculations.

Obama's arrival on a visit which is more likely to be marked by symbolism than progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sparked glowing praise from the Israeli leaders.

A Palestinian family watch a press conference for Barack Obama and Shimon Peres at their home in Rafah on March 20, 2013
A Palestinian family watch a televised press conference for US President Barack Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres, at their home in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on March 20, 2013.

"Thank you, Mr President, for upholding the Jewish people's right for a Jewish state in our homeland and for boldly defending that right in the United Nations," said Netanyahu who has had several sharp public disagreements with Obama.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is accompanying Obama, is to return to Israel on Saturday "to review the results of the president's visit following his stops in Ramallah and Amman," a State Department official told AFP.

During his three-day visit, Obama will hold talks in Ramallah with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, although officials have downplayed expectations his visit would overcome the deadlock in peace efforts.

"Peace must come to the Holy Land," Obama said shortly after arriving, but he has made clear he was coming to listen rather than launch any new peace initiative.

Disillusioned by the failure of Obama's first-term peace efforts, the Palestinians are hoping he will help broker the release of more than 1,000 prisoners held by Israel and also free up $700 million in blocked US aid.

Obama will tell the Palestinians that initiatives like seeking statehood recognition at the United Nations are counterproductive, while warning Israel that settlement building undercuts the chances of resuming peace talks.

On the cultural front, Obama will pointedly court the historic symbolism of the Jewish state when he inspects the Dead Sea Scrolls and visits the tomb of Theodor Herzl, founder of modern Zionism.

The choreography is intended to show Israelis, Arabs and political foes back home that Obama is deeply committed to Israel's security and future, despite some scepticism about his motives.

A major part of the charm offensive will be on Thursday when Obama delivers a speech to hundreds of young Israelis.