TEL AVIV // Barack Obama declared his commitment to peace in the Middle East yesterday within minutes of arriving on his first visit to Israel as US president.
"Across this region, the winds of change bring both promise and peril," Mr Obama said on the airport tarmac in Tel Aviv. "We stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land."
He said the United States was "clear-eyed about the difficulties", but still strives for peace between Israel and its neighbours.
Mr Obama began his three-day visit to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan by meeting the Israeli president Shimon Peres, followed by talks with the premier, Benjamin Netanyahu. At a joint news conference with the president, Mr Netanyahu said he hoped Mr Obama's visit would "help us turn a page" towards resolving Israel's conflict with the Palestinians and hoped for a resumption of peace talks stalled since 2010.
US attempts to restart the talks will be a focus in Mr Obama's talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials, but Mr Netanyahu is expected to shift discussions towards threats posed by Iran and Syria.
The Israeli premier said diplomacy and sanctions on Iran "must be augmented by a clear and credible threat of military action." Mr Obama promised to do whatever was necessary to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. "We prefer to resolve this diplomatically and there is still time," he said, but "all options are on the table".
Mr Obama also said he was deeply sceptical of claims by the Assad regime that rebel forces in Syria had used chemical weapons.
Palestinian activists yesterday tried shifting Mr Obama's attention to Israeli settlement expansion, erecting a protest tent encampment for the second time since January in a controversial area known as E-1 that separates East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Palestinians and liberal Israelis say Israel's planned building there of about 4,000 homes could make a two-state solution impossible. Top Palestinian officials have remained silent on Mr Obama's visit, but Mustafa Barghouti, an independent Palestinian politician, held a news briefing on Tuesday with support from the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
He said: "The main goal of Obama's visit is, as stated by his office, to listen. We Palestinians have been listening for too long. This passivity on Obama's part is unacceptable and dangerous at a time when the two-state solution is under risk."
He also condemned Mr Obama for not visiting the West Bank city of Hebron, where barbed wire, blast walls and thousands of Israeli soldiers segregate the city's 500 Jewish settlers and 190,000 Palestinians.
Mr Barghouti also called it a "negative gesture" that Mr Obama would not pay tribute at the burial site in Ramallah of the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, but will lay a wreath on the grave of the former Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin.
Israel has been the main focus of the trip for Mr Obama, who emphasised yesterday the US commitment to Israeli security and demonstrated that by visiting a missile battery that is part of Israel's US-funded Iron Dome system of defence against militant rocket strikes.
However, the Israeli public has been more pessimistic about the visit's outcomes, with polls showing most of the country's Jewish majority sceptical of Mr Obama's support for Israel's interests.
A survey published by the liberal Haaretz newspaper yesterday suggested that 60 per cent of Israelis do not believe the trip will help to restart talks with the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, activists from the Israeli anti-settlement group Peace Now posted a banner near the airport yesterday about 1,000 square metres in size with the message in Hebrew and English: "We the people want peace!" The group said the banner was large enough for Mr Obama to see from the helicopter flying him from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, is accompanying the US leader on his visit and late on Tuesday met Mr Netanyahu's senior aide, Yitzhak Molkho, to discuss the peace process. He is due to meet Mr Netanyahu on Saturday to advance US peace efforts. Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, is expected to visit Israel next month.
In another Israeli bid to focus the regional trip on Iran, Ehud Barak, who was defence minister in Mr Netanyahu's previous government and is viewed as a key advocate for a strike on Tehran, suggested in an article for the Wall Street Journal yesterday that the US should not rule out an attack on Iran. Mr Barak expressed scepticism about the success of international economic sanctions on Tehran and wrote that the military option should remain "on the table".
While some analysts said Israel may go it alone in an attack on Iran, the country may not want to risk Washington's ire considering its reliance on US military aid. Israel is the largest single recipient of American foreign assistance and has received US$234 billion (Dh892bn), adjusted for inflation, since its establishment in 1948.
Most of those funds are intended for Israeli purchases of US military equipment. That aid does not include $19bn in US loan guarantees that Israel has received in recent years, as well as the transfers of surplus US military equipment.