Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press
JERUSALEM — Renewing U.S. support for the difficult "work of generations," President Barack Obama assured Israel on Wednesday that his administration would pursue an elusive Mideast peace that would allow residents of the Jewish state to live in peace and free from the threat of terror.
"In this work, the state of Israel will have no greater friend than the United States," the president declared after meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres during his first visit to Israel as president.
Perez, in turn, said he welcomed Obama's clear message that "no one should let skepticism win the day, a vision that says clearly that peace is not only a wish, but a possibility."
Obama was meeting later with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and holding a joint press conference with the Israeli leader, who has just formed a new government.
At an extravagant welcoming ceremony, Obama sounded a message that "peace must come to the Holy Land" and that goal would not be achieved at Israel's expense. U.S. backing for Israel will be a constant as the Middle East roils with revolution and Iran continues work on its nuclear program, he said.
"The United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend," Obama affirmed, as soon as he landed on the tarmac at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport.
"Across this region the winds of change bring both promise and peril," he said, calling his visit "an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our nations, to restate America's unwavering commitment to Israel's security, and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors."
Seeking to alter a perception among many Israelis that his government has been less supportive of Israel than previous U.S. administrations, Obama declared the U.S.-Israeli alliance "eternal."
"It is forever," he said to applause as Israeli and U.S. flags fluttered in a steady breeze under clear, sunny skies.
Even before leaving the airport for Jerusalem, Obama offered a vivid display of the U.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, brought to the airport for the occasion. They met and chatted with soldiers who operate the system that Israel credits with intercepting hundreds of rockets during a round of fighting against Gaza militants last November.
"Let me say as clearly as I can: The United States of America stands with the State of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interest to stand with Israel," Obama said.
"We stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land," he added. "For even as we are clear-eyed about the difficulty, we will never lose sight of the vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors."
Netanyahu, who sparred frequently with Obama over the course of the U.S. president's first term, was lavish in his praise for the president.
"Thank you for standing by Israel at this time of historic change in the Middle East," he said. "Thank you for unequivocally affirming Israel's sovereign right to defend itself by itself against any threat."
Although preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon is a top priority of both Israel and the United States, Netanyahu and Obama have differed in the past on precisely how to achieve both ends.
Israel repeatedly has threatened to take military action should Iran appear to be on the verge of obtaining a bomb. The U.S. has pushed for more time to allow diplomacy and economic penalties to run their course, though Obama insists military action is an option.
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