By MARK LANDLER and JODI RUDOREN, NY TIMES—
It took four years and a second term, but President Obama traveled to Israel on Wednesday for a richly symbolic state visit, bearing a message of solidarity to a wary Israeli public, and a promise to defend Israel from threats near and far.
“Shalom,” Mr. Obama said after embracing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, who waited for him on a red carpet under the shadow of Air Force One at Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv. “I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our nations,” he said.
In a news conference later, Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu labored to project a unified front on issues that have often divided them, from how best to confront Iran’s nuclear program to how doggedly to pursue an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
Mr. Netanyahu even agreed with Mr. Obama’s recent assessment that it would take Iran about year to produce a nuclear weapon — a timetable that is longer than the Israeli leader’s warnings last fall that Iran would cross a nuclear red line by this spring or summer.
For his part, Mr. Obama stiffened his warning that the United States would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government — a prospect that chills Mr. Netanyahu because he fears those weapons could also be used against Israelis.
The tone was set at the airport, when Mr. Obama invoked the Jewish people’s 3,000-year history in this land, referring to modern Israelis as “the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah.”
The president’s words seemed to presage a visit that will be heavy on symbolism and short on any proposals to advance peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Mr. Obama was driven across the tarmac to inspect a battery of the Iron Dome air-defense system. The system, built by Israeli companies but financed by the United States, is credited with intercepting more than 400 rockets fired from Gaza at Israeli towns.
His inspection was the first in a series of carefully choreographed stops intended to convey a single message: The president cares about the Israeli people and will do whatever is necessary to protect them from Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and other enemies.
Mr. Obama said he did not come bearing a new proposal to revive long-stalled talks between the Israelis and Palestinians because he wanted to see what was feasible, given current conditions.
Rather, he is seeking to make a connection with the Israeli people, many of whom view him with a jaundiced eye after four years in which he did not come here and sparred with Mr. Netanyahu over issues like Iran and Jewish settlement-building in the West Bank.
The White House has energetically played down expectations for the visit, eschewing talk of “deliverables” — the diplomatic jargon for policy achievements — and suggestions that it represents a “reset” of the relationship between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu.
The timing all but guarantees that no serious diplomacy can be done: Mr. Netanyahu has just cobbled together a new government with an untested collection of parties, and Mr. Obama, barely into his second term, is introducing a new secretary of state, John Kerry.
Promoting the military and intelligence ties between the two countries was a safe subject: Mr. Obama announced that they would explore a new, 10-year military aid agreement.
The United States has already committed nearly $1 billion to the Iron Dome system, which was put into service in April 2011, shooting down short- and medium-range rockets fired from Gaza.
“They are constantly improving, so we have to improve our systems,” Yair Ramati, the director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization, said in an interview. “Without the support of the United States, we will not be able to cope with this rate of change.”
Israeli officials say that Iron Dome has been a huge success, intercepting 86 percent of the 521 incoming rockets it engaged in the Gaza conflict. Some American missile-defense experts have questioned that figure, putting the hit rate at closer to 10 percent.
The centerpiece of the visit will be a speech on Thursday by Mr. Obama at the convention center in Jerusalem, where he will address an audience of young Israelis. There, the president said he would speak in more detail about the need for a renewed peace effort.
Mr. Obama will also raise these issues, including the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, earlier on Thursday, when he visits the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.
White House officials said they were encouraged that Mr. Netanyahu, whose stomach for peace talks has often been questioned, said at the news conference that “Israel remains fully committed to peace and the solution of two states for two peoples.”
Mr. Obama also is expected to redress what some Israelis regard as a major affront in his speech to the Muslim world in 2009, when he declared that the aspirations for a Jewish homeland were principally rooted in the tragedy of the Holocaust. During his less than 48 hours on Israeli soil, Mr. Obama will lay a wreath at the grave of Theodor Herzl, the writer who is viewed as the father of modern Zionism, who died decades before World War II.
Mr. Obama will also view the Dead Sea scrolls, Hebrew texts that symbolize the ancient link of the Jewish people to this land.
On Wednesday, Mr. Obama spoke briefly in Hebrew, saying, “It’s good to be back in the land of Israel.”
He continued his comments in English. “We stand together because we share a common story,” he said of the United States and Israel, noting that both countries were made up of pioneers, patriots and immigrants.
On Mr. Obama’s drive to the King David Hotel, sparse crowds lined the streets. Several protesters held up signs calling for him to pardon Jonathan Jay Pollard, an American who is serving a life sentence after being convicted of spying for Israel in 1987.
Mr. Obama has said Mr. Pollard must serve his prison time, but in Israel, his advocates appear to be well organized. Protesters hung banners urging a pardon from balconies across the street from the residence of Mr. Peres, where he and Obama planted a magnolia tree brought from the United States. Later, it was dug up for the quarantine Israel requires of imported agricultural products.
The president’s visit got off to a bumpy start when one of his limousines had a mechanical failure and had to be replaced just before he arrived. Local news media reported that the driver had mistakenly filled the tank with diesel fuel rather than gasoline.
A Secret Service spokesman, Edwin Donovan, said the cause of the breakdown was not clear, but that the government had backup limousines on hand to deal with these kinds of problems.