Obama and Netanyahu smooth over tensions
JERUSALEM: Putting aside their much-analysed frosty relationship, US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented a united, even jovial front at the conclusion of Mr Obama's first day in Israel, vowing to work closely on Iran, Syria and on a two-state solution with Palestine.
All smiles ... Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu during their press conference in Jerusalem. Photo: Getty Images
The two countries would "begin discussions" about extending US military aid to Israel beyond the current agreement, which ends in 2017, Mr Obama said at a media conference at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem. The US provides $US3 billion ($2.9 billion) in military aid to Israel each year.
He also promised — despite a tough fiscal environment in the United States in which all budgets, including defence were under pressure — that there would be "no interruption" to US funding for Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system.
Declaring that there were "no better friends" than the United States and Israel, the two men bantered about each other's children, the robust nature of Israel's multi-party parliament and the red lines on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport as they took questions at the end of an hours-long meeting.
The big thaw ... Mr Obama is greeted at the airport by Mr Netanyahu and the Israeli President, Shimon Peres. Photo: AFP
Iran's nuclear program had been high on their agenda, and while Mr Netanyahu praised international efforts regarding sanctions and diplomacy, he insisted that "a credible military threat must be added to the sanctions".
Israel "will never hand over the right to defend ourselves, even to our best friend — and we have no better friend than the United States", he said.
Mr Obama was keen to stress the US would continue to take a tough stance on Iran.
"We do not have a policy of containment when it comes to a nuclear Iran," Mr Obama said. "We prefer to resolve this diplomatically, and there is still time to do so. The international community will continue to increase pressure on Iran, and we will continue to consult closely with Israel. All options are on the table," he said.
As the two leaders met, Palestinian activists erected a protest village called Ahfad Younis on privately-owned Palestinian land in the sensitive zone known as E1, where Mr Netanuyahu announced Israel was planning to build more settlements, which are considered illegal under international law.
Demonstrators say they are claiming their rights "as Palestinians to return to our lands and villages [and] to claim our sovereignty over our lands without permission from anyone." They accuse the Obama administration of being "complicit in Israeli occupation and colonialism".
The village is one of several protest sites that have been erected by Palestinian activists and promptly torn down by Israeli Defence Forces, who quickly moved in to Ahfad Younis and declared the area a "closed military zone".
Mr Netanyahu described Mr Obama's visit — his first to Israel as President — as "a way to try to advance peace between Israelis and the Palestinians".
The new Israeli government was "fully committed to the peace process and a solution of two states for two peoples," he said.
Mr Obama, who said he would make further statements after his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Thursday, said "Israel's security will be enhanced by a resolution to this issue" and stressed it was important "for Palestinians to feel a sense that they too are masters of their own fate".
President Obama's schedule includes talks with Mr Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, a brief trip to Ramallah to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and a speech to about 600 Israeli students in Jerusalem.
He is expected to visit the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial, the Israeli Museum, and make a second short trip into the West Bank to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Friday before he leaves for Jordan.
The White House believes Mr Obama must first win back the trust of the Israeli people before there can be any meaningful steps in the peace process — and in that he faces an uphill battle.
A poll published last week in the newspaper Ma'ariv found just 10 per cent of Israelis had a favourable attitude towards the US President, with 17 per cent describing their feelings toward Mr Obama as "hateful".
Another poll, published on Tuesday in the Jerusalem Post, found only 11 per cent believed Mr Obama would succeed in finalising a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine over the next four years.
Palestinians are also deeply pessimistic about Mr Obama's visit, with many expressing disappointment that his strong words on Israeli settlements in 2009 did not materialise into any real pressure on Israel to curb construction.
The United States and the European Union have consistently described Israeli settlements — built in East Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank on occupied Palestinian territory — as "damaging" to any prospect of a two-state solution.
Mustafa Barghouti, head of the Palestinian National Initiative party, criticised US "passivity" on Israel's four-decade long military occupation of Palestine.
"I was hoping that [Obama] would go to Hebron and see a segregation system that is graphically very clear between [Israeli] settlers and Palestinians," Mr Barghouti said in a briefing in Ramallah. "I was hoping that he would be able to see the segregation of buses and the segregation of roads."
A World Bank report released last week found Israel-imposed restrictions and closures throughout the West Bank and Gaza had "lasting and costly implications for economic competitiveness and social cohesion" in Palestine.
"The reality is that after six years of institution building we have the fifth highest unemployment in the world," Mr Barghouti said.
"We are facing here a very clear crossroads — either we move towards a solution and Palestinian statehood ... or we move toward building settlements," Mr Barghouti said.
There have been many demonstrations throughout Israel and Palestine in the lead-up to Mr Obama's visit. In Jerusalem about 2000 people called for the release of Jonathan Pollard, an American who spied for Israel and who is serving a life sentence in a US jail.
Students from Ariel University — the first university established on an Israeli settlement — demonstrated in front of the US Consul in Jerusalem to protest against their exclusion from Mr Obama's speech to Israeli students.
And there were protests in Bethlehem and Ramallah as Palestinians demonstrated against what they say is US pressure to forgo their campaign for statehood and human rights.