Jerusalem: Barack Obama was on his way to Israel Wednesday for the first time as US president, hoping to ease past tensions with his hosts and under pressure to narrow differences over handling Iran’s nuclear threat.
Obama’s long-awaited visit, the debut overseas trip of his second term, comes as Israel’s new government settles in and will also expose Obama’s diminished ambitions of forging peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
The president’s airplane, Air Force One, took off at 8:15 pm (0015 GMT Wednesday) from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.
Obama was scheduled to touch down in Tel Aviv at around 1030 GMT and embark on a four-day trip during which he will meet Israeli leaders and travel to the West Bank.
There he will find Palestinians who feel he did not live up to early vows to dedicate himself to a two-state deal.
Obama will also consult with King Abdullah II in Jordan.
“My goal on this trip is to listen. I intend to meet with Bibi (Netanyahu) … I intend to meet with Fayyad and Abu Mazen (Abbas) and to hear from them what is their strategy, what is their vision, where do they think this should go?” Obama told Israeli television.
Upon arrival Obama will immediately come face-to-face with Israel’s security challenge, viewing a mobile battery of Israel’s US-funded Iron Dome anti-missile system.
Then he will head to Jerusalem, to visit President Shimon Peres before going into talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
On his trip, Obama will pointedly court symbolism as he will be inspecting the Dead Sea Scrolls and visiting 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.
Obama normally gets a hero’s welcome on foreign trips but after his call for a “new beginning” with the Muslim world in his first term, he will confront questionable personal popularity among Israelis.
A Jerusalem Post poll Tuesday found 36 percent of Israelis found Obama more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel compared to 26 percent who saw him as favoring Israel more than the Palestinians.
And a survey by the independent Israel Democracy Institute showed that while 51 percent of the Jewish Israeli respondents said they considered Obama to be neutral in his attitude toward Israel, 53.5 percent did not trust him to safeguard what they perceived to be Israel’s vital interests.
So, mounting a charm offensive, Obama will deliver a speech to hundreds of young Israelis on Thursday.
To secure the successful trip both sides want, Obama and Netanyahu will have to navigate an often difficult personal chemistry, following spats over settlement building and Iran.
But the visit is unlikely to narrow differences over how soon Iran will have nuclear weapons capability.
Obama told Israeli television that Iran would not be able to build a nuclear weapon for “over a year or so.”
Netanyahu warned last year that Iran would have the capacity to produce a bomb much earlier, within months from the current date, and questions whether sanctions will change Tehran’s calculations.
The difference in “red lines” on Iran may reflect each side’s differing capacities to launch meaningful action against Iran — but Obama will likely caution Netanyahu against an early Israeli strike.
“The key question is not when Iran will have a bomb but only when we can no longer prevent Iran from having a bomb,” said Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, recalling Netanyahu’s warning at the UN last year.
While Obama will not bring a specific Middle East peace proposal, officials insist his commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians is undimmed.
“The US will always continue to be engaged in this process,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy US national security advisor.
“Frankly, this trip is an opportunity for him to hear from the leaders about what they see as the next steps.”
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas hopes Obama will help broker the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and wants $700 million in blocked US aid freed up.
Obama will tell the Palestinians that initiatives like seeking statehood recognition at the UN are counterproductive, while warning Israel that settlement building undercuts the chances of resuming peace talks.
In Israel and Jordan, Obama will experience oases of relative calm in a region rocked by unrest spawned by the Arab Spring uprisings.
His refusal to provide arms or ammunition to disparate rebel groups battling forces loyal to Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, fearing they could be funnelled to extremists, will come in for particular scrutiny.