Middle East

Obama reaffirms US support for Israel at start of visit

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets President Barack Obama at the White House on 5 March 2012
Image caption The US president and Israeli prime minister are known to have a strained relationship

At the start of his his first visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories as president of the United States, Barack Obama has reasserted what he called his country's "unbreakable bond" with Israel, reports the BBC's Wyre Davies.

A visit by the "leader of the free world" is always a big occasion, nowhere more so than Israel which increasingly sees itself as an isolated beacon of democracy in a troubled region.

That view is, of course, frequently challenged overseas and within Israel itself, but rarely in the United States. America and Israel are the closest of allies, even though their respective leaders are not exactly bosom buddies.

Three years ago, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly lectured President Obama about the realities of Middle Eastern politics, in his own office.

The president's aides looked on ashen-faced and Mr Obama listened impassively as the Israeli leader tore into his assertion that a future Palestinian state should be based on the pre-1967 ceasefire lines.

Both leaders are said to regard each other with suspicion and, despite recent efforts to dispel that perception, there is still no special chemistry.

But, in the interests of both countries, that can be overcome, says Yoaz Hendel, a former communications director for Benjamin Netanyahu.

"They had issues and there was a certain kind of tension," Mr Hendel tells me at his home in the hills outside Jerusalem.

"But, behind personal feelings there are vested interests and still at the end of the day the president of the United States will only take into consideration the interests of the United States."

New concerns

For the first time in many years, the recent Israeli elections were not dominated by the perennial issue of whether or not peace talks with the Palestinians would resume. The big election themes were the high cost of living, the wider economy and social issues.

President Obama will also find a new Israeli government, still led by Mr Netanyahu, but which pays increasingly less attention to the peace "process", but which is increasingly preoccupied by change and instability in the wider region.

A few days ago I joined an army patrol on Israel's tense, and increasingly fortified northern border.

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Media captionPeople in Jerusalem on what they want from President Obama's visit

What Mr Obama will undoubtedly hear from his Israeli counterpart is that the uprisings in the Arab World are making Israel very jittery.

Here they are preparing for the fall out, as Syria disintegrates, and the Shia militant group, Hezbollah, rearms in southern Lebanon.

Seven years after the last Lebanon war, Col Amit Fischer pointed out Israel's positions, and those of his enemies, to me from a vantage point high on the Golan Heights.

"Unlike in 2006, we're now ready to shoot back - to be much more aggressive and decisive. In the next war, Israel will make sure it finishes the job and brings a lasting calm", says the colonel - who clearly expects another war in the next couple of years.

Friend to Israel

The US, of course, is Israel's principal military backer.

Whatever his personal differences with Israel's political leaders the first Obama administration was still prepared to fund the country's military development to the tune of billions of dollars - most effectively in the development of the Iron Dome anti-missile system, deployed in the recent conflict with Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Barack Obama has been here before - back in 2008 as a mere presidential candidate.

Image caption Mr Obama went to Sderot in southern Israel when he was campaigning to be president

Then, as is invariably the case with foreign politicians, he was taken to the border town of Sderot - hit hundreds of times by rockets from Gaza.

On that occasion, the senator from Illinois met the Amal family, rebuilding their home after one such attack.

Whatever impact he made then has long worn off.

"He's like any other politician, full of promises but has done little," says Eliza Amal who no longer keeps Mr Obama's picture on the wall.

Among the promises he did not keep, she says, was a vow to invite them to the White House, if he was elected.

The invite never came, although Mrs Amal acknowledges Barack Obama is probably a better friend to Israel than many here give him credit for.

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