JERUSALEM (CBSNewYork) — For the first time as commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama has set foot on Israeli soil.
Obama arrived in the holy land on Wednesday to send a message to the Middle East’s only democracy – that they have a friend in Washington that has “Israel’s back.”
There was plenty of pomp and symbolism, but then it was down to business, CBS 2’s Marcia Kramer reported.
Putting aside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that he will go it alone in the defense of Israel if he has to, the normal tensions with Obama seemed to have been wiped away with the president’s promise that the U.S.-Israel relationship is eternal and forever.
Obama signed the guest book at Netanyahu’s house and then the two were off and running in a series of deeply intense conversations about Middle East peace, the threat of a nuclear Iran and the most pressing concern — whether the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is using its stockpile of chemical weapons on the rebels who want to topple the government.
“We have to make sure that we know exactly what happened, what was the nature of the incident, what can we document, what can we prove,” Obama said. “We know the Syrian government has the capacity to carry out chemical weapon attacks. I am deeply skeptical of any claim that in fact it was the opposition that used chemical weapons.”
Although the president and Netanyahu have repeatedly clashed on Iran and how much of a window exists before it gets the bomb, on Wednesday both men seemed to reach an understanding.
“I’m absolutely convinced that the president is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said.
There was one question asked by a reporter that produced one of the only laughs in a very serious bilateral meeting between the president and prime minister: “Why do you believe the Israeli people have not embraced President Obama the same way they embraced our last two U.S. presidents?”
And it clearly nonplussed the usually cool Obama.
“So you had to get a polling question in there right at the end, huh? You’re incorrigible,” Obama said.
The president spent several minutes trying to defend himself, but it was left to Netanyahu to ride to the rescue.
“I think that people should get to know President Obama the way I’ve gotten to know President Obama,” Netanyahu said.
Over the course of the day the president took many steps to show the United States is committed to help maintain Israel’s military superiority in the region, including a visit to an Iron Dome installation used to shoot down Palestinian rockets.
In a moment of irony, the two men followed red lines on the tarmac at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport to the installation.
Despite the seriousness of the topic, the two men managed to find moments of levity.
“He’s always talking about red lines, so this is all a psychological ploy,” Obama said.
“This was minutely planned,” Netanyahu added.
Local residents in Israel, however, take the issues quite seriously.
“Make sure you stand with us, not behind us. Don’t make us do anything we don’t want to do and get the Palestinians to make concessions,” said Marilyn Shaeffer of Hewlett, N.Y.
“It’s most important that he touched base with Netanyahu on Iran to show the Israeli people he’s actually here and actually cares,” added Yishai Schwartz of Riverdale.
The president backed up his words with deeds, announcing an extension of the U.S.-Israeli military agreement through 2017 and an extra $200 million for more Iron Dome installations.
And although the president didn’t see it, protesters set up a tent village in the West Bank to protest the Obama’s visit. The group carried a banner saying “Our freedom is not up for negotiation.”
The president was asked what his goal is in coming to Israel. He said it was to speak directly to the Israeli people, which he’ll do Thursday after an almost perfunctory visit to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
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