Obama sets off for first Israel tour

Obama: aboard Air Force One

Obama: aboard Air Force One. AFP Photo

US President Barack Obama was on his way to Israel Wednesday for the first time, 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.

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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: aboard Air Force One. AFP Photo
Obama: aboard Air Force One. AFP Photo

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.