Obama says U.S. firm in commitment to Israel's security

TEL AVIV Wed Mar 20, 2013 7:39am EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) stands with Israel's President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) after landing at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv March 20, 2013. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) stands with Israel's President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) after landing at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv March 20, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

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TEL AVIV (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama said at the start of his first official visit to Israel on Wednesday that the U.S. commitment to the security of the Jewish state was rock solid and that peace must come to the Holy Land.

"I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between our nations, to restate America's unwavering commitment to Israel's security and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors," Obama said at a welcoming ceremony at Tel Aviv airport.

"I am confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, is forever," he added.

Obama faces strong doubts among Israelis over his pledge to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. In his welcoming remarks to the U.S. president, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cited an Israeli right to self-defense, which he said Obama supported.

"Thank you for standing by Israel at this time of historic change in the Middle East," said Netanyahu, whose relationship with Obama has often been testy.

"Thank you for unequivocally affirming Israel's sovereign right to defend itself by itself against any threat," the right-wing Israeli leader said before viewing with Obama an Iron Dome anti-missile battery that was brought to the airport for the president to see. The system is partially U.S.-funded.

At the ceremony, Obama spoke of his hopes for peace - without directly mentioning Palestinians. U.S. officials said he was not bringing any peace initiative with him.

"We stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land," Obama said. "Even as we are clear eyed about the difficulties, we will never lose sight of the vision of an Israel at peace with its neighbors."

U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled since 2010 in a dispute over Israeli settlement-building in the occupied West Bank.

Obama travels to the West Bank on Thursday for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and will fly on to Jordan on Friday.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Crispian Balmer)

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