Obama's 1st Day In Israel Was Rich In Symbolism

Moments after touching down Wednesday, he toured an anti-missile battery, symbolizing the U.S.-backed Iron Dome system that's helped Israel repel hundreds of rocket attacks. Before his meeting with Palestinian leaders Thursday, Obama was to make another symbolic visit, to an Israeli museum.

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Southern Israel today was struck by rockets fired from the Gaza Strip as President Obama began the second day of his visit to the region. The rockets underscored the challenges he faces there. Today Mr. Obama is visiting the West Bank, meeting with leaders of the Palestinian Authority, and also delivering a speech to the Israeli public. In reaching out to both sides, the president is trying to build trust to eventually restart the peace process.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports from Jerusalem.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: President Obama's first day in Israel was rich in symbolism. Moments after touching down, he toured an anti-missile battery, symbolizing the U.S.-backed Iron Dome system that's helped Israel to repel hundreds of rocket attacks.

Later, he presented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with an artifact from a historic synagogue in Rhode Island that George Washington once visited. America's first president wrote to the congregation there of his hope that the children of Abraham should sit in safety and be unafraid. Obama delivered a similar message of his own.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My main goal on this trip has been to have an opportunity to speak directly to the Israeli people at a time when obviously what was already a pretty tough neighborhood has gotten tougher, and let them know that they've got a friend in the United States.

HORSLEY: Obama and Netanyahu talked about that tough neighborhood. Obama renewed his warning that Syria's government will be held accountable if it uses chemical weapons - as the opposition's accused it of doing. And the two leaders downplayed any differences over Iran's suspected nuclear program.

Netanyahu praised the president for pursuing a diplomatic resolution while still giving Israel the room it wants to maneuver.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Thank you for unequivocally affirming Israel's sovereign right to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.

HORSLEY: Obama also called for extending the United States' military assistance agreement with Israel beyond 2017.

On the question that so often arises, Netanyahu says his new government remains committed to a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

NETANYAHU: Let us sit down at the negotiating table. Let us put aside all preconditions. Let us work together to achieve the historic compromise that will end our conflict once and for all.

HORSLEY: Before his meeting with Palestinian leaders today, Obama visited the Israel Museum.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, who heads the moderate pro-Israel lobbying group J Street, says the Dead Sea Scrolls on display there represent the ancient ties between Jews and the land of Israel - a connection that Obama has sometimes seemed to gloss over in the past.

JEREMY BEN-AMI: Two thousand years ago there were a group of people living in that area, you know, writing in Hebrew, capturing the exact same prayers on paper that Jews say today. It's an amazing thing. And there aren't many cultures that have that history and have that tie.

HORSLEY: Of course Jews are not the only people with long-standing ties here. In the old city of Jerusalem, sites holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims are piled practically on top of one another and grievances can run as deep as the roots.

Obama bristled yesterday at the suggestion that the failure to bring peace to the Middle East showed a lack of effort during his first term. Ultimately, he says, this is a really hard problem. And he purposely did not arrive this time with some bold new initiative from the outside.

OBAMA: I wanted to spend some time listening before I talked, which my mother always taught me was a good idea.

HORSLEY: In one more symbol yesterday, Obama helped plant a magnolia tree in the garden of Israeli President Shimon Peres. He told the parable of an old man who plants a tree in hopes it will bear fruit for his children. And Obama was serenaded by Israeli children singing in Hebrew, English and Arabic about their hopes for tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOMORROW")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Sung in foreign language)

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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