President Obama began his first presidential visit to Israel with an airport speech calling the United States the "strongest ally and greatest friend" of Israel.
"Why does the U.S. stand with Israel?" Obama asked the crowd at the welcoming ceremony Wednesday afternoon at Ben-Gurion Airport. "We stand together because we share a common story. We stand together because we're democracies. We stand together because together we're more prosperous. We share a commitment to helping our fellow human beings around the world."
Obama said an alliance with Israel is in the "fundamental national security interest" of the United States.
Among fluttering Israeli and American flags, the U.S. leader was escorted to the tarmac by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. An honor guard and military band greeted the trio as they shook hands with Israeli religious, political and cultural dignitaries.
"Thank you for standing by Israel in this time of historic change for the Middle East," Netanyahu said in his welcome to Obama. "Thank you for strengthening the alliance between our two countries."
Neither Obama nor Netanyahu, nor Peres, who also spoke, mentioned the Iranian nuclear program, an issue of grave concern for the U.S. and Israel. Reportedly it is one of the primary topics that Netanyahu and Obama will discuss when they meet.
In what may indicate another purpose of the visit, though, all three leaders spoke about peace with the Palestinians. Netanyahu said that Israelis "seek peace with our Palestinian neighbors." Obama declared that "peace must come to the Holy Land."
Obama added that one of his goals is to speak directly with the Israeli people, and at the beginning of his speech he tried out some Hebrew, saying, "Shalom, it's good to be in Israel again." He has been to the country three times, the last in 2008 with JUF when he was a U.S. senator and presidential candidate. (Read about Obama's 2007 visit to Israel where he was joined by JUF leaders for part of his trip.)
Obama viewed an Iron Dome anti-missile battery brought to the airport for his inspection.
During his three-day visit to the region he will meet with Peres and Netanyahu, visit Israeli cultural and historical landmarks, and address an Israeli audience. He also will visit the West Bank, where he will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.