by Matthew Rusling
WASHINGTON, March 20 (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Barack Obama Wednesday kicked off his first-ever presidential visit to Israel in a bid to ease concerns that the U.S. has given its closest Mideast ally the cold shoulder.
"The state of Israel will have no greater friend than the United States," Obama said Wednesday at a joint press conference with Israeli President Shimon Peres, referring to peace and security in the volatile country.
In a second joint press conference late Wednesday evening, this time with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama said the United States agreed to continue military assistance to Israel.
The two leaders discussed the way forward to a two-state solution, Obama told reporters in a televised briefing in which he called for a sovereign Palestinian state and a secure Israel.
Obama is slated to spend most of his time on a listening tour - a symbolic move aimed at highlighting the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The gesture comes nearly four years after the president's Cairo visit, which kicked off his first term and raised concerns among some Israelis who fretted that ties with Washington were fraying, as Obama's itinerary skipped over Israel.
"It's an important attempt to reset the psychological atmosphere, not just between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government, but over all between Israelis and Palestinians," said David Pollock, a Middle East expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Wayne White, a U.S. State Department veteran and now a scholar at the Middle East Institute, said part of the agenda includes finding out whether there is enough common ground between Israel and the Palestinians to resume peace talks.
Critics have blasted Obama for what they billed as an ongoing snub to Israel, Washington's longtime Mideast ally in a region where the U.S. is often unpopular, pointing out the president's Cairo trip at the start of his first term, which did not include a stop in Israel.
But White noted that former President George W. Bush, Obama's predecessor, also did not visit Israel until his second term. "Too much has been made of Obama's failure to set foot there in his first term," he said.
Obama has additional intentions as well, said White, adding that the visit is a bid to showcase U.S.-Israeli determination to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, although the Islamic republic claims its nuclear program is peaceful.
In closed-door discussions on Iran, one issue likely to come up is what sort of advance warning Israel would give the U.S. if it were about to strike Iran, White said.
"Regardless of the Iranian nuclear state of play at any specific juncture, the U.S. certainly does not want a possible Israeli attack down the line to come as a shot in the dark," he said.
"Because if that were so, Washington would not be able to alert our many military assets in and near the Persian Gulf to brace for potential Iranian retaliation."
Some experts said Obama may pressure Israeli leaders behind closed doors not to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran to stop what Israel believes is an Iranian program to obtain nuclear weapons. Israeli leaders hinted a few months ago that a unilateral military strike against Iran would be on the table, although they have toned down the rhetoric somewhat.
Meanwhile, there remain many other thorny issues between the two countries, such as Jewish settlements and disagreements over borders, the experts said.