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Before leaving the airport for Jerusalem, Obama offered a vivid display of the U.S. commitment to Israeli security by visiting a missile battery that is part of Israel’s Iron Dome defense from militant rocket attacks. The United States has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing the system with Israel.
Obama and Netanyahu toured the battery, which Israel relocated to the airport for the occasion. They met and chatted with soldiers who operate the system that Israel credits with intercepting hundreds of rockets during a round of fighting against Gaza militants last November.
In his comments to reporters with Netanyahu, Obama also took note of the difficult way forward in the broader quest for Mideast peace, acknowledging that in recent years "we haven’t gone forward, we haven’t seen the kind of progress that we would like to see."
The president said he came to the region principally to listen, and hoped to return home with a better understanding of the constraints and "how the U.S. can play a constructive role."
Netanyahu, for his part, said he was willing to set aside preconditions in future talks with the Palestinians, adding that it was time to "turn a page in our relations."
Obama is to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank on Thursday to assure him that an independent Palestinian state remains a U.S. foreign policy and national security priority — even though he is bringing no new plan to restart negotiations with Israel.
Obama said he would outline his thinking in greater detail after he sees Abbas when he delivers a speech to Israeli university students, during which he will reiterate his position that a two-state solution is the only feasible outcome.
Although many Israelis warmly greeted Obama, Palestinians held several small protests in the West Bank and Gaza. Demonstrators in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip burned posters of Obama and U.S. flags, accusing the U.S. of being biased toward Israel.
In the West Bank, about 200 activists erected about a dozen tents in an area just outside of Jerusalem to draw attention to Israel’s policy of building settlements. The tents were pitched in E1, a strategically located area where Israel has said it plans on building thousands of homes. The U.S. has harshly criticized the plan.
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