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Obama tells Israel: 'Peace is necessary' (LIVE BLOG)

President Barack Obama was given the Medal of Distinction, Israel's highest honor, by President Shimon Peres.

GLOBALPOST LIVE BLOG: OBAMA VISITS ISRAEL

UPDATE: 3/21/13 5:00 PM ET

Signing off

President Obama's visit continues again tomorrow. According to the White House, the president will visit the grave sites of Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

He is also scheduled to travel to Amman, Jordan, where he will hold a bilateral meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, followed by a press conference.

And with that, our coverage on this live blog ends for tonight. Please check here for further developments, and follow GlobalPost's senior correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky for more updates.

UPDATE: 3/21/13 4:40 PM ET

Obama draws parallels between the struggle for civil rights and Israel

After President Peres presented President Obama with the Medal of Distinction, Obama said, "This is an extraordinary honor and I could not be more deeply moved."

"Ben Gurion, Meir, Begin, Rabin: these giants have left us. But you are with us still, a founding father in our midst," he said, addressing Peres.

Obama toasted to Peres' health, saying in Hebrew, "Until you're 120 years old." He toasted, "L'Chaim" – to life.

Speaking about the Jewish people's struggle for a homeland, Obama drew parallels with the struggles of African-Americans.

"African Americans and Jewish Americans marched together at Selma. And Montgomery. With rabbis carrying the Torah as they walked. They boarded buses for Freedom Rides together. They bled together they gave their lives together. Jewish Americans like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, alongside African American James Chaney....Because of their sacrifice, because of the struggle of generations in both our countries we can come together tonight in freedom and security."

"The stories of our peoples teach us to never stop searching for the things – the justice and the peace – that make us whole."

Watch the entire speech below:

UPDATE: 3/21/13 4:00 PM ET

ICYMI: Obama's speech in Jerusalem

Watch the full speech that President Obama delivered to Israeli citizens in Jerusalem on Thursday:

Read the full transcript here.

UPDATE: 3/21/13 3:30 PM ET

Excerpts from Abbas and Obama's press conference

Earlier on Thursday, President Obama took a trip to Ramallah, meeting and holding a press conference with Palestinian Authority President Abbas.

The White House released a translated transcript of Abbas' statements. Here are some excerpts:

"We, Mr. President, believe that peace is necessary and inevitable, and we also believe that it is possible," said Abbas, sentiments which Obama would later echo in his speech to an Israeli audience in Jerusalem.

"We believe that peacemaking, as much as it requires political courage, also requires an expression of good faith, a recognition of people’s rights, respect for the other, and dissemination of a culture of peace and a commitment to international legitimacy and its resolutions. Certainly, peace shall not be made through violence, occupation, walls, settlements, arrests, siege and denial of refugee rights."

Abbas said, "I hereby assert again that we are ready to implement all our commitments and obligations, and to respect the signed agreements and international legitimacy resolutions in order to provide for the requirements of launching the peace process and achieving the two-state solution -- Palestine and Israel."

Obama said, "The Palestinian people deserve an end to occupation and the daily indignities that come with it. Palestinians deserve to move and travel freely, and to feel secure in their communities. Like people everywhere, Palestinians deserve a future of hope -- that their rights will be respected, that tomorrow will be better than today and that they can give their children a life of dignity and opportunity. Put simply, Palestinians deserve a state of their own."

"I want to pay tribute to President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad for their courage, for their tenacity, and for their commitment to building the institutions upon which a lasting peace and security will depend," said Obama, while holding Ramallah up in comparison to the Gaza Strip, where Hamas is in power.

"I would point out that all this stands in stark contrast to the misery and repression that so many Palestinians continue to confront in Gaza -- because Hamas refuses to renounce violence; because Hamas cares more about enforcing its own rigid dogmas than allowing Palestinians to live freely; and because too often it focuses on tearing Israel down rather than building Palestine up." The United States has labeled Hamas a terrorist organization, and later in his Jerusalem speech, Obama called on Hamas to renounce violence and recognize the state of Israel.

Obama said his main message to the West Bank was, "We cannot give up on the search for peace, no matter how hard it is."

UPDATE: 3/21/13 3:05 PM ET

Peres' glowing praise

President Shimon Peres heaped glowing praise upon President Obama as he awarded him the medal, saying, "This award speaks to your tireless work to make Israel strong."

"I was moved by the way in which you spoke to the hearts of the young Israelis," said Peres. "Our youngsters, in times of need, are always willing to stand up and defend their country. Today, you have seen how much the same young people long for peace."

Peres thanked Obama in particular for his focus on Israel's security, "The people of Israel are particularly moved by your unforgettable contribution to their security. To defending our skies. To the collaboration in the domain of intelligence, which is the right way to preempt bloodshed. The diplomatic and military bonds between us have reached an unprecedented level."

"It is a tribute to your leadership," said Peres, lauding Obama for his work thus far. "To the strength of your character. To your principles, that you have never surrendered to hopelessness. You stood and stand firmly by your vision. Your values serve your nation. They serve our nation. They serve all nations around the world. So I know that you will never stop to strive for a better world."

He went on: "You represent democracy at its best. You have deepened its meaning. Namely, that democracy is not just the right to be equal. But the equal right to be different. That democracy is not just free expression, but self-expression. You exemplify the spirit of democracy by striving for justice and equality of opportunity in the American society."

UPDATE: 3/21/13 2:50 PM ET

Obama toasts l'chaim

President Obama accepted the award:

UPDATE: 3/21/13 2:25 PM ET

Obama presented with medal

Israeli President Peres hosted President Obama for dinner on his last night in Israel. He said, "It is my privilege to present you with our country’s highest honor, the Medal of Distinction."

Watch the proceedings live here.

UPDATE: 3/21/13 1:51 PM ET

Obama's speech takes off on Twitter

The president's visit is being followed closely on social media as well -- check it out here

UPDATE: 3/21/13 1:15 PM ET

Cairo v. Jerusalem

GlobalPost's Kyle Kim made a graphic comparing the most used words in Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo to those in his speech in Israel on Thursday.

What can we learn from the graphic aside from Obama's (or his speech writers'?) love to repeat "people," "world" and "must"? The subject of both speeches touched on similar points: Israel has the right to exist, but so does Palestine as an independent state.

Find the graphic here.

Reactions to the speech seem to be positive, reports GlobalPost senior correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky from Jerusalem:

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, who was also at the speech, said:

I spoke to several members of the audience, who confirmed my impression that Israelis just wanted to know that he liked them. It's hard to understand this from the U.S., but the idea really did take hold here that Obama genuinely hated Israel. So this whole trip is a bit of a revelation for ordinary Israelis.

UPDATE: 3/21/13 12:54 AM ET

Meanwhile, on a lighter note...

The satirical publication The Onion is also covering Obama's Mideast visit, as Twitter users have been quick to observe: 

But Obama was busy making jokes himself after a Hebrew-shouting heckler interrupted his speech in Jerusalem, according to Yahoo News

Obama had just finished saying, “given the ties between our countries, I believe your future is bound to ours” when he was interrupted. He responded by cupping his ear in a mocking effort to hear better, and then made an overt effort to find the person responsible in the audience, shading his eyes carefully.

“This is part of the lively debate that we talked about. This is good,” the president said. “I have to say, we actually arranged for that because it made me feel at home,” he added jokingly, according to Yahoo. “You know, I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I didn’t have at least one heckler.” Watch it here: 

UPDATE: 3/21/13 12:20 PM ET

Introducing the Kerry Initiative: a secret, new Mideast peace plan

JERUSALEM — If, as many suspect, US President Barack Obama came on his first presidential visit to Israel bearing a concealed peace plan, it seems that he hid it in the most visible place possible: in the tall, patrician figure of his new secretary of state.

Behind the pomp of a state visit and much giddy joking about the “bromance” blossoming — at least before the cameras — between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama, serious talk in Jerusalem at the end of the first day of this much touted summit focused on a possible "Kerry initiative" to re-start stagnant peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

If four rockets launched from Gaza into Israel this morning are any indication, Kerry would face a major uphill effort.

"Kerry very much wants to be active in this area. Obama is cautious about using his presidential political capital, but Kerry is eager to act — which is why he arrived before Obama and will leave after he goes," said Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Michael Herzog, a former Israel army intelligence officer who is an international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Read GlobalPost senior correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky's report from Jerusalem.

UPDATE: 3/21/13 12:05 PM ET

Two-state solution still possible?

While President Obama's speech to a crowd of young Israelis called for a two-state solution, he acknowledged that there were many barriers to it, chief among them: Israeli settlements.

Palestinian Authority President Abbas said earlier, "Everybody considers settlements more than a hurdle toward a two-state solution. The Security Council issued more than 13 resolutions, not only condemning settlements but demanding ending and removing them because they’re illegal. We’re demanding nothing other than the implementation of international law."

"We never gave up our vision that settlement activity is illegal, that the Israeli government understands this. We hope they listen. We spoke about this with the President and we clarified this," Abbas continued.

The BBC noted that while the United Nations, the Arab League, the European Union, Russia and the United States routinely support the two-state solution as the best outcome for peace in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, experts, Israelis and Palestinians now think it should be abandoned or at least reconsidered.

On Israel's left and far right, talk has centered around a one-state solution. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, has never rescinded its claim to a single state in what was once historic Palestine. And among some hawkish Israelis, a third alternative has been a "three-state solution."

Middle East scholar Rashid Khalidi told GlobalPost:

If the end solution is going to be a one-state solution where all citizens would have equal rights, and Palestinians would vote in Palestinian elections and Israelis in the Israeli elections, and somehow you would have a one-state setup – a federation or something like that – then the issue of the settlements recedes, and the question becomes about Palestinians getting equal rights inside Israel.

UPDATE: 3/21/13 11:55 AM ET

Obama makes a plea for empathy

President Obama opened his speech to the Israeli people with references to Israel's historic ties with the United States. "What I’ve looked forward to the most is the ability to speak directly to you, the Israeli people," he said.

"To African-Americans, the story of the Exodus told a powerful tale about emerging from the grip of bondage to reach for liberty and human dignity," said Obama, while speaking of celebrating Passover and the history of the Jewish people. He also said the story spoke to him of the "yearning within every human being for a home."

"In Israel, we see values that we share," he said. The beginning if his address was devoted to reaffirming Israel's right to exist and condemning rocket attacks and violence against the state.

He was praising the young people of Israel, when he was interrupted by a heckler.

"This is part of the lively debate we talked about. This is good," he said with a smile.

Obama defended the Iron Dome missile defense system, while referring to children in Sderot. "Those children deserve to sleep better at night," he said. Hamas should denounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist, Obama declared to wild cheers from the crowd. He also said that Hezbollah should be called what it is, a terrorist organization.

"Peace is far more preferable to war," Obama said, while saying the Iran nuclear issue should be resolved diplomatically. "But Iran must know this time is not unlimited."

Obama said, "America will do what we must in order to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran."

"Israel's not going anywhere," Obama said. "So long as there is a United States of America... [speaking in Hebrew] you are not alone."

"Peace is necessary," Obama said, turning to the Palestinian issue. The latter portion of Obama's speech seemed to hint at restarting the peace process, calling for a separate state for Palestinians to call their own.

"The only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine," Obama said to thunderous applause.

"The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized," he said, asking for the audience to look through their eyes.

"It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day," he said. "It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land."

Obama went off script for a moment, making a personal plea for empathy. Voice heavy with emotion, he said that the Palestinian children he met prior to his speech reminded him of his own daughters. He said any Israeli parent who met those children would want them to have the same opportunities.

"Two states for two peoples," he said, to cheers and applause. "Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable– that real borders will have to be drawn."

"Put aside the plans and the process," Obama said, "I ask you, instead, to think about what can be done to build trust between people."

"You must create the change that you want to see."

UPDATE: 3/21/13 10:30 AM ET

Settlements are "challenge" to negotiations

During his joint press conference with President Abbas, President Obama said, "One of the challenges [to the resumption of negotiations] has been continued settlement activity in the West Bank area. I've been clear with Prime Minister Netanyahu ... that we do not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace."

However, he said the Palestinians should not insist on a settlement freeze as a pre-condition to entering into talks.

What I shared with President Abbas is that if the expectation is that we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time then there is no point for negotiations. It is important to work through this process even if there are irritants on both sides. The Israelis have concerns about rockets firing into their cities last night ...

Even though both sides may have areas of strong disagreement, maybe engaging in activities that the other side considers to be a breach of good faith, we have to push through those things to try to get to an agreement.

UPDATE: 3/21/13 10:10 AM ET

Palestinians feel betrayed by Obama

The Guardian's Harriet Sherwood visited a protest camp in the E1 area of the West Bank. She reported:

The Palestinians say this is about them liberating their own land and protesting against Israeli settlements. They say this one is about sending a message to Obama to stop being so supportive of Israel. They say ‘All we want is for the president to be fair and balanced between Israel and the Palestinians, and we want him to put pressure on Israel to stop expanding settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank’.

Most Palestinians are sceptical to say the best - downright hostile is more appropriate in some respects. They feel very betrayed by President Obama. They feel that his speech that he made in Cairo four years ago, when he talked about the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people and the need to stop settlements, has not resulted in any concrete action on the ground. They feel very bitter about this.

There were also reports of clashes between 150 Palestinian demonstrators and security forces in Ramallah.

"We want RPGs, not collaboration with the CIA," they shouted, referring to rocket-propelled grenades, according to Haaretz.

During the joint press conference with Abbas, Obama said, "I've returned to Ramallah because the United States is deeply committed to the creation of an independent and sovereign state of Palestine."

"The Palestinian people deserve an end to occupation, and the daily indignities that come with it. Palestinians deserve to move and travel freely, and to feel secure in their communities," he said.

"Like people everywhere, Palestinians deserve a future of hope, that their rights will be respected, that tomorrow will be better than today, and that they can give their children a life of dignity and opportunity."

"Put simply, Palestinians deserve a state of their own," Obama said, reiterating his support for a two-state solution.

UPDATE: 3/21/13 9:30 AM ET

Rockets undermine Abbas' authority

The BBC's Middle East Bureau Chief Paul Danahar noted that the rocket attacks from Gaza looked like a deliberate attempt by Hamas to show the leader of rival movement Fatah and Palestinian Authority President Abbas as impotent.

The one rocket that did land in Sderot caused some damage, as seen below:

Just yesterday, Obama said, "I've stood in Sderot, and met with children who simply want to grow up free from fear. And flying in today, I saw again how Israel's security can be measured in mere miles and minutes."

"We condemn violence against civilians regardless of its source, including rocket firing," said Abbas, according to the official Palestinian Wafa news agency. "We are in favor of maintaining mutual and comprehensive calm in Gaza."

After Netanyahu and Obama's effusive displays of congeniality (which have been remarked on by the Israel media), Al Jazeera's Gregg Carlstrom noted:

UPDATE: 3/21/13 9:00 AM ET

Obama in Ramallah

From the White House pool:

President Obama and the white haired Abbas walked along the red carpet, the US leader smiling and waving to the press, to a shaded wooden stage in the compound. Secret Service agents trailed the president, holding open the door of one of his Washington DC - plated limousines, from which fluttered US and Palestinian flags.

The leaders stood to attention as a military band first played the US national anthem and then the Palestinian anthem. Then they stepped off the stage and followed a moustachioed senior officer with a sword to his lips, to inspect an honor guard. POTUS and Abbas then turned on their heels and disappeared out of view into PA buildings for their talks.

Also spotted walking through the warm sunshine were Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security advisor Tom Donilon.

The courtyard had earlier resounded to the skirl of bagpipes as the band marched in to set up. Armed security agents watched over the compound from surrounding buildings.

On the wall to the left of the stage was a large mural picturing Abbas and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

GlobalPost's senior correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky went to Ramallah. These are some of her tweets from on location:

UPDATE: 3/21/13 8:32 AM ET

Obama's itinerary

According to the White House pool report, President Obama left King David Hotel in Jerusalem around 9:09 a.m. local time, heading to the Israel Museum.

During the successive US and Israeli security sweeps this morning, pool became aware of the reported rocket attacks on Sderot from Gaza. No reaction or word of any adjustments to our itinerary.

Security as we approached the museum heavy with a lot of assault weapons on display," said the pool report, adding that the president was accompanied by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israel Museum Director James Snyder.

Obama reportedly viewed the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are a held up as a testament to the ancient Jewish connection to the land of Israel. The Western press had limited access to the touring party.

Before POTUS entered the technology exhibit he was serenaded by the small audience gathered to greet him, singing started by the well-known Israeli singer Dudu Fisher. The song is often sung at synagogues and its Hebrew verses translate roughly to "peace will come to us all." I was told it is sung as part of the Kaddish but is not a song of mourning. When the audience oft roughly 60 people finished singing, a smiling POTUS said "toda raba," or thank you very much.

Obama then made his way to Ramallah, where he met with President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. No words of substance were exchanged in front of the press.

Principals were asked to shake hands. They stood and did so with POTUS wearing a big grin.

At quick glance, U.S. delegation included John Kerry, Pete Rouse, Valerie Jarrett, Tom Donilon, Ben Rhodes, Dan Pfeiffer, Jay Carney and one or two others.

During the wait, Kerry said to Abbas who was wearing a blue tie: “Nice tie, Mr. President.”

UPDATE: 3/21/13 8:15 AM ET

Palestinian militants fire rockets at southern Israel

Palestinian militants reportedly fired four rockets at southern Israel as President Obama, on the second day of his Israeli visit, prepared to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

A police spokesman said one rocket exploded in the courtyard of a house in the border town of Sderot, which Obama visited in 2008 as a presidential candidate.

The hit caused damage to the home but no injuries.

Another rocket landed in an open field, while the third and fourth landed in the Gaza Strip.

Read the full story.

UPDATE: 3/20/13 5:00 PM ET

Tomorrow's schedule

The White House released President Obama's schedule for Thursday.

In the morning, he is set to visit the Israel Museum, where he will view the Dead Sea Scrolls.

After that, Obama will meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the Muqata Presidential Compound in Ramallah, where he will be welcomed with an official ceremony.

Abbas and Obama are scheduled to hold a bilateral meeting and will hold a joint press conference following it.

Obama will then meet Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and take a tour and watch a dance performance by children.

He will also take part in a roundtable with Palestinian youth, though that is closed to the press.

In the afternoon, Obama will return to Jerusalem and deliver remarks to the people of Israel.

With that, the live blog is closed for the day. Please check here for further developments and follow GlobalPost's Noga Tarnopolsky in Israel.

UPDATE: 3/20/13 4:40 PM ET

State Dinner: What's on the menu?

GlobalPost senior correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky provided us with the menu for the State Dinner hosted by Netanyahu:

Chef Shalom Kadosh, who has previously cooked for presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, was chosen to prepare the dinner.

The items on the menu will be prepared from Israeli products.

First course: Ravioli filled with comfit of Jerusalem artichokes; filet of red mullet tossed with green soybeans

Pink grapefruit and pomegranate sorbet to refresh the palate

Main course: Roast fillet of beef in aromatic spices and a selection of spring vegetables

Dessert: Apple crumble mixed with red fruits; Gewurztraminer zabaglione with citrus honey

Fig and date petits fours with caramelized green almonds; coffee/tea.

Since Obama will keep kosher on his trip, Tarnopolsky also answered the question, "What's kosher?"

UPDATE: 3/20/13 4:20 PM ET

Netanyahu's remarks & Obama's remarks

Here are key excerpts from Prime Minister Netanyahu's remarks during the press conference:

IRAN:

Mr. President, you have made it clear that you are determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. I appreciate your forthright position on this point. I also appreciate that you have noted, that you have acted to thwart this threat, both through determined diplomacy and strong sanctions that are getting stronger yet. Notwithstanding our joint efforts and your great success in mobilizing the international community, diplomacy and sanctions so far have not stopped Iran's nuclear program. And as you know, my view is that in order to stop Iran's nuclear programs peacefully, diplomacy and sanctions must be augmented by a clear and credible threat of military action.

SYRIA:

Mr. President, we discussed today the situation in Syria. We share the goal of seeing a stable and peaceful Syria emerge from the carnage that we have witnessed over the last two years. That carnage is already resulted in the deaths of over 70,000 people and the suffering of millions. We also share a determination to prevent the deadly arsenal of weapons within Syria from falling into terrorist hands.

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES:

Finally, Mr. President, your visit gave us an opportunity to try to find a way to advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians. My new government was sworn in two days ago. I know there have been questions regarding what the policy of the new government will be towards peace with the Palestinians. So let me be clear: Israel remains fully committed to peace and to the solution of two states for two peoples. We extend our hands in peace and in friendship to the Palestinian people. I hope that your visit, along with the visit of Secretary of State Kerry will help us turn a page in our relations with the Palestinians. 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.

Here are key excerpts from President Obama's remarks during the press conference:

ISRAEL'S SECURITY:

As President I have therefore made it clear America’s commitment to the security of the State of Israel as a solemn obligation, and the security of Israel is non-negotiable.

Today our military and intelligence personnel cooperate more closely than ever before; we conduct more joint exercises and training than ever before; we’re providing more security assistance and advanced technology to Israel than ever before. That includes more support for the missile defenses, like Iron Dome which I saw today and which has saved so many Israeli lives.

I’m also pleased to announce that we will take steps to ensure that there is no interruption of funding for Iron Dome. As a result of decisions that I made last year Israel will receive approximately 200 million dollars this fiscal year and we will continue to work with Congress on future funding of Iron Dome.

PALESTINIAN PEACE PROCESS:

I’ll be meeting with President Abbas tomorrow, and I will have more to say on this topic in the speech that I deliver to the Israeli people tomorrow. But for now, let me just reiterate that a central element of a lasting peace must be a strong and secure Jewish state, where Israel’s security concerns are met alongside a sovereign and independent Palestinian state.

In this regard I note that last year was a milestone. The first year in four decades when not a single Israeli citizen lost their life because of terrorism emanating from the West Bank. It’s a reminder that Israel has a profound interest in a strong and effective Palestinian Authority.

SYRIA:

We have been clear that the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people would be a serious and tragic mistake. We also share Israel’s grave concern about the transfer of chemical or other weapons systems to terrorists such as Hezbollah, that might be used against Israel.

The Assad regime must understand that they will be held accountable for the use of chemical weapons of their transfer to terrorists.

IRAN:

We agree that a nuclear armed Iran would be a threat to the region a threat to the world and potentially an existential threat to Israel. We agree on our goal. We do not have a policy of containment when it comes to a nuclear Iran. Our policy is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. We prefer to resolve this diplomatically and there is still time to do so.

UPDATE: 3/20/13 4:05 PM ET

Stately pageantry, and a hiccup

President Obama wrote the following message in the guestbook at Prime Minister Netanyahu's official residence:

It is a great honor to reaffirm the extraordinary bonds between our two countries. By every measure, from security to our economy, our cooperation has never been greater and this in part is because of the strong commitment of Prime Minister Netanyahu. May our bonds continue to grow. On behalf of our people and prosperity for all people.

The White House provided the following details of gifts exchanged between Obama and Netanyahu (via GlobalPost's Noga Tarnopolsky):

President Obama presented His Excellency Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with a framed wooden artifact from the George Washington Room in the Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI. The synagogue is one of the oldest Jewish houses of worship in the United States that still stands, and its congregation dates back to the 1650s.

President George Washington visited the synagogue in August of 1790, and in response to a letter from the congregation’s warden, wrote the famous “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport.”

The presentation of this special artifact includes a plaque with a passage from the letter, which reads “…every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Mrs. Sara Netanyahu received a set of original stationery by New York designer Christen Maxwell. Mrs. Netanyahu also received a sterling silver orchid brooch that was handcrafted by Hawaii artist Wayne Keeth.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s daughter received a pair of custom candlesticks crafted by Maryland artist Zachary Oxman.

Both of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s sons received a custom bronze Kiddush goblet crafted by Maryland artist Zachary Oxman.

Obama's gift of a magnolia tree reportedly fell victim to the spade due to a bureaucratic hiccup.

Ynet news reported that by order of the Agriculture Ministry, the magnolia tree planted by Obama and President Peres this afternoon was dug up.

The report quotes bureaucrats as saying plants cannot be brought in from abroad "without undergoing a check" by the ministry.

Here's hoping it finds a dignified resting place.

UPDATE: 3/20/13 3:25 PM ET

Obama, Netanyahu press conference

"We were once a powerless. Today we have the right and capability to defend ourselves," said Netanyahu during the press conference. "We remain fully committed to peace and to the solution of two states for two peoples."

"The security of the state of Israel is a solemn obligation," Obama said.

"We will help to preserve Israel's qualitative edge so that Israel can defend itself," he added, announcing that Israel would receive $200 million from the United States this year, no matter the economic situation.

"The alliance between our nations has never been stronger," Obama stated, while Netanyahu stressed that Obama had reaffirmed "more than any other president" Israel's right to defend itself.

On Syria, Obama said, "I am deeply skeptical that it was the opposition that used the chemical weapons," while announcing that the US was investigating the reports.

While hesitating to lay out the US' next step with regard to Syria, Obama said, "The use of chemical weapons is a game changer."

In response to a question about Iran's nuclear program, Netanyahu said, "I am absolutely convinced that the president is determined to stop a nuclear Iran."

"We do not have a policy of containment when it comes to Iran. Our policy is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," Obama said, adding, "I repeat again, all options are on the table."

UPDATE: 3/20/13 2:05 PM ET

Red lines

Reuters covered Obama's tour of the US-funded Israeli anti-missile defense system known as Iron Dome:

"Where do you want to start?" Obama asked an Israeli military official, in a comment picked up by TV cameras providing close coverage of the president and Netanyahu walking together toward the battery.

"We are following the red line, sir," the officer replied matter-of-factly, referring to a red line painted on the tarmac that led to the missiles.

"The red line, okay," said Obama, who smiled, gestured with his thumb toward Netanyahu and said: "He's always talking to me about red lines."

Watch the Obama-Netanyahu press conference LIVE:

UPDATE: 3/20/13 1:40 PM ET

Pessimists v. Optimists

Ehud Barak, Israel's former prime minister and defense minister until a day ago, penned an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal today:

Many in the world would do well to learn the lesson that the root cause of the problems in the Middle East is not the oft-cited failure to solve the conflict with the Palestinians. Even if a peace agreement with the Palestinians had been signed and sealed a long time ago, the Muslim Brotherhood would still have come to power in Egypt, Syria would still be mired in a bloody civil war, and Iran would still be pursuing nuclear capabilities and hegemony in the Persian Gulf.

The major challenges in the Middle East today are failed or failing states armed with thousands of rockets and missiles, the presence of global terror groups such as al Qaeda, and, of course, Iran's nuclear-weapons program.

In the face of these serious challenges, I see an opportunity for the United States, moderate Arab regimes and Israel to tackle these challenges together.

Read the full piece at the WSJ.

Middle East scholar Rashid Khalidi offered GlobalPost a more pessimistic view of Obama's visit:

I actually don’t have very high expectations for this visit. It’s very clear that this Israeli government is going to be even less forthcoming on the issues of settlements, occupation, and the resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians.

It’s not quite clear precisely what, if anything, the president intended to achieve with this trip. It may just be that this was the obligatory trip for an American president to make during his second term.

Read the full story here.

UPDATE: 3/20/13 1:20 PM ET

Palestinian tent protests

The Palestinian activist group Popular Struggle released this statement (via the Guardian):

Hundreds of the Palestinians arrived this morning, Wednesday March 20th, to Eizariya and erected about 15 tents on lands of the village as new neighborhood of Bab al Shams village, on a hillside opposite to the one on which the original village of Bab al Shams was established two months ago.

Organizers stress that the action today aims “first, to claim our right as Palestinians to return to our lands and villages, second, to claim our sovereignty over our lands without permission from anyone. Third, our actions are aimed at protecting our land from continued confiscation and threat of settlement and colonization. And Fourth to expand popular resistance as one form of resistance, out of many, that our people are engaged in everywhere.

UPDATE: 3/20/13 1:00 PM ET

Chemical weapons used in Syria: Sources

While Obama's visit to Israel continued, Sources close to Israeli intelligence told GlobalPost that Israeli Defense Forces believe chemical weapons were used in Syria during an attack on Monday that killed at least 20 people.

While the sources said details remained sketchy, they believe that only the Syrian army has access to lethal chemical weapons. The source did not know what kind of chemical was used.

The Israeli Defense Forces said Wednesday that four injured Syrians had approached the Israeli border. Two of them were treated at the scene and two others, given the severity of their injuries, were transported to a nearby hospital.

Read the full story here.

UPDATE: 3/20/13 12:05 PM ET

From the White House pool

It was a classic, presidential ceremony under blue skies.

At the President's residence in Jerusalem, your foreign pooler was escorted to the main hall at 15.42 pm.

This hall is used for all presidents who travel here. American and Israeli flags were on the stage. Three vases of white flowers decorated the hall, mostly a mix of gardenias and white roses.

Shimon Peres arrived and walked past us to welcome the President. None of the Israelis and American reporters present tried to ask him a question.

The pool camera was in place when Hasson Hasson, Military Secretary to President Peres, stated to your pooler : "This is very special visit. It’s a good honor to meet him and hear from him. We expect that people here will like President Obama.” When asked about the Middle East peace process, he answered, “I cannot talk about it. It’s very sensitive. "

President Obama arrived smiling, and signed the book at 16:02, with President Peres standing by. Your pooler saw Secretary of State John Kerry and Tom Donilon nearby, as well as the social secretary from the White House.

It took several minutes for the President to sign a book usually signed by all heads of State visiting Israel. According to a spokeswoman from President Peres’ office: "Every head of the state has signed it… George W. Bush, Nicolas Sarkozy, Vladimir Putin, and even the Pope." An Israeli security official later added: "The Pope might have signed a different book."

Then a child from a Kibbutz wished the President success on his visit here. An older teenager welcomed him to the State of Israel which used peace and sciences, And President Obama looked moved when an other little girl sang a song from Annie in Hebrew.

John Kerry and Tom Donilon had little smiles on their faces watching it.

Your pooler saw Jay Carney and Dan Pfeiffer in the delegation. And several Israeli diplomats and advisers to Shimon Peres.

At the end of the song, President Obama escorted President Peres to the garden without any further comments.

At the end of the welcome ceremony, the press left the main hall "to allow for the private meeting," as written in the Israeli press release.

When asked by your pooler how the trip was going, the Israeli ambassador Michael Oren said, “This is fantastic. We have not had to talk business yet.”

UPDATE: 3/20/13 11:42 AM ET

A rose between two thorns

UPDATE: 3/20/13 11:27 AM ET

A gift of Magnolia trees

"Obama will surprise Peres with a magnolia tree from the White House garden at the event," said Israeli news site Haaretz.

GlobalPost senior correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky noted that the magnolias were planted by President Andrew Jackson and are featured on the US $5 bill.

You can watch Peres and Obama speaking live here.

UPDATE: 3/20/13 10:55 AM ET

Israeli PM and President Twitter accounts cover visit

Using the hashtag #ObamainIsrael, the official Twitter accounts of Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Peres covered Obama's visit:

UPDATE: 3/20/13 10:35 AM ET

Obama reaffirms 'unbreakable bond'

As I begin my second term as President, Israel is the first stop on my first foreign trip. This is no accident. Across this region the winds of change bring both promise and peril. So I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds 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.

I want to begin right now, by answering a question that is sometimes asked about our relationship -- why? Why does the United States stand so strongly, so firmly with the State of Israel? And the answer is simple. We stand together because we share a common story -- patriots determined “to be a free people in our land,” pioneers who forged a nation, heroes who sacrificed to preserve our freedom, and immigrants from every corner of the world who renew constantly our diverse societies.

We stand together because we are democracies. For as noisy and messy as it may be, we know that democracy is the greatest form of government ever devised by man.

We stand together because it makes us more prosperous. Our trade and investment create jobs for both our peoples. Our partnerships in science and medicine and health bring us closer to new cures, harness new energy and have helped transform us into high-tech hubs of our global economy.

We stand together because we share a commitment to helping our fellow human beings around the world. When the earth shakes and the floods come, our doctors and rescuers reach out to help. When people are suffering, from Africa to Asia, we partner to fight disease and overcome hunger.

And we stand together because peace must come to the Holy Land.

Watch:

Obama ended by saying, "I’m confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, it is forever – lanetzach."

UPDATE: 3/20/13 10:10 AM ET

Obama's meet and greet

GlobalPost senior correspondent Noga Tarnopolsky was at the airport when President Obama landed. She reported that there were two people who Obama really stopped to speak with on the tarmac.

One was the new political superstar Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid party. Obama congratulated him very specifically, saying he looked forward to working with him. He added, "My wife always says: 'Be careful what you wish for - you just might get it.'"

Obama also stopped to speak to Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Custodian of the Holy Places.

Pizzaballa told Tarnopolsky, "We spoke about the new pope, a new era. He said its good news, fabulous news from Rome. We're very happy. He's American, so I said, 'He's American, not exactly like you, but American.' The president said, 'True! We're very pleased.'"

Here was the view from the airport:

UPDATE: 3/20/13 9:55 AM ET

Prime Minister Netanyahu's welcoming remarks

President Obama,

This is an historic moment.

You have chosen to come to Israel as the first foreign visit of your second term. You, the leader of the United States, the world's greatest democracy, have chosen to come to our somewhat smaller but no less vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East, the one and only Jewish state of Israel.

On behalf of the government and the people of Israel, I come here today with a simple message for you and the American people: Thank you. Thank you for standing by Israel at this time of historic change in the Middle East.

Thank you for unequivocally affirming Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself by itself against any threat. Thank you for enhancing Israel’s ability to exercise that right through generous military assistance, revolutionary missile defense programs, and unprecedented security and intelligence cooperation.

Thank you, Mr. President, for upholding the Jewish people’s right to a Jewish state in our historic homeland, and for boldly defending that right at the United Nations. And thank you for strengthening the unbreakable alliance between our two nations during your Presidency.

In an unstable and uncertain Middle East, the need for our alliance is greater than ever. It is the key to thwarting dangers and advancing peace; it's the key to achieve a stable and secure peace that the people of Israel yearn for with our neighbors with our all hearts. We seek a peace with our Palestinian neighbors. I look forward to working with you over the next four years to make the alliance between our two countries even stronger.

UPDATE: 3/20/13 9:45 AM ET

President Obama welcomed by President Peres

US President Barack Obama was welcomed by Israeli President Shimon Peres on Wednesday.

President Barack Obama, Dear Friend, Welcome to Israel.

We welcome you as a great President of the United States of America. As a remarkable world leader. As a historic friend of Israel. Of the Jewish People. Your visit here is a crown demonstration of the profound relationship between our two nations.

The people of Israel welcome you with open hearts. From the depth of our hearts, From the depths of our history,
"תודה רבה"

Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, America. Thank you for what you are. Thank you for what you do.

Thank you for the hopes you carry with you. In a few minutes you will be on your way to Jerusalem. Our ancient capital. The cradle of all believers, of all prayers. You will see the hills and mountains where our prophets preached. Where the soul of the Jewish People was born. Where the State of Israel was created.

America and Israel are somewhat different in size. In size, not in destiny. The American dream stems from the bible. The Israeli spirit is inspired by American exceptionalism. We are separated by an ocean and united by the commitment to freedom, to justice. By the ongoing struggle for peace. We face the same dangers. We share the same hopes.

 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/israel-and-palestine/130320/obama-visits-israel-live-blog