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Obama makes first trip to Israel as president

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Obama arrives in Israel for first visit as president. Obama arrives in Israel for first visit as president.

Jerusalem (CNN) -- U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Israel on Wednesday to launch a four-day swing through the Middle East that focuses attention on major issues such as Iran's nuclear progress and the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

Obama's first foreign trip of his second term also was his first visit to Israel as president, and aides said he wants to assess the status of the stalled peace process and signal his administration's support for a crucial partner in the volatile region.

At an arrival ceremony where he was greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, Obama told the Israeli people that the "United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend."

"Across this region, the winds of change bring both promise and peril," he said in Tel Aviv. "So I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between our nations, to restate America's unwavering commitment to Israel's security, and to speak directly to Israel and to your neighbors."

In a quip to Netanyahu, Obama said, "It is nice to get away from Congress," reflecting the chronic political infighting in Washington.

Obama also will visit the West Bank and Jordan on the trip, which comes as pressure increases on his administration to increase support for the opposition in the civil war in neighboring Syria.

Poll: Most Americans say Israel is a friend

Most Americans consider Israel an ally or at least friendly to the United States, according to a new CNN/ORC International poll released Tuesday. However, respondents split evenly -- 49%-49% -- on whether the United States should support Israel if it unilaterally attacks Iranian nuclear facilities to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, the survey showed.

Obama's first stop Wednesday was at an Iron Dome missile defense launcher in Tel Aviv.

Designed by Israel and funded by the United States, the battery was deployed at the height of November's fighting between Israel and Hamas. It intercepted a rocket headed for Tel Aviv, Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren said.

Afterward, the president went to Jerusalem to meet separately with Peres and Netanyahu.

Concerns about Iran

As he prepared for this trip, Obama told an Israeli TV station he believed there was still a year or so before Iran reached the final development stage -- suggesting he believes there is more time for diplomacy than Netanyahu would like.

On Tuesday, Peres conceded his country may disagree at times with the White House over Iran's nuclear progress. But he said he was "free of doubts" that Obama would use military force if necessary to stop Tehran from developing a nuclear bomb.

Netanyahu has voiced concerns that Washington has a less urgent view of Iran's progress toward developing a nuclear warhead, but has welcomed the administration's more muscular language recently that "all options" are on the table.

A shaky relationship

Obama's relationship with Netanyahu has never been warm, and the Israeli prime minister supported Republican challenger Mitt Romney -- a former business colleague -- in last year's presidential election.

In his first term, Obama got off to a rocky start with Netanyahu by pushing for a freeze on Israeli settlements, but his vocal support for the Israeli prime minister through the November crisis with Hamas and U.S. financial support for the Iron Dome anti-missile program could pave the road for greater trust in the relationship.

The Israeli-Palestinian dispute

White House officials said Obama was not bringing a new peace initiative and lacked optimism that enough solid ground existed to try to revive direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians over the declared goal of both sides for separate, neighboring states.

Most of all, the president's aides said, Obama wanted to assess how prepared -- if at all -- Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas were to return to negotiations.

Palestinians want Obama to prove there were consequences for Israel's continued construction of new settlements in what they consider to be disputed areas.

Their grievances are evident in more personal ways: Posters on Ramallah streets sarcastically advise Obama not to bring his smartphone because Israel does not allow 3G or better service in the Palestinian territories.

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