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Obama tours symbolic Israeli sites on last day of visit

world Updated: Mar 22, 2013 15:05 IST

Reuters
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On the last day of his visit to Israel, US President Barack Obama paid his respects at the tomb of the founder of modern Zionism and also the grave of a murdered Israeli prime minister, who has become a symbol of the peace process.

He then visited Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, adding layers of symbolic gestures to a trip short of real substance, but laden with presidential appeals for both Israelis and Palestinians to resume long-stalled peace talks. The president is due to fly to nearby Jordan in the afternoon for talks with King Abdullah, a key US ally in the Middle East, about an array of pressing regional problems, including the civil war in neighbouring Syria.

Basking in bright sunshine, Obama walked through Jerusalem's Mount Herzl cemetery, laying a wreath on the black marble tomb of Theodor Herzl, the Zionist visionary who died more than four decades before the 1948 founding of Israel.

Officials said the visit was aimed at correcting an impression the president had given in a speech in Cairo in 2009, where he appeared to argue that the legitimacy of the Jewish state stemmed from the Holocaust.

"Nothing could be more powerful," Obama said in Yad Vashem's Hall of Names, a memorial to the six million Jews killed by the Nazis in World War Two.

Obama also laid a wreath at the final resting place of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli statesman assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist enraged by his efforts to make peace with Palestinians.

"Sometimes it is harder to embark on peace then to embark on war," Rabin's daughter, Dalia, quoted Obama as telling the family at the grave site.

Settlement block

Obama has attempted to win over a sceptical Israeli public during his trip, assuring them of full US support at a time of growing tensions with Iran over its nuclear ambitions and anxiety tied to the burgeoning civil war in Syria. But in a speech on Wednesday, he has also urged Israelis to push their political leaders to take risks and secure peace with the Palestinians, calling on his audience of university students to put themselves in the shoes of their occupied neighbours.

Winning rapturous applause in Jerusalem, the president received a cooler reception on Thursday during talks in the West Bank with Palestinians, who are disappointed Washington is not applying more pressure on Israel to halt settlement activity. Obama has reiterated to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that settlement building in the West Bank, land the Palestinians want as part of a future state, was detrimental to peace efforts.

But he has retreated from the overt calls during his first term for a halt to the building and he has offered no new peace initiative during his trip, saying he had just come to listen. After a final round of talks with Netanyahu on Friday, he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas again when he pays a flying visit to the West Bank city of Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born. The tour is seen as a message of solidarity to dwindling Christian communities in a turbulent region.

Arab Spring

Obama will then head to Amman where he hopes to reassure Abdullah of Washington's support at a time when it is flooded with refugees from the violence in Syria, and battling economic difficulties and tensions from the "Arab Spring" upheaval in the region, aides say.

Obama and Abdullah will consult extensively on the spillover of the Syrian conflict to Jordan, where an influx of more than 350,000 refugees has further strained the resources of a country that has almost no oil. Washington has provided some aid to alleviate the humanitarian situation.

Obama backs the Syrian opposition's effort to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but has limited its support to non-lethal aid to anti-government rebels despite a growing calls from European and Arab allies to take a stronger tack.

The king has taken a mostly cautious line on Syria, calling for Assad to go, but advocating a "political solution" and not arming the Syrian leader's foes. Jordanian authorities worry that any emergence of Islamist rule in a post-Assad Syria could embolden Islamists who are the main opposition group in Jordan. Also on the agenda will be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jordan is one of only two Arab states - Egypt is the other - to have signed peace treaties with Israel, and is seen as a potential player in any future US-led peace push. It also has a majority Palestinian population.

The state of Jordan's troubled economy, which receives nearly $360 million in US economic assistance, will also be on the agenda, as will renewing the two countries' counterterrorism partnership.

And Obama will encourage Abdullah to press ahead with a programme of economic and political reform. Jordan has been the scene of mostly peaceful street protests, rather than the uprisings that have shaken some of its neighbours and the king has responded with cautious steps toward democracy.

Obama will visit the ruins of the ancient city of Petra in southern Jordan on Saturday before heading home to Washington.