JERUSALEM (AP) — Wrapping up a three day visit to Israel, President Barack Obama paid respects to the nation's heroes and to victims of the Holocaust, solemnly reaffirming the Jewish state's right to exist before leaving for Jordan and the final leg of his trip.
Accompanied by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, Obama laid wreaths at the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism who died in 1904 before realizing his dream of a Jewish homeland, and former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995.
He also toured the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, declaring after that the memorial illustrates the depravity to which man can sink but also serves as a reminder of the "righteous among the nations who refused to be bystanders."
Friday's stop at Herzl's grave, together with Thursday's visit to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient Hebrew texts, were symbolic stops for Obama that acknowledged that the rationale for Israel's existence rests with its historical ties to the region and with a vision that predated the Holocaust. Obama was criticized in Israel for his 2009 Cairo speech in which he gave only the example of the Holocaust as reason for justifying Israel's existence.
"Here on your ancient land, let it be said for all the world to hear," Obama said at Yad Vashem Friday, in a clear response to that criticism. "The state of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, but with the survival of a strong Jewish state of Israel, such a holocaust will never happen again."
Later in the day, Obama was traveling to Jordan where he planned to meet with King Abdullah II. Among the topics is Jordan's struggle with the influx of a half-million refugees from the Syrian civil war. Abdullah has voiced fears that extremists and terrorists could create a regional base in Jordan.
Before leaving for Jordan, Obama and Netanyahu met for two hours over lunch. An Israeli official said the two men discussed Israel's security challenges and that, in addressing the peace process with Palestinians, Netanyahu stressed the importance of security. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity under diplomatic protocol.
The men then met again in a trailer next to a tent on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv before Obama left the country.
In between the two meetings, Obama squeezed in a stop in Bethlehem in the West Bank to visit the Church of the Nativity.
Obama had been scheduled to take a helicopter to Bethlehem but had to change plans due to unusually high winds. The route gave Obama a clear look at Israel's separation barrier with the West Bank, which runs south of Jerusalem and is the subject of weekly protests by Palestinians.
About 300 Palestinians and international pilgrims gathered near the Nativity Church, awaiting Obama's arrival. But a knot of protestors along the route held up signs stating: "Gringo, return to your colony" and "US supports Israeli injustice."