With the red carpet rolled out behind him, US President Barack Obama boarded Air Force One and departed Israel, as his three-day visit to Israel and the West Bank came to a close.
Prior to his flight, Obama held a final lunch meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres in a trailer set up on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport.
The last stop on Obama's tour of Israel and the West Bank was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where Christians believe Jesus was born. Obama's visit to the site is seen as a message of solidarity to dwindling Christian communities in a turbulent region.
Due to strong winds and sand storms Obama changed his plans to fly to Bethlehem in a helicopter, opting instead to travel in a convoy of cars. Highway 1 between Jerusalem was blocked between the hours of 13:30 and 16:00.
Additionally, Obama's official farewell ceremony from Israel's Ben Gurion airport was cancelled due to a sand storm that has enveloped central Israel. Instead, there will be a small ceremony which will take place on the tarmac.
Earlier Friday, while visiting Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial Obama said the state of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, but because of its strong existence the Holocaust will never happen again.
The statement marked a significant corrective to his speech in Cairo in 2009, where he appeared to argue that the legitimacy of the Jewish state stemmed from the Holocaust.
Wearing a kippa, Obama rekindled an eternal flame next to a stone slab above ashes recovered from extermination camps after World War Two. "We have a choice to acquiesce to evil or make real our solemn vow - never again," Obama said.
Obama made clear he recognized that Jewish roots to the Holy Land were centuries-old. "Here on your ancient land, let it be said for all the world to hear, 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," he said.
The president said that one could visit the memorial 1,000 times, "and each time one's heart would break."
However, he said that at Yad Vashem, along with seeing man's capacity for evil and how evil can triumph when people remain passive, one also sees man's capacity for good. "We learn here that people have a choice to succumb to evil or to act against it."
"Our sons and daughters are not born to hate, lets fill their hearts with understanding and compassion," he continued. He referred to the light "shining on the Jerusalem hills," that visitors see after passing through the darkness of Yad Vashem, saying "here we hope."
Following the US president's speech Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi and chairman of the Yad Vashem Council Yisrael Meir Lau also spoke.
"Yesterday promised us we are not alone, but do not be too late," he said. "Help us have days of light after the dark tunnel."
Obama began the third and final day of his first
presidential trip to Israel with visits to the graves of
Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin, accompanied by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.
Obama laid a
wreath and stone at the graves of the founder of Zionism, and the slain prime
minister, who has become a symbol for the peace process, before touring
Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. At Rabin's grave, Obama paid his respects to family members of the late prime minister, including daughter Dalia Rabin and his granddaughter Noa Rotman.
"Sometimes it is harder to embark on peace than to embark on war,"
Rabin's daughter, Dalia, quoted Obama as telling the family at the grave
Click here for full JPost coverage of Obama's visit to Israel
He then visited Yad Vashem, 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.
"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.
He held a final meeting with Netanyahu, who
he previously met with for some three-hours on Wednesday.
From Israel, the US president will travel to Amman,
where he will meet with Jordanian King Abdullah II. Obama's talks with
Abdullah are expected to focus on the civil war in neighboring Syria
and the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace diplomacy.
president's visit to the desert kingdom is aimed at reassuring 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.
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
Obama backs the Syrian opposition's effort to oust
Syrian President Bashar Assad, but has limited its support to non-lethal
aid to anti-government rebels despite 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
Also on the agenda will be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.
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