JERUSALEM (AFP) - Barack Obama on Wednesday arrived in Israel for the first time as president, vowing an ‘eternal’ alliance with the Jewish state as it faces Iran’s nuclear threat and perilous change in the Middle East.

Obama strove for reassurance as he faces scepticism over his strategy for confronting Iran and his personal commitment to Israel, following sharp public disagreements with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The United States is proud to stand with you as your strongest ally and your greatest friend,” Obama said at a lavish welcoming ceremony, shortly after Air Force One rolled to a halt to a peal of military trumpets at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport.

“Our alliance is eternal, it is for ever,” Obama declared, arguing America’s vital national security interests mandated a strong defence of Israel, which he said “makes us both stronger.”

Obama’s arrival, on a visit more likely to be marked by symbolism and his homage to the ancient roots of the Jewish state than progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sparked glowing praise from Israeli leaders. President Shimon Peres lauded Obama as a “remarkable world leader” who had shown a deep personal commitment to protect Israel, taking implicit aim at a perception the US president is not sufficiently warm to the Jewish state.

“A world without your friendship would invite aggression against Israel... In times of peace, in times of war, your support for Israel is unshakeable,” he said.

Netanyahu was also effusive as Obama embarked on the first overseas mission of his second term, which will also see him hold talks with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah and on Friday travel to Jordan to meet King Abdullah II.

“Thank you, Mr President, for upholding the Jewish people’s right for a Jewish state in our homeland and for boldly defending that right in the United Nations,” Netanyahu said.

For all the rhetoric, officials have downplayed expectations for Obama’s long-awaited visit, and there are few hopes his arrival will overcome the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. “Peace must come to the Holy Land,” Obama told his hosts on arrival but he has made clear he was coming to listen rather than launch any new peace initiative. Disillusioned by the failure of Obama’s first-term peace efforts, the Palestinians are hoping he will help broker the release of more than 1,000 prisoners held by Israel and also free up $700 million in blocked US aid.

Obama will tell the Palestinians that initiatives like seeking statehood recognition at the United Nations are counterproductive, while warning Israel that settlement building undercuts the chances of resuming peace talks.

But peace negotiator Nabil Shaath on Wednesday said Obama had disappointed Palestinians who once warmed to his calls for an end to settlement building.

“President Obama appeared to give up on his goal,” Shaath wrote in Haaretz newspaper, mourning 1,000 Palestinian deaths in violence over the past four years. “We could have saved lives and political capital if President Obama had shown the determination to create the right environment for meaningful decisions leading to a two-state solution.” After the welcome ceremony, the US leader came face-to-face with Israel’s preoccupation with security, visiting a mobile battery of the US-funded Iron Dome missile defence system.

Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel plans to visit the Jewish state in April to boost cooperation between the two countries, Israel’s defence ministry said on Wednesday.

The plans were discussed during a telephone conversation between Hagel and new Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, who took up the position on Monday, a ministry statement said.

Meanwhile, Palestinian fighters pitched a protest camp Wednesday on the site of a contested Jewish settlement, in an act of defiance as US President Barack Obama began an historic visit. Around 200 Palestinians erected some 15 tents on the controversial site to send a "message to Obama to tell him: Obama - enough with bias and support for Israel," said one of the organisers, Abdullah Abu Rahma.

Israeli soldiers ordered the activists to evacuate the area, warning they would otherwise be ejected by force, Abu Rahma said, adding that a "closed military zone" had been declared.

Observers say Israeli plans to build in E1 connect the Maaleh Adumim settlement with east Jerusalem and would effectively prevent the future establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state, dooming the two-state solution.

Experts say the plan to build in E1 will isolate the Arab sector of the Holy City and cut the occupied West Bank in two.

The E1 settlement plan has been on hold since 2005 following heavy US pressure. Plans by Israel to push the construction process through in December unleashed an international outcry.

"Our message today to Obama is... this is our land and we are opposed to settlements and occupation which are backed by the US administration," Abu Rahma told AFP.

Palestinian peace negotiator Nabil Shaath, meanwhile, published an op-ed message to Obama in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, urging him to prove his commitment to a two-state solution by turning pledges into deeds.

stranglehold” on Palestinians.

In a paper to a meeting of international donors in Brussels on Tuesday the Palestinian Authority urged “all international partners, particularly in the Arab region, to consider the implications of the current fiscal crisis and a possible shift towards institutional and political collapse”.

“Israel’s continued illegal occupation irreversibly forecloses the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state on the ground, making peace based on the two-state formula implausible, if not impossible.”