If there was any question about why President Obama came to Israel on the first overseas trip of his second term — and the question has come up — it vanished into the brilliant blue sky above Ben Gurion Airport when he reached the end of the red carpet and the microphone waiting there. The leader of the free world had come to issue a correction. Four years ago, delivering an address to the Muslim people in Cairo, Obama had irked Israeli Jews by citing the Holocaust as the justification for the 1948 founding of modern Israel. Israelis prefer to reach a bit further back — they find their deed to the land in the Bible — and the misapprehension was aggravated by what Obama did when he left Cairo: fly past Israel to pay a call at Buchenwald, the World War II concentration camp.
There was none of that on Wednesday. “More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here,” Obama began, getting right to it on the tarmac. “And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish state of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history. Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages — to be ‘masters of their own fate’ in ‘their own sovereign state.’”
Benjamin Netanyahu looked on beaming. “I thought that was a wonderful line that I will cherish because it really gets down to the essence of what this state is about,” the Prime Minister said a few hours later, as the two leaders took questions at his Jerusalem residence. On the same page at last — somewhere in Psalms, just going by the praise singing — the famously frosty pair appeared determined to project a budding buddydom. At the airport, when Obama shrugged off his suit jacket and flicked it over his shoulder, Netanyahu glanced over and, after first hitching up his pants, did the same, like a little kid imitating an older one. When they reached the display of Israel’s antimissile systems, including Iron Dome, Netanyahu directed his guest through the exhibit by the colors painted on the tarmac: “Follow the red line.” Obama quipped: “He’s always talking to me about red lines.” An Iran joke. They can laugh about it now.
Obama kept calling Netanyahu “Bibi,” and choked both of them up a moment reading from the published letters of his brother Yonatan Netanyahu, who was killed leading the raid to rescue Israeli hostages at Entebbe. Netanyahu kept looking at Obama the way he spoke of him: approvingly. The handshakes were vigorous, the thanks effusive, and though they continue to differ on when it might be necessary to go military against Iran, the differences are no longer emphasized publicly. When a reporter suggested the two leaders differed on how long Iran needed to produce a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu waded into the weeds of uranium enrichment and weaponization to explain that, in fact, Obama was right: it’d take Iran about a year to get one. The same man was sitting in the Oval Office not two years ago, scoring points back in Israel by accusing Obama of saying something he had not (that Israel should retreat to its 1967 borders).
Obama was trying hard too. From the moment he appeared in the proscenium that is the hatch of Air Force One, the President appeared to be “on.” If he wasn’t in campaign mode, it was something like it. Crowded on the Iran issue not only by the realities in the Islamic Republic, but by the tensions with Jerusalem, the White House has said repeatedly the centerpiece of the three days will be his address to the Israeli public — mostly college students — on Thursday afternoon in Jerusalem’s convention center. “My main goal on this trip is to have an opportunity to speak directly to the Israeli people,” Obama said, “at a time when what is obviously already a pretty tough neighborhood has gotten tougher, and let them know they have a friend in the United States, that we have your back.”
It’s an uphill battle. Israelis have distrusted Obama from the start of his presidency, convinced that because of his background — including a Muslim father and a childhood in Indonesia — he favored the Palestinian side in the century-old contest for control of the Holy Land. A Jerusalem Post poll this week found a 36% plurality regarded his Administration as more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli. The 26% who said he favored Israel was the highest in four years; only 4% said so after the Cairo speech. Another daily, Maariv, found only 1 in 10 Israelis reporting a favorable opinion of Obama, while 17% went with “hateful.”
“I think people should get to know President Obama the way I’ve gotten to know him,” Netanyahu said at the press conference, which was carried live on Israeli television, as was the airport arrival, and even the American’s journey from the coastal plain to Jerusalem, in a convoy of seven helicopters. The center of the city was hermetically sealed for the visit, the street outside the President’s hotel, the King David, actually curtained in white vinyl, an unusual precaution.
Obama, meanwhile, was asked if he would care to acknowledge mistakes in his handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his first term. “I’m absolutely sure there are a host of things I could have done that would have been more deft, or would have created better optics,” he replied. “But ultimately, this is a really hard problem.” Not that optics don’t matter. Out on the tarmac, when the coats came off, it became blindingly obvious that both Bibi and Barack were wearing the colors of the Israeli flag: white shirts and blue ties. Netanyahu’s was a little bluer.