He had us at the word “Shalom,” did President Barack Obama, on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Or if not at “Shalom,” then 33 words later when he said in Hebrew, “Tov lihiyot shuv ba’aretz” (It’s good to be back in Israel). And if not then, well, at least at the end of his brief welcoming speech, when he said, “I’m confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, it is forever – lanetzah.” Again, he used Hebrew. We swooned.
And if he did not have us all, at least he had some of the country’s media stars broadcasting from the airport, gushing superlatives as Air Force One – tracked as if it were an Apollo flight reentering the Earth’s orbit – was seen entering Israeli airspace.
As Irit Linor said on Army Radio, discussing what she deemed the over-the-top Obama Madness that gripped the nation, if this is the way the country greeted Obama, what’s left to greet the Messiah? We are a nation that feels isolated – unaccepted and hated in the region, misunderstood abroad.
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Elvis Costello boycotts us; the Spanish don’t like us much. Yet we so want to be accepted, so want to be understood, so want to be loved. Given our history, who can blame us? Obama landed and showed us the love. Lots of it. The love we yearned to feel over the past four years, a period during which, at least in the beginning, the president seemed to feel that the way to move things forward in the Middle East was not by embracing Jerusalem, but by keeping it – us – at arm’s length.
Yes, even during that “it’s-okayto- show-some-daylight-betweenthe- US-and-Israel” phase of his presidency, Obama continued to provide for our security in an unprecedented manner. But we were not fully, or even mostly, satisfied. Do children just want their parents to post watchmen at the doors of their house, or buy a great alarm system as they then go off and play poker with the neighborhood bullies? No, the children want their parents’ warmth, not only their provisions for security. The children need a hug.
Some will say this is a sign of Israeli immaturity – that the country needs to grow up and not yearn so for public displays of affection, that it should just be thrilled at the depth of the security ties. But Israel has a strong security relationship with other countries as well. It wants – needs – more than that from the US. What can you do – that’s who we are.
Living in a neighborhood, and even in a world, in which there are those who have not exactly accepted our right or legitimacy to be here, having the most powerful man in the world come and give us a public bear hug is very important.
And Obama gave us that. He gave it at the airport when he said that the Jewish people “tended the land here, prayed to God here,” and when he said that “the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.” He gave it at the President’s Residence when he quoted from the Talmud and said Israel had no better friend in the world than the US.
We heard those words. Our enemies heard those words. The American people heard those words.
Then Obama went to the Prime Minister’s Residence for five hours of talks with Binyamin Netanyahu, and the hugs were left outside, and disagreements inevitably emerged. But the disagreements stayed inside the room. Outside, he said the US had Israel’s back. And that is a significant difference from when the two leaders first met in the White House four years ago.
“What if” questions are never constructive, but one cannot help but ask how much frustration, aggravation and anger would have been prevented in both Israel and the US had Obama made this trip, and adopted this approach, at the beginning of his presidency.