People were on good behavior at Ben-Gurion Airport on Wednesday for US President
Barack Obama’s arrival.
One organizer was seen asking the press not to
throw lit cigarette butts on the tarmac – a virtual Israeli national pastime –
while during the official ceremony, there was a laughable request that the horde
of Israeli and foreign journalists turn off or refrain from using their
cellphones. Behind the bleachers, on two occasions that this reporter counted,
organizers checked up on what must have been, for a few hours on Wednesday, the
cleanest portable toilets in the Middle East.
Israel is a regional
superpower and a technological trailblazer, but when the US president touches
down in Air Force One, officials from all walks of life – religious leaders,
soldiers, police officers – turn out in their Shabbat best, lining up to shake
the commander-in-chief’s hand. Many of these men have not been what one would
call fans of the president, but politics often take a back seat to celebrity –
or at least, that’s the way it appeared as Obama landed at the airport, long
before he whipped out a little “ulpan aleph”-level Hebrew.
Click here for full JPost coverage of Obama's visit
Obama is not
very popular over here. He is often described as a politically naïve liberal who
speaks a big game about supporting the Jewish state, while repeatedly throwing
Israel under the bus. As Israel is one of the only countries on Earth that would
have elected Republican contender Mitt Romney – and before that, John McCain –
over Obama, one might expect the visit to be a rocky one, beset by pitfalls,
hyper-analyzed at each step along the way.
But that’s only if one doesn’t
grasp how much Israelis admire the United States, and especially its
institutions of power and pageantry.
The theatrics of the arrival also
highlighted a marked contrast between the US and Israel – which, as much as it
tries to emulate the States, still tends to have a kibbutznik’s approach to pomp
Watching the eight US Army Blackhawks spin their blades
on the tarmac, one Israeli reporter pondered the money invested in the
production, while another laughed at two stone-faced American soldiers walking
ramrod straight around the choppers, in a way rather foreign to their Israeli
A defining feature of being an American in Israel – or a
permanent expat in any country – is the simultaneous effort to integrate into
and embrace your adopted home, and to grasp the fleeting moments when your
native culture makes an appearance, such as on Super Bowl Sunday or the Fourth
of July, or when you chance upon a classic rock song on local radio. Those
moments, it turns out, pale in comparison to a presidential visit, especially
one incorporating elements of an air show (without the rednecks).
would be unwise to wager that the whirlwind visit will yield any breakthroughs
or new developments – other than, at best, some reassurances of certain
understandings behind closed doors, between Obama and Israeli and Palestinian
leaders. Nonetheless, while there will certainly be no shortage of locals
cursing the president while they sit in traffic this week, his visit has shown
that when the United States wants to, it can gas up the Blackhawks and put on a
show to bring the country that some have called “the 51st state” to a halt.