A confession: Pope Francis’s lightning visit to Tel Aviv started (and ended) at Ben-Gurion Airport with a less than exciting vibe. As a small number of journalists began filing in, the speakers played mellow Dave Matthews Band tracks at a low volume over the speakers next to the podium as IDF honor guard and band began to lazily gather to run through their dress rehearsal for the pontiff.
The last time a crowd like this was gathered at this corner of the airport was for US President Barack Obama’s visit last March. This time, though there was a battery of foreign and local press, the event lacked the buzz and glamor of Obama’s visit.
It’s probably not the pope’s fault.
While it’s true he’s a figure of great global importance and the idol of hundreds of millions of followers – he doesn’t travel like Obama.
While the US president landed on the Ben-Gurion tarmac on Air Force One, escorted by jet black US Army Black Hawks, the very sight of which can have the effect of playing AC/DC tracks on a loop inside your head, the pope and his entourage taxied in on three Jordanian helicopters that had just ferried them in from Jordan after he flew in on a chartered Alitalia flight.
And while the security was serious on Sunday, it lacked the shock and awe security overkill of the Obama visit – with its convoy of black SUVs, secret servicemen, and US airborne troops in camouflage on the runway.
That said, the security check on Sunday did include the spectacle of the IDF honor guard passing their service assault rifles through an X-ray scanner, presumably so security could see if they were carrying weapons inside their weapons.
Also, considering pope attire, there was no chance for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the pope to recreate the famous moment where Obama and Netanyahu threw their blazers over their shoulders, strolling like a couple of old college buddies in their matching blue ties.
If you were a press photographer at the event, you already knew by about 10 a.m. that it was basically all for naught.
By then, pictures had already circulated the globe of the pope only minutes earlier praying at the West Bank security barrier, his head bowed in prayer, surrounded on both sides by graffiti reading “Free Palestine” and “Bethlehem looks like Warsaw Ghetto.”
A shot like that is hard to compete with, barring a serious papal “wardrobe malfunction” on the runway or, say, if a photographer had managed to snap Netanyahu accidentally casting the shadow of a Hitler mustache on the pope, à la Angela Merkel earlier this year.
Furthermore, during his remarks in Bethlehem, the pope had used the words “State of Palestine,” already outshining his speech at Ben-Gurion, which included some platitudes about peace, tolerance and the two-state solution, read out in Italian in a slow, almost sleepy cadence.
The only highlight for a number of the reporters present (most of whom had already received an embargoed copy of the pope’s speech hours earlier) was the opportunity to take a pope selfie against the backdrop of the podium.
Altogether, after almost seven hours of waiting for reporters, the pope was on the ground in Tel Aviv for only about 45 minutes, before choppering off to Jerusalem.
In a sense, the rather ho hum vibe on Sunday was fitting for a state visit with little expectations and not much interest for the average Israeli.