Some of America’s leading journalists checked into Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel Tuesday afternoon to cover US President Barack Obama’s historic two-day visit to Israel.
Obama and core members of his delegation are staying a few hundred meters away at the King David Hotel.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the press had set up a considerable media center inside the hotel’s spacious Zion Conference Center, two floors below the lobby, where millions of dollars’ worth of equipment has been placed to shoot interviews, hold press conferences, monitor the presidential visit and stay in contact with varying US-based news bureaus.
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NBC News chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd said he had arrived with the majority of the White House press on a charter flight Tuesday afternoon to report regularly for NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and The Today Show.
“I hope that something good comes out of the meeting [between Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu],” said Todd in the hotel’s lobby. “I think there’s a lot of important symbolism in the two countries’ relationship.”
While he noted that former US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had both enjoyed warmer relationships with Israel’s government and people, he said cooperation on the issues of Iran and Syria would likely supersede any personal differences between the two leaders.
“The issue of Israel is considered a domestic one in the US because Israel is one of the few foreign countries in the world that affects voting there,” said Todd. “Netanyahu is very savvy about American politics, and while I think Obama came across as bullying to Netanyahu during his first term, I think [Obama’s] aware of this perception and is now trying to rectify the situation. The bottom line is, he knows that if you don’t have the average Israeli or Arab liking you, you can’t make peace.”
Todd, who also hosts a news program on MSNBC called The Daily Run Down, said he particularly looked forward to joining the foreign press on trips abroad.
“The best part of my beat is going on international trips, because what usually resonates in history are international stories, and certainly Israel and the Middle East is one of them,” he said.
Todd, who is Jewish, said he would leave for Amman on Friday, then fly back to the States to join his mother in Florida for Passover.
CBS News chief White House correspondent Major Garrett, who also arrived Tuesday, said he was encouraged by Obama’s visit and looked forward to covering it.
“There’s a whole commentary back in the States that Obama’s just an ‘elaborate tourist’ here, but to me he’s much more than that,” said the reporter. “This trip is very important because he is connecting to the Israeli people and discussing Iran and Syria.”
In terms of Obama’s and Netanyahu’s notoriously frosty relationship, Garrett said he believed they would put their differences aside to address the bigger picture.
“The president said the window is closing on Iran in one year, and therefore whatever differences they have are immaterial regarding how they will work together to deal with this threat,” he said.
“I believe that these external events are large enough to overcome their differences.”
Regarding Obama’s controversial 2009 Cairo speech, which alienated many Israelis and American-Jewish voters, Garrett said he thought Obama would attempt to recover by emphasizing Israel’s historic connection to the land.
“There’s a definite effort by the president not to retract the Cairo speech, but to ‘recontextualize’ it by emphasizing that Israel indeed has a very strong, historic relationship with this land going back thousands of years,” he said.
Meanwhile, after broadcasting a live report from the hotel’s penthouse balcony, Peter Alexander – another NBC White House correspondent, who is now on his seventh trip to Israel – said he was also encouraged by Obama’s visit.
“So far, I’ve been most struck by the image of [Obama’s] arrival when he took off his blazer to get more casual, and Netanyahu did the same, and both walked together wearing white shirts and blue ties. It was a moment made for the front page,” he said.
He stated that he was certain Iran and Syria would dominate discussions between the two men, and said he understood Israel’s frustration regarding a nuclear Iran.
“Israel is in a very difficult position in dealing with Iran, because the last thing [Netanyahu] wants to do is ‘outsource’ a problem like this to be handled,” he said. “But I think in order to make any progress in a two-state solution, there has to be a shared trust, and I think Obama’s here to pay his respects.”
He added, “More than anything else, Obama’s here to say: ‘I care about you, I care about the State of Israel, now let’s talk.’”