Reporter's Notebook: Operation Charm in mini-US

No matter what people think of him, US president’s presence has the power to bring out Israel’s best behavior.

Netanyahu and Obama at airport 390 (photo credit: White House)
Netanyahu and Obama at airport 390
(photo credit: White House)
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.

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 and circumstance.
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 counterparts.
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).
It 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.