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Obamessiah Hits the Holy Land

Israelis liked what they heard from the Democratic presidential candidate during his whirlwind visit. They just hope they can believe it.

by
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Bio

July 23, 2008 - 9:13 am
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Traditionally, every visitor to Israel’s Western Wall folds a note in one of the cracks between the stones. On the note — their deepest desire, their most fervent wish, an express mail delivery to a higher power.

What will Barack Obama write on his scrap of paper?

While the answer seems obvious, after his jam-packed Wednesday in Israel — on the heels of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Jordan — it appeared that the jet-lagged Democratic presidential hopeful truly wished for was a nap.

When Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu asked how Obama was feeling at their meeting, the senator confessed “I could fall asleep standing up.”

While Obama’s itinerary was as high-level and his security as tight as the visit of any White House resident, his actual arrival was anything but presidential. He touched down after 11 PM Tuesday night, fresh from his visit to Jordan. No official honor guard is appropriate for someone not (yet) a head of state — so the arrival was ceremony-free. The news coverage of his visit was minimal that evening; the story was bumped down till rather late on the news, overshadowed by the shocking copy-cat attack by a Palestinian tractor driver in Jerusalem (yards from Obama’s hotel) earlier in the day.

The timing of the attack gave Obama the opportunity to get down to the purpose of the trip as soon as he arrived: reassuring Jewish voters in pivotal states like Florida that he will stand by Israel as staunchly as his predecessors when elected.

The attack is “just one more reminder why we have to work diligently, urgently and in a unified way to defeat terrorism,” Obama told his travelling flock of reporters at a darkened Ben-Gurion airport. “There are no excuses.”

The news coverage as his visit began was as much about the Obama phenomenon as it was about his attitude towards Israel: focused on the massive press entourage of more than 100 reporters and the close attention being paid to his trip in the United States. Not that the locals were immune. As commentator Aluf Benn noted in Haaretz:

“Not since Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral has Israel hosted as many senior officials from abroad as it has this year. There was U.S. President George W. Bush (twice), German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. And yet, the visit by presumptive U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama, who landed here for a lightning stay last night, has aroused more interest than any of them. Even more than Carla Bruni.”

Obama woke to a hot muggy Wednesday, typical for an Israeli summer. His breakfast at the King David was reportedly smoked salmon and cheese shared with Defense Minister Ehud Barak (no word on whether bagels were served). This was followed by his brief meeting with Netanyahu, who told reporters after his meeting that their talks focused on “the need to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”

“The senator and I agree that the primacy of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power is clear,” he said.

Netanyahu conveniently didn’t mention whether the two men discussed how to prevent such an eventuality. It is rather doubtful they would have agreed as easily on that point.

Obama was then whisked off to Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and donned a white yarmulke for a wreath-laying ceremony at the Hall of Remembrance that is a hallmark of nearly any official visit — and a key reassuring photo opportunity for those Jewish voters still troubled by the anti-Semitic rantings of Obama’s former spiritual mentor, Reverend Wright.

The visit was followed by a sit-down with President Shimon Peres in a pastoral setting under a group of trees.

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