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.
Army Radio reported that the Peres meeting was a virtual “lovefest,” as compliments flew between the 85-year-old Israeli president and the 46-year-old senator.
“Permit me to speak as a young man to a young man,” quipped Peres, after Obama praised Peres for his contribution to the miraculous growth and development of Israel over its 60 years.
He was also impressed by another accomplishment. “I was telling the president that I also want to get his recipe for looking as good as he does at the young age of 85.”
Standing next to Peres, he hammered home the central theme of his visit — his commitment to Israel’s security.
“I’m here on this trip to reaffirm the special relationship between Israel and the United States and my abiding commitment to Israel’s security and my hope that I can serve as an effective partner, whether as a US senator or as president.”
Obama was then driven to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad — a side trip that GOP candidate John McCain didn’t make on his visit to Israel.
He returned to Jerusalem to meet Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Livni and Obama then hopped a helicopter to Sderot — the city attacked by rockets from Gaza — and flew back to the capital. Barak then joined Obama and Livni for a helicopter tour of Israel and its borders.
The importance of a foreign visitor to Israel can often be measured by the level of infighting regarding who spends time with him. By that measure Obama is well-regarded. The helicopter ride was a source of tension between Livni and Barak: originally, Livni was supposed to be the tour guide for Obama’s a helicopter tour solo. Barak pressured Livni into letting him come along for the ride. For the sake of governmental harmony, Livni agreed.
The day climaxed in Sderot, where he made the declaration widely quoted by the Israeli media as he stood in front of a stack of exploded Kassam shrapnel: “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I would do everything in power to stop that, and would expect Israelis to do the same thing,”
In Sderot, he met with Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, Mayor Eli Moyal, and residents of the area, and viewed homes and buildings which had been hit by rockets.
His visit was scheduled to be capped off with dinner with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and, finally, the all-important visit to the Western Wall.
Behind the public statements and photo opportunities, Israeli senior officials were expected to stress to Obama behind closed doors the urgency of the issue of Iran’s nuclear program and update him on the status of negotiations with Syria. Security officials were also expected to warn him against sudden withdrawal from Iraq, fearful that the chaos that could ensue would affect Israel.
Obama’s grasp of the region got positive reviews from those who met with him. Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog was interviewed on the radio shortly after joining his breakfast meeting with Barak. “Obama is impressive … very quick, with a well-developed world-view, he knows what’s going on. He knows the score….” He shrugged off the issue of Obama’s inexperience and lack of a track record on Israel. “I remember the same worries regarding both Clinton and Bush, because they came in as unknowns as well.”
While they were happy with what they heard, Israelis hadn’t expected any less from Obama, already familiar with his rhetorical skills from their television sets.
“When Barack Obama arrives, he won’t lie to us, but he won’t tell us the truth,” columnist Yair Lapid warned on the eve of the visit.
“In the coming days we will be exposed to Obama’s rhetorical abilities — few are able to deliver speeches like he does, and nobody does it better. Just like any great speaker, he will not be lying. He will simply spare us the truth — the fact that we are about to face a harsh rehabilitation process. Should he be elected, he will have to take care of America’s weakness, the declining dollar, the energy crisis, China’s rise, the Iraq troop withdrawal, and the huge trade deficit. When he’s done with that (if he’s ever done with that) he will have to decide what is of greater interest to him: A group of loud Israelis who have become addicted to the attention of the world’s greatest superpower, or his hungry brothers and cousins in war-torn and AIDS-ridden Kenya, who are looking to him with pleading eyes and hoping that his America indeed believes in change.
A change will certainly be taking place; yet we might not like it.”
Two Israeli families were not among those competing for face time with Obama. The relatives of the two Israeli soldiers whose bodies were recently returned in the prisoner swap with Hezbollah were offered a meeting with Obama but turned it down because they were in mourning.
In fact, the entire country has just emerged from a mourning period of the two soldiers it had hoped would return home. It has been a grim summer for Israelis, and the Obama travelling circus was to a certain extent viewed by Israelis as an entertaining distraction from the month’s grim news. Every detail about the Democratic hopeful was reported down to his food requests, which were described as unusually humble for a visiting dignitary. (He asked the King David Hotel for “simple local food” in his hotel suite and received hummus with pine nuts, chopped Israeli salad fruits, and veggies and mineral water.)
Young Israelis were certainly not immune from the Obama charm factor. One young female hormone-ridden radio anchor ran a telephone poll asking listeners who they considered the politician with the biggest “star” quality — Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. Obama appeared to be in the lead, Clinton behind him. The Israeli contender who was slipped into the contest, Netanyahu, ran a distant third.
The Democratic hopeful’s last stop before heading for Germany was another important photo opportunity for any US politician visiting Israel: the Western Wall, where, presumably, he will put his note in the ancient stones.
What it will say is anybody’s guess.