Passover is one of the most anticipated times of the year in Israel. This festive holiday marks the beginning of spring, and the seder reaffirms who and why we are Jews – even for the most secular Israelis.
This year there was an uncharacteristic feeling of anticlimax. Not that Passover was less enjoyable. But the week before, we experienced the biggest political and media event since Anwar Sadat’s 1977 historic visit – Barak Obama’s first trip to Israel as U.S. President.
It is difficult to convey the holiday atmosphere and media circus that ensued. In terms of coverage, The Truman Show (1998 satirical comedy-drama starring Jim Carrey) comes to mind. Every minute detail was reported. Blogger Uri Elitzur wrote: “We went overboard. We acted like teenage girls who scream at a concert of their pop idol. Yes, the leader of the free world, an important visit, our biggest ally, etc. But pre-empting all radio and TV programs, live broadcasts on all channels during each day, reporting on the most trivial trifles like what he ate, an interview with one of the girls from the choir who sang to him and with another child who shook his hand, which beauty queen was invited to the gala dinner? Overkill!”
This blogger might have a point, but commercial media out- lets give the public what it wants. I doubt any city or country has been so preoccupied, and perhaps touched, by a presidential visit of Obama.
One has to understand Obama’s unpopularity among the Israeli public on the eve of the visit. While many of us are fascinated that the leader of the free world has a cool, urban charisma, he was viewed with suspicion by most of us and even as a ticking time bomb by some.
His first-term attempt to woo the Islamic world at the ex- pense of Israel and the cold manner in which he treated Net- anyahu both alienated and frightened Israelis. The irony here is that this antipathy toward Obama devel- oped despite an unprecedented upgrading of security cooperation and aid during his first term. In December’s column, I attributed this discrepancy to his inability to understand that the United States and Israel have had both a strategic and a special relationship. Without acknowledging the special relationship, the close security coordination and the military aid seem to be strategic American interests that also benefit Israel. While Obama may think the Palestinians might be one of the most occupied people on Earth, we Israelis are certainly the most threatened on the planet.
So how was it possible that just two days after Air Force One landed in Israel, the morning headlines read, “Israel in Love,” “Feeling Right at Home” and “You’re Astonishing.”
The answer lies in an amazing performance by Obama. His personal skills allowed him to convey what we hope to be his sincere understanding, appreciation, friendship and admiration for Israel, as well as our collective need to be understood and appreciated by Obama. Of course the extraordinarily well-planned visit with brilliant and sensitive implementation organized by the White House helped as well. One analyst called it “a perfect production by American directors with Israeli actors.”
Obama pushed all the right buttons with his words and demeanor during visits to Yad Vashem, Mt. Herzl and Rabin’s grave, where he showed a profound personal connection to our central symbols. But it was also clear from the arrival ceremony that Obama chose to visit due to the realization that his first-term Middle East strategy was not only a strategic failure, but also contradicted his personal convictions. The aim of his visit was to reset both and to try to talk directly with the Israeli public.
Alon Pinkus, the former Israeli Consul in New York, said in an interview that Obama could no longer tolerate the gulf between his strategic support and his strong personal feelings towards Israel, and the perception of him as the most anti-Is- rael U.S. president in decades. “He came because of his need to bridge this gulf, both for U.S. interests but also on a personal level as well.” Of course people wondered if this was a working visit with a strategic aim or, as Jeffrey Goldberg of Atlantic Monthly dubbed it, “Operation Desert Schmooze.” I think it is safe to assume that Obama came with a diplomatic agenda, such as requesting/ demanding that Netanyahu wait for America’s lead on Iran, and discussing ways to resume negotiations with the Palestinians and how to prevent a regionally toxic meltdown in Syria. The latter apparently spawned the one diplomatic achievement: an Obama-initiated phone call between Netanyahu and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in which Netanyahu apologized for the Marmara incident three years ago, enabling the re-establishment of ties between Israel and Turkey just in time to cooperate to contain Syrian fallout. Even the divisive and sensitive question of why Israel should apologize to Turkey, which was the provocateur, passed without too much controversy due to Obamaphoria.
But the answer to why Obama came was provided with the climax of the visit – his speech to students in Jerusalem’s Civic Auditorium. Obama chose not to make his keynote address to the Knesset, but rather to speak to Israelis directly. Despite the graciousness, warmth and smiles displayed with Netanyahu (Obama referred to him as Bibi during the entire visit), Peres and others, he chose to go over their heads to share his feelings and dreams with Israel. “Obama did not bring in his speech a political plan, nor a roadmap to one. He came to soothe, convince and conquer … and he conquered the audience by storm,” wrote Nahum Barnea in Yediot. “There have been many speeches, but Obama’s was unique and singular. It was a rare mixture of historical knowl- edge, a world view of morality, personal experience, emotions, warmth and targeted criticism.”
Obama inspired in Israelis the necessary security to accept his vision with his words:
“For the Jewish people, the quest for the promised land continued through every generation and included suffering, exile, prejudice, pogroms and even genocide. ” “I think of five Israelis that boarded a bus in Bulgaria and were blown up because of where they came from … therefore every righteous nation must condemn Hezbollah for what they are, a terrorist organization.” “Israel’s security is so important because it cannot be taken for granted … and I want to say to you, especially the youth, as long as the USA exists, you are not alone (the last four words spoken in Hebrew).”
He also won over the audience when he said that the sup- posed tension between himself and Bibi is just a hoax to provide material to the writers of “Eretz Nehederet,” the Israeli Saturday Night Live. With the crowd giving him standing ovations after almost every sentence, he then got to the point: “Peace must be made between peoples and not governments.” “I speak to you as a worried friend committed to your future.” He said that although the Palestinians turned to terror and have missed numerous historical opportunities for peace with Israel, their aspirations must be recognized. “Look at the world through their eyes.” He then went on to mention the daily hardships imposed on West Bank Palestinians due to Israeli security considerations. Even during this part of his speech, the ovations didn’t die down, and even when he mentioned terms like expul- sion and occupation, the politically mixed audience remained enthusiastic.
Agree or not, the audience was enthralled and enraptured, as was the entire country. Sever Plotzker wrote in Yediot: “Not only was the young crowd spiritually uplifted, but from my nearby seat, it was clear that this leader, known for his cool composure and complete self control was surprised and touched and by the enthusiastic way he was received. After every ovation, he scanned the hall and couldn’t quite believe his eyes … He won their heart. They won his spirit.”
What concrete results will emerge are unknown. What is certain is that the relationship has been reset. Israel is enamored of Obama, and I would like to think that Obama was genuine. But I did have my doubts about his sincerity at one point during the visit. When a high-tech company’s computerized robot brought Obama a piece of matzah, Obama remarked, “Now that’s good matzah!” Good matzah? At that moment, he was being gracious but definitely not sincere.
Mylan Tanzer is an American who moved to Israel in 1981. Tanzer lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and five children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.