|Postcards From Obama in the Holy Land|
|By Z. BYRON WOLF||Mar 21, 2013, 3:26 PM|
You're the leader of the free world. How do you spend four days in the Holy Land? President Obama was clearly looking forward to his trip to Israel. He told an Israeli TV station he sometimes fantasizes about putting on a fake mustache and hanging out in a café in Tel Aviv. There would be no anonymity for the leader of the free world on his quick jaunt to the Holy Land, but it was full of some odd moments in between spurts of important news about standing with Israel against a nuclear Iran and trying to kick start an Israeli and Palestinian peace process that has had major engine problems for years.
Speaking of engine failure, the trip got off on the wrong foot when one of the president's limousines (they send several, apparently, on every foreign trip) got the wrong kind of fuel -- gasoline instead of diesel -- and wouldn't start in Tel Aviv. It's not every day you see "The Beast," as his fleet of cars are known, hoisted on a flatbed and on the way to the mechanic. See those pictures here.
But when the president arrived in Israel, he was in a good mood and happy to get out of Washington, or as he told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "away from Congress." That moment of candor was caught by an open mic. Netanyahu joked that the Israelis had picked out a fake mustache for Obama and maybe the two could hit some bars later. There's no evidence that actually happened. But if everyone had on a fake mustache …
During remarks at the airport in Tel Aviv, Obama failed to mention the word "Palestinians," which further lowered expectations that the trip would do much for the peace process. The Israelis brought part of the Iron Dome Missile Defense system, which protects Israel from rocket attack and was built with U.S. aid, to the airport for him to take a look.
After visiting the airport, President Obama spent some time with Israeli President Shimon Peres. They planted a tree together in Peres' garden. But, apparently, it hadn't been through customs. For a brief time it appeared the tree might have to be uprooted.
Then they listened to a multicultural rendition of "Tomorrow" from the musical Annie that was sung by young Israeli children. The rendition was a little uncomfortable, but Obama smiled through it. Children were to become a theme of the trip after Obama later visited a Palestinian school with the Palestinian leader and ad-libbed some lines about the children being the future in his address to the Israeli people on coming together and working toward a two-state solution.
During a joint news conference with Netanyahu, Obama seemed at ease with the Israeli leader. The two have a troubled past. Netanyahu had a closer relationship with Mitt Romney and Republicans had implied during the 2012 campaign that Obama was not really a friend of Israel. At one point there was some question about whether the White House was trying to avoid meeting Netanyahu.
All of that was forgotten Wednesday. Obama called Netanyahu "Bibi," his nickname, a bunch of times. He pointed out that he had spent more time with Bibi than with any other world leader. For his part, Netanyahu mentioned that there should be an independent state of Palestine. This was perceived as news.
Netanyahu said that Obama, more than any other U.S. president, has protected Israel's right to protect itself. "I think that people should get to know President Obama the way I've gotten to know him," Netanyahu said when asked why Israelis haven't warmed to this president like they did to the last two.
They make a point of repeating over and over that Israel and the United States are united in opposing a nuclear Iran.
Two rockets from the Gaza Strip landed in southern Israel today as President Obama began the second day of his visit to Israel, the occupied West Bank and Jordan. Israel's military said the rockets landed in the southern town of Sderot, causing some minor damage but injuring no one. Read more about that here.
The attention of Obama's trip whipped around to Palestinian territory today. He descended by helicopter into Ramallah, where he appeared with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. They stood right underneath a large banner with Yasser Arafat's picture, and President Obama said he remains "committed to realizing the vision of two states."
Abbas said peace "will not come "through violence, occupation, walls, settlements, arrests, siege and denial of refugee rights."
Then he toured a youth development center where high school kids had built robots. It was cool. Two small robots on the table carrying Palestinian flags moved aside to reveal a sign that read "Welcome, Mr. President."
"Look at that," Obama declared. "Did you guys see that."
Obama was there for 5 hours.
Then Obama returned to Israel, where he gave an address that was billed as being "to the Israeli people."
It fell somewhere between a State of the Union address and a campaign rally. There was a heckler who wants the United States to pardon the Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. Obama has said he won't do that.
But the speech was more notable for its populist push. For a trip with low expectations and no specific policy agenda, Obama gave a full-throated call for a renewed peace process.
"Israel's not going anywhere," he told the people at the Jerusalem Convention Center, noting the country is the most powerful in the region and has a good buddy in the United States.
But he said they need to find a way to make peace.
"The only way to truly protect the Israeli people over the long term is through the absence of war, because no wall is high enough and no Iron Dome is strong enough or perfect enough to stop every enemy," he said.
He told Israelis to go around their political leaders to work toward peace.
"Let me say this as a politician, I can promise you this," Obama said. "Political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things
At another dinner, this one hosted by President Peres, Obama was given a "medal of distinction" by the Israeli government. Distinguished indeed. The medal was enormous and had a large blue and white ribbon. He gave a toast in Hebrew. Shalom! After dinner, Israeli pop singer Rita sang "Jerusalem of Gold" and David D'Or sang a spirited, falsetto rendition of "Amazing Grace," accompanied by another man with a violin.
Obama and Netanyahu were spotted whispering and talking during the entertainment portion.
After a somber Friday morning laying wreaths at the graves of both Zionist Theodor Herzl and assassinated former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and visiting the Hall of Remembrance, Obama will visit the church of the Nativity. He'll then head down to Jordan for meetings with King Abdullah and a night in the King's palace.