Thawing tension between Obama and Netanyahu is a welcome relief for Israelis
At Ben Gurion International Airport the two leaders show some warmth; Obama throws in a few Hebrew phrases but none on a Palestinian state.
It was hot and humid Wednesday at Ben Gurion International Airport, but the atmosphere mattered more than the weather. When the door of Air Force One opened, Barack Obama leapt forth and attacked. He did everything in the book to show Israelis that the president was in love with them.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also did everything to show warmth and friendship toward his guest from Washington. He fell on the president's shoulders as if he had found a long lost brother. The disputes, the tensions and the suspicions were set aside. Mitt Romney? Who remembers him?
Obama, who looked loose and relaxed as ever, hugged Netanyahu and said to President Shimon Peres, "How are you, my friend? Good to see you." Later he joked to Netanyahu that it was good to get away from Congress, the same Congress Netanyahu has often used to pressure the U.S. president.
Twenty ministers waited on the red carpet for their turn to shake the president's hand. Obama looked like someone who had come on a mission and had memorized basic details about certain ministers, especially the new ones.
He complimented Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid on his electoral feat but noted that his wife Michelle always told him to be careful what you wish for. Some people within earshot thought he was talking about the role of finance minister, but others took it as a hint at Lapid's ambitions to win the next election and become prime minister.
Obama also warmly shook Naftali Bennett's hand and congratulated him on his electoral achievement. A member of Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi party, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, used his handshake to ask for the release of spy Jonathan Pollard. Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat, who waited further down the red carpet, joined him in the request.
Obama told only two ministers that he was eager to work with them, Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. In contrast to Lapid, Netanyahu invited Livni to a meeting with Obama and a dinner afterward. He also invited Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz. Netanyahu's advisers said Bennett and Lapid were not invited because they deal with internal, not diplomatic affairs.
Two other curiosities marked Obama's welcome ceremony. Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom patiently waited to shake Obama's hand to inform the president that they share the same birthday. Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz was surprisingly added to Obama's visit at an Iron Dome battery, where he would have the privilege of telling the president he deserves the credit.
Peres, who spoke during the welcome ceremony, showered every possible praise on Obama and exaggerated somewhat when he called Obama a historic friend of Israel and compared him to Harry Truman, who recognized Israel at its moment of birth.
While one would expect Peres' speech to be full of praise, Netanyahu's rapid-fire speech was exceptional. Over the last four years, Netanyahu almost never said thank you to Obama for the aid he provided Israel. On Wednesday, he couldn't stop thanking him and even volunteered to provide him with a list of hip bars and cafes in Tel Aviv. He added that the Israelis "even picked out a fake mustache for you," hinting at things Obama had said in his Channel 2 interview. If a cafe/bar list did exist, it's not clear Netanyahu would know any of the places.
In his speech at the airport, Obama said all the right things to be liked by Israelis. He recalled the Jewish connection to Israel, referring to "the sons of Abrahams and the daughters of Sarah." He spoke about common values between the United States and Israel – "pioneers who forged a nation" – and didn't once mention the term Palestinian state.
But the main gimmick was one that always works: speaking in Hebrew. "Tov lehiyot shuv ba'aretz," Obama said; "It's good to be back here in Israel." Later he added that relations between Israel and the United States would forever be strong, and he even added the Hebrew word for forever, lanetzach.
After the hugs, the mushy speeches and the joking with Israeli ministers, Obama and Netanyau pulled out the heavy weapons. In what is likely to turn into a victory photo for each of them, the American president and the Israeli prime minster took off their jackets and demonstrated informal familiarity as they strode to the Iron Dome battery that was brought especially to Ben Gurion airport.
Over the last four years we got used to every meeting between Obama and Netanyahu ending in a murky atmosphere. In this visit, it was the first time we could say the words Netanyahu and Obama in the same sentence without mixing in terms like crisis or tension. That's a nice change. It seems both Obama and Netanyahu hope this atmosphere lasts until the end of the visit.