Not much has changed since Barack Obama's last trip to Israel. Back in 2008, when the Illinois senator made his first official visit as Democratic presidential candidate, Iran was the burning issue, alongside Israel's right to defend itself and the question of a two-state solution.
Other than a few changes in title - Benjamin Netanyahu went from being opposition leader to prime minister, Tzipi Livni went from being foreign minister to justice minister, and, of course, Barack Obama dropped the "candidate" to become the president of the United States - the same players will take the stage this spring, just as they did that summer.
Obama’s campaign announced on June 28, 2008 that the Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois senator would be taking a trip to the Middle East and Europe. This campaign-funded visit was Obama’s first international trip as a presidential candidate, traveling to Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and the United Kingdom in an effort to boost his foreign policy credentials in his fall campaign against Republican Senator John McCain.
Sderot and Iran
After landing in Israel late the previous night, Obama headed on Wednesday, July 23, to Sderot, where he presented a speech urging the world to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and warned that Iran achieving this capability would be "a game changing situation – not just in the Middle East, but around the world.” He said his goal as U.S. president would be to mobilize the international community “to offer big sticks and big carrots" to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear program.
Accompanied by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, Obama visited the Sderot police station, where he toured the so-called Qassam Museum containing remains of hundreds of rockets fired at the city. Speaking in Sderot, Obama said Israel had a right to defend itself against attacks on its civilians. "If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I would do everything in my power to stop that, and would expect Israelis to do the same thing," he said.
The presidential candidate also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem that day, where he laid a wreath, lit a memorial flame, and described the place as one of hope.
He held meetings with President Shimon Peres, Barak and Netanyahu. He complimented the 84-year-old Peres on his youthful appearance, told Barak that he views Israel’s peace process with Syria as very important and reiterated the significance of diplomatic pressure on Iran, and said after his meeting with Netanyahu that both men agreed on the "primacy" of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Meeting Abbas, Fayyad in Ramallah
That afternoon, Obama traveled from Jerusalem to the West Bank city of Ramallah to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. While his trip was deemed to have generated some goodwill among Palestinians, deep skepticism about U.S. policy remained.
He arrived there one month after having deepened Palestinian concerns of U.S. bias toward Israel, when he told an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference that Jerusalem would remain the undivided capital of Israel, even though no U.S. government had officially recognized Israel's 1967 annexation of East Jerusalem, the sector claimed by the Palestinians as their future capital. Abbas had lambasted his statement, and Obama later clarified that he believed the future of Jerusalem would be determined in negotiations, echoing Washington’s longstanding policy. During their meeting in Ramallah, the Jerusalem remarks were not brought up, according to Palestinian officials.
The Islamic militant group Hamas said Obama was not welcome in the Gaza Strip and criticized its rival Abbas for receiving him. "Obama wants to go to the White House through Tel Aviv, at the expense of the Palestinians," said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman.
Obama vowed that as president he would not force Israel into making concessions that would put the country in danger for the sake of the peace process. During a dinner meeting with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday evening, Obama told reporters he had found among the Palestinians "a strong sense that progress is being made and honest conversations are taking place" in the peace talks.
Obama’s Western Wall note
Obama made a surprise, pre-dawn visit to Jerusalem's Western Wall on Thursday, July 24, shortly before leaving Israel for Germany. Wearing a Jewish skullcap, Obama placed a prayer he had written in the Wall - as is customary - and bowed his head while a rabbi read a psalm calling for peace in the holy city.
Controversy erupted after Obama’s departure, when the newspaper Maariv published the contents of the letter. The daily was subsequently slammed for this “sacrilegious” act, but responded saying the senator had sent media outlets the contents of the note and consented to publication.
The matter remained unclear, however, as Obama's senior strategist Robert Gibbs told CNN, "We haven't confirmed nor denied" that the note was in fact that of the Illinois senator, and Obama declined to answer questions regarding the note’s contents, saying it was a private conversation between him and God.
Visit to Fasuta in 2006
While this was Obama’s first trip to Israel as a presidential candidate, the Illinois senator had visited the country two years earlier, in January 2006, during which time he dropped by Fasuta, a small Christian village on Israel’s border with Lebanon. Dr. George Ayoub, who was mayor of Fasuta at the time, said he was taken aback by the senator’s charisma and humanity.
“He spoke much about peace and security; wanting to reconcile between the [world’s] nations and religions,” Ayoub told Haaretz on Monday, reflecting on Obama’s visit some seven years earlier. “He was a good sport,” said Ayoub, “We had a lot of fun with him.”